Matthew 3

Repent. The first word of the gospel.

The commentary made a good point that it sort of is and isn’t a pre-condition to faith.

Saying “leave Australia and go to Europe” is effectively no different from saying “go to Europe” because you can’t without leaving Australia. Ditto repentance is simply in the nature of truly coming to God.

John the Baptist is a populist prophet type, consciously styled on Elijah. He attracted a lot of attention. He sets up a clash very familiar from the OT prophets in which the powers-that-be are condemned.

So there are false sons and the true son. The Pharisees and Sadducees – theologians and priests stumble on the first word of the gospel because they believe they are sons of Abraham. Repentance is for people outside the religion.

John tells them in fiery terms that their claim to the covenant of Abraham guarantees them nothing.

Jesus, son of God, asks for John’s baptism of repentance. He doesn’t need it.

He doesn’t need to be on earth in human flesh, he doesn’t need to die for his own sin.

But he is here and he will be crucified and the spirit is with him and the father is pleased, because God is love.

I could be the baddies here. I read this and I’m pretty numb really. It’s been there since my earliest memories, I work with this stuff every day.

We’re never too good, too old, too “in” for repentance.

Psalm 130

Unlike the jolly tone of much of this collection of 15 pilgrim psalms of ascent to Jerusalem, this one is deeply emotional.

It reminded me of the sort of scenario you get into as a teenager, where you get in a pickle and need help and forgiveness at the same time. I recall on a couple of occasions making phone calls along the lines of “dad, I’ve smashed the car, and I need you to pick me up”. And you then are waiting for dad to come, contemplating his loving patience and his practical capacity to help you. It’s that sort of prayer.

It’s one of the most naked expressions of grace in the old testament. Forget blood sacrifices, scapegoats, trying to live by levitical laws and all: “If you, Lord, kept a record of sins, Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness.”

The author is confident of forgiveness, but is also crying from the depths, and waiting for God to respond, his whole being waits. There is a striking repetition of the phrase “more than watchmen wait for the morning…” We are aware of every second ’til God helps.

I wondered, have I ever been this much in the depths? And counting the seconds, like a watchman waiting for morning?

Now it’s my turn to be a father, I wait for my children, I wait for God to bless them.

I’m also taken back to the time my business failed. I’m still traumatised by the sense of responsibility, needing to produce as the debts mounted up, but frozen, dysfunctional, unequal to the task.

I still get a bit freaked out by deadlines and responsibility. I feel like it’s a mixture of me being shaped by that event, and me being simply built that way, so the event was shaped by me. Therein lies my stress I suppose.

But this psalm is about hope. In the last verse, the lesson for Israel is not connected to how the disaster turns out. During the psalm, we aren’t told if God comes, we’re left waiting on that score.

But the covenant promise of God’s love spans and blurs the distinction between practical help and spiritual forgiveness. In the end, it doesn’t matter as much as it seemed to at the start of the psalm.

“…with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from all their sins.

It’s been a stressful week, lots of opportunities to struggle with my sense of inadequacy.

Lord, give me hope that is bigger than my immediate problems, lift me out of the depths, to be aware of your loving kindness.

Song of Songs 6

This passage is easy on one level yet impossible on another. You have to squint I think and step back from the detail.

At the distant level three phrases went through my mind:

“Whose garden?”

“You’re the one”

“The grandeur”.

In the emotional flow of it, last chapter she feared she may have lost her beloved. Now he’s back, and they are closer than ever.

Whose garden? The vineyard was introduced as her inmost private self, and her sexuality. Now the garden is also his. There are a variety plants. It’s a place owned by both of them, their shared inmost being and sexuality.

She flips the love declaration from earlier in the book. First it was “my beloved is mine, and I am his”. Now it’s “I am my beloved’s and he is mine”.

They are deep in trust and closeness, losing track of where one stops and the other starts.

You’re the one. He describes his love for her. It overwhelms him, he has to look away she’s so beautiful. She is unique to him, forget even the King’s harem of the most gorgeous women in the kingdom, none can compare.

The grandeur. She’s not just gorgeous, she’s majestic. Reminded me of “…we could be royals” the song by Lorde (what is it about her music and this book?).

He compares his love to… the glitziest and the most spiritual cities, Tizrah and Jerusalem. To banners of troops. To the dawn, the moon, the sun and the stars.

