Matthew 8

It’s not a biography as much as an extended CV. The information is organised by category not chronology, so far.

The first few chapters were background and credentials.  Then Jesus’ manifesto, 3 chapters of mission statement and vision.  Now a bunch of significant actions are grouped together to make the point of his divinity.

The theme is Jesus’ supernatural power – a healing, a resurrection, controlling weather, driving out demons. They make it clear that these are just examples, he does it constantly.

The passage is interested in peoples responses, and Jesus’ reactions.  Their’s vary – the disciples are chided for fearing their story might end in drowning (as if!). The most faith is found in a roman soldier.  Tellingly, Jesus responds that he has nowhere to lay his head, and it’s recorded that the response of the town where he drove demons into a pig herd is to demand he leave the region.

The drumbeat of rejection by his own, the Jews, has been sounding since chapter one. The book is written for them, the old testament echos are constant.

Despite the familiarity Jesus still provokes and surprises me. He tells the leper to keep his healing on the down low.  So was it done from compassion more than to show he was God? A follower asks time out for his father’s funeral arrangements, and Jesus says no… bad boss!  But he won’t disguise the urgency and importance of his life.

It’s shaping up to be a stressful week – I won’t go into it. The love of Jesus feels like a given that doesn’t erase the hardness of this world.

In the short term. Jesus had to play it by ear, string it along, buy time and make hard choices, that’s clear from this passage. Which is ironic given he has the power to tell the waves to calm.

The devils temptation was to use his power to take short cuts. It illustrates the dilemma of evil, I suppose.

Waiting for the few to pass through the narrow gate. Why?  Love? The shepherd gives most time to the lost sheep.

 

Psalm 3

Slug ’em!

This is an adversity/encouragement psalm of King David.

Lots of enemies, which as I read it I related to problems, because I personally don’t warrant many enemies.

God speaking encouragement from a mountain, powerful over all.

So often David’s worry psalms have a night and morning in them, and this is another one.

When David arises, with the perspective of morning after mulling his fears, he calls on God to arise too.

He asks god to sock his enemies on the jaw and break their teeth.

It’s an effective non jargon poetic device asking the God of love to defend you so viscerally. Takes you right into the physicality of David’s threat.

And by the standards of middle eastern trash talk of the time, it’s almost comically mild. Based on other old testament passages, this sort of curse was more usually along the lines of wanting their eyes gouged out after watching their family slaughtered, and the earth where their palaces stood scorched.

But anyway, David asks for God’s vengence on his enemies.

Mondays I either fear or embrace my problems. Since they aren’t people, I can quite peacefully pray to God: help me slug em!

Psalm 2

God laughs at nations who conspire against him. Certainly numerous regimes have declared Christianity dead down the years, and yet it’s still roughly one third of humanity.

I looked at the most Christian countries by percentage. Greece, Romania, Venezuela, Ecuador, East Timor. They don’t have much in common – its a cross cultural religion for sure.

We discussed the kingdom of God at our homegroup the other day. It is invisible. It’s organic, modeled on the endless replenishment of nature… Seeds fall randomly, many of them fail, but many grow while no one is looking, and any small seed can become a mighty tree.

To people who find it, it is of inestimable value – a pearl of great price, a stash worth buying a whole field for.

It is now. In parallel to the ambitious earthly kingdoms, claiming people in every nation. It is in our hearts, and growing as we tell and live Jesus’ love.

And it will be in the future. When only the eternal part of us remains, and the universe reverts to unalloyed splendor, as all the tears are wiped away.

It doesn’t say who wrote the psalm. Back in the day, it was as if it was about Israel’s power. But if so it turned out somewhat overstated, compared to how Israel fared.

Hebrews would explicitly identify Jesus as the son of God referred to, which is unsettling, as the son speaks in the first person here. The psalm is, in a way, by Jesus.

Sharing a joke with the father about the various earthly kingdoms plotting and planning their glory. It tells them how to be wise.

Serve the Lord with fear
and celebrate his rule with trembling.

Ends with the first reference of so many in psalms to God being a blessed refuge.

This is how I think it is. This is why I don’t go crazy with fear. This refuge is my calm.

Psalm 134

In the night kitchen. It is a children’s book by the ‘where the wild things are’ guy, very evocative about the bakers who make bread while we sleep and the child who is being read the story going to them in a dream.

This is the last psalm of ascents. I’ve loved them, this pilgrimage playlist, full of optimism for coming into the presence of God.

In a literal sense it praises the priests and temple assistants who do the night shift at the temple, and calls on God to bless them. For the pilgrims coming to Jerusalem, I imagine it fuelling images of relentless activity while others sleep, like the night kitchen. The 24/7 temple.

Maybe it was a method of expectation management… If we get there and you wind up offering your sheep at 3 in the morning, that’s ok.

Applying it to my situation, I am now a servant of God, my body is a temple where God dwells and my ministry is my obedience.

And the night shift is the less easy shift, the one while others rest, the hard yards, the one where it is dark and you can’t take warmth or illumination for granted.

I felt a little like we were doing the hard yards yesterday when a combination of upset stomach and anxiety made my son unable to do his second day of work experience. We got as far as entering the building.

May the maker of heaven and earth bless us!

Psalm 129

The resilience of God’s chosen.

The Israelites define themselves by what they have survived here, more than what they have achieved. It’s bonding and powerful.

From slavery, to wandering, to splitting up and then losing the promised land, and getting it back again, they survived. And as world history rolled on, they continued to survive a lot.

It is very short, and great for chanting. “You oppressed me, you oppressed me, but I won!” Is the opening cadence.

The rest is a vivid harvest metaphor. The Israelites compare the whips of slavery to ploughing… Their oppressors ploughed their backs with deep furrows, but God cut the whipping cords and released them.

Having seen many empires pass, and survived, they can compare the oppressors to useless grass grown in the wrong place, on a roof, that will wither and be useless.

It ends with a happy picture of a proper harvest day, which is blessed work. Passers by would shout God’s blessings on the work back and forth with the reapers.

Those who ploughed the Israelites backs with whips, only to find their harvest withered, will never know that blessing.

It has that confidence, arrogance even, of faith that feels sorry for those who may seem to be the winners in life, but challenge God.

I’m feeling a little overwhelmed this week so, though I can’t claim anyone is ploughing my back, I can use a booster shot of resilience. A cheery chant to get me through.

Psalm 127

“If the building is not of the Lord, there’s no use in starting the building”.

Verse one was used for an old chorus I recall singing. It had an odd melody that started solemn and then went cutesy and light. The two halves of the phrase were disconnected.

Similarly, the two halves of this 4 verse psalm challenged my brain to see the connection.

The start of the psalm, talks about building houses and guarding the city, and doing it in the Lord’s name or there is no point. And the second half talks about the benefits of having a quiver full of straight arrow children.

Unfortunately, the only way I can connect them makes me a little sad because it’s praising, I think, some of the very things I’m worst at in life.

It’s for people that want legacy.

We have various ways of reconciling our eternal and temporal natures. The grass is always there because it is replenished.Each blade has a life cycle, a circle of life.

But we are more complex than grass. We start to mourn the individual blades, and get invested in whether the blade has a long or short life. Because God had given us the desire to mean something.

And an answer, this psalm says, I reckon, is to invest in your legacy of offspring. Work, build houses, guard your stuff, for them. Have lots of kids.

But do it in the Lord. The commentators made the comment that an arrow isn’t just any old stick. It’s honed, worked, made perfectly straight and for purpose.

As if! I dream of that sort of influence.

That’s where I feel vulnerable. My kids aren’t exactly a quiver of straight arrows. Love ’em, recognise me in ’em. But the closest I get to fine is accepting that they will be what they will be. Particularly the older ones… 26 and 25.  I have a little fading influence over Ren, 15.  But he is such a typical teen – carving out his own identity.

I feel vulnerable, so for me I suppose this psalm is an encouragement.  I need to work at my relationships with the kids, but its in the Lord’s hands. And I could do a lot of stuff: financial support, coaching, moulding, pushing, bullying, encouraging, and it could come to nothing.  I’ll try to remember to pray, turns out that might be the best legacy.

I’ll cling to that!

Psalm 108

Good triggers.

I’ve suffered a bit of a rising tide of anxiety, a loss of self confidence, and some frustration of late.

It may be healthy – I have some sense of changing, of exploring different priorities in life, too. Sometimes the anxiety is linked to certain triggers of stressful failures and changes in my past. The fear that history is repeating.

It came on when my job situation stabilised. It could a kind of disappointment: certainty brings with it diminished possibility. Or a kind of growing pain: certainty allows the luxury of reflection and reassessment of unhelpful patterns in your life.

Anyway, it’s seems relevant to today’s Psalm, which is two sections of previous Psalms edited together. I recognised it straight away, because both had language and thoughts I was particularly excited by.

Both are about God being big.

The the first was a fugitive Psalm, 58. David, not yet king, hides in a cave, then in the morning has an awesome praise moment seeing the dawn illuminate the full size of god’s creation, as he sings the day in with his harp. Very memorable. I added it to my list of passages that night make a good Christian song one day.

This Psalm, 108, leaves out the cave, so we just get “in the morning I sing with my harp and contemplate how big God is”.

The second, Psalm 60, is from when David was king and fighting back ambitious neighbouring nations, as kings do.

He suffered a military reversal. The campaign was ultimately successful, but in the time of struggle he wrote this Psalm to give his fear, and the fate of the whole enterprise, into God’s hands.

It’s about god’s size, he literally visualised God as a giant using one nation to throw off his shoes and another as a basin to wash his hands in.

When I blogged Psalm 60 this rather comical image brought back lovely childhood memories of giggling at the language when I chanted the psalm as a cathedral chorister “Moab is my washpot”.

Who knows if David was even at war when he made this frankenpsalm. Maybe the conflicts he surrendered to god’s will were just the trials of a typical day at the king’s palace.

They edit together neatly because they are both moments of realising how big God is. Two moments of trusting God, one as fugitive, one as king, that delivered David to where he is now, singing a song in morning, in what remains his habit.

The quality of God that joins these three dots in his life is mentioned in the opening line: steadfast.

So I wake up in a Saturday, and I’m off to a conference at church, to think about a treaty with our indigenous brothers and sisters. And here is this message to think about how big God is, how he has been good in the past, and will be good again.

As I’m feeling unsettled by some stressful triggers, I will remember the good triggers. God has been steadfast to me too; twas grace that bought me safe thus far.

Ecclesiastes 9

The book is roughly divided into observations (1-6) and conclusions (7-12).

After two chapters of relatively random conclusions, including a series of proverbs inspired by the observations, this is quite a focused conclusion.

Within the limits of observable revelation – (‘under the sun’) – with eternity apparent in principle, but it’s specifics obscured by smoke (‘meaningless’):

– death is the great leveler.

– it’s still a good idea to be wise.

The chapter alternates poetry and prose – it’s the same structure as the first 6 chapters of the book. I like it: when you’ve got something serious to say, you should regularly break into poetry/song. It’s not our culture, but it’s a good culture that balances and respects the observational and the reflective, the creative and the scientific.

I think of it as like Willy Wonka and the chocolate factory. Each child touring the factory models a character flaw of mankind, and each episode is summed up in a little song by the mythical factory workers, the oompaloompas.

Though there is a more highbrow precedent in baroque choral works like the Messiah or Matthews passion: you have recitative and dramatic choruses to move the plot along, interspersed with hymns, and arias to reflect on the lessons and significance.

Anyway, the “death” part of the conclusion acts as a an antidote to the improbable neatness of proverbs.

The teacher is clearly a lapsed try-hard, and he’s bitter about the evil of death meaning that the race is not won by the swift, or favour given more to the learned. That like fish in a net, death comes randomly and catches us regardless of how much we do or don’t deserve it.

But to more average folk, who aren’t elite Kings famed for great learning and wisdom, his almost sneering suggestion to enjoy time with your spouse, have a glass of wine and a good plate of food because none of the effort means anything, well to us, it sounds not to bad a way to wait for death.

And the second half of his conclusion moderates his “Homer Simpson” prescription for life – wisdom is still better than folly. He gives an example of wisdom that indeed was not honoured or celebrated, but which he knows however saved many many lives in a city under attack.

The advice adds up to something like the serenity prayer which generations of recovering alcoholics have clung to:

God, grant me the serenity to accept
the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Chillax, but woke, perhaps? Oh dear! I just reduced the whole book to most cringe worthy church youth group talk! I must make a note for work!

I’m emphasising the chillax/yolo part of the equation today – rolling some public holidays into a week of holiday, off on a car camping adventure with Kelly, woot! And Rennie, (youngest son, 15) is off camping with buddies too.

Psalm 92

How long can this go on?  Psalms 90-92 now form a trilogy of comfort, what a happy part of the book.

We’re on the lyre, singing, of God’s love in the fresh bright morning and his faithfulness as night falls.

His great deeds, his profound thoughts.

Thinking about grass vs. trees.  The evildoers do all look like they are winning… look at that crop of grass, what happened to the cedar and palm tree seeds we planted?  The righteous? Where are they? Fast forward a decade or two… they say there used to be grass in the shade of these mighty trees – hard to imagine now!

Conclusion: the Lord is my rock and there is no wickedness in him: reliable and reliably good.

Can I translate this through my day?  I was down and unproductive yesterday.  A day in the life of a tree, worrying about the thriving grass. A grassy soul.

Begone! Hold boldly onto this positive boost to focus and give of your best. I pray it!

 

Proverbs 12

The proverbs are grouped, a bit. This chapter is mainly about interpersonal behaviour. The proverbs roughly cover principles, actions and words.

The principles include discipline, goodness, nobility, righteousness, prudence, and unpretentiousness. These are contrasted with things like stupidity, sneakiness, disgracefulness, deceit, having a warped mind and pretending to be a somebody.

That last one is one of my faves: ‘Better to be a nobody and yet have a servant than pretend to be somebody and have no food.’

The actions include another of my faves: ‘The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel.’ So true! The little things show a persons character as much as the large.

There are about 10 on words in a row. There’s a lot of great ones but I did like: ‘Fools show their annoyance at once, but the prudent overlook an insult.’ They praise prudence, honesty and kindness.

Towards the end they get increasingly theological, mentioning what will please the Lord as much as what will work practically on earth.

The last is a bit of a leap and talks about the path to immortality. Eternity has a way of peeping around the edges of this very practical book.  Its answering some of the disillusionment of psalms – the ‘why-do-the-wicked-prosper’ moments – by occasionally referring to our choices on earth having eternal consequences.

Its making me aware of how I am at work.  I wish I could take back a mildly raunchy joke I made yesterday.  Equally, when I’m feeling kindness or generosity to people, I leave it unsaid less often.

By the way, I had my beer with the rector, and he had his own beef with the Archbishop’s house project that I felt guilty about bagging a few days ago. He did really just want a beer, he wasn’t about to tick me off!

I’m quite a cheerful, joking sort of person, and I’ll wrestle in a later entry with the issue of the wise person in proverbs being a bit of a stuffy bore in real life.  But putting that aside, I like how it has a cumulative effect beyond remembering each proverb (which is not possible).  Its a vibe thing, it makes your heart and ears tender to the Spirit.