He is transported from the garden, all a-bloom with spring to the noble chariots of the capital, her calls her a female version of Solomons name: “Shulmalite”.

It’s that wedding day feeling: you are inseparable, your partner is the best in the world, and your romance is one for the ages.

This is not a diary or a blog. It’s not documentary. It’s a poetic script, designed for some sort of performance, including parts for a chorus of friends to link the sections. It’s Romeo and Juliet, Tristan and Isolde (But not tragic).

It’s this idealised abstraction of relationships – a supercut I said earlier, a better picture of love than our actual relationships can sustain.

I do still cry at weddings, taken aback by riskyness of their promise of love before God, treasuring all the more my beautiful Kelly sitting beside me. It doesn’t have to work out as wonderful as it did for us. And still never perfect perhaps, but what richness in the discoveries together, such as I could never have imagined.

What am I saying? I don’t know… It’s a bit too much this book. So unrelenting in focus, like consuming a whole plate of Turkish delight in one sitting.

All of these wisdom books are: Ecclesiastes is too much existential angst, proverbs has too many proverbs, psalms has more than enough measures of praise and despair for a lifetime: you never finish psalms. And Job: God himself is just too much.

It’s like God said “ok lets do this, let talk life, death, love infinity, all the obsessions of your imaginations,” but because he is God, the brew is always verging on too strong too heady for us. “100 ways to blow our tiny minds”. There’s an album concept for these books!

Praise God I suppose. I bow to a stronger force. You really are the source, the richest take on all these things. You win!

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.

Ecclesiastes 4

Here the teacher, our guide on this journey in search of meaning (and/or into the mind of a depressed person), looks at 4 big topics.

He makes thoughtful observations on each, but they all leave him numb in terms of larger significance. It’s still all meaningless.

The topics are justice, work, relationships and fame. The last particularly seems to include some wry self mockery.

He finds injustice, oppression simply appalling. He says it would be better to die, or not to be born at all, rather than experience a world that contains such evil. This verse is actually used as evidence that the real king Solomon didn’t write this book… It’s in the “…said no actual king ever” territory. It’s brief, but he is devastated.

On work, he’s a fan of what we would now call work-life balance. Laziness leads to ruin, but too much work destroys your tranquility. Indeed he seems to say working less will make life feel less meaningless – the first concession I think we’ve had to the possiblity of a somewhat satisfying life. And touching that tranquility is the opposite of meaninglessness… It’s a restless search, he’s deeply dissatisfied.

I appreciated how he said ambition springs from envy. Yesterday I confessed to mildly resenting my relative lack of career success, today a little gift/prompt from the holy spirit.

What he says about relationship highlights the question of tone. I can’t tell if he’s being rhetorical and ironic.

It’s the “two are better than one” quote often used at weddings. But it probably applies to platonic friendships too… (At least I hope so, since he moves on to three strands being stronger again… Oh Solomon!)

He says relationships are good because they make you wealthier, stronger, better able to defend yourself and warmer at night. No mention of love? We’re a long way from where st. Paul got to when he held up marital love as the closest spiritual equivalent we can comprehend of Christ’s love for the church.

Or is his omission of love deliberately leaving the elephant in the room? Is he asking “is that all there is?” or is he stating “That is all there is!” Ironic or cold? I don’t know!

On kingship, which I think also suits fame or celebrity… he tells the age old story of a star is born. The old king who’s lost touch, the new king who everyone follows. Twist: they are the same person. He switches the first person from being the old king in decline to remembering being the young king on the up and up, challenging the previous king in decline. Neatly illustrating his theme of endless, pointless cycles.

So what does it tell us of God? Nothing! To such a perverse degree that his absence is suffocating, God is the elephant in the room. It’s no accident that every human culture has reached for him. Thinking about his absence too much gets you to an aggravated, inflamed sense of cruel pointlessness that is so wrong, you ‘d rather you’d never been born.

In contrast, we gathered around a bonfire under the old old tree at church to sing and wash each other’s feet yesterday, re-enacting what God’s love is like in a human form. Intimate and unglamorous.

Psalm 106

My unbelievable inability to stay constant.

It’s a bunch of historical psalms in a row. This is the end of book 4 of psalms… The last I’ll read for a while.

Yesterday’s talked about God’s great deeds. Today’s talks about the people’s faithless response. Or rather, temporarily faithful. They could love God… But only momentarily.

Again and again, in Egypt, during the exodus and in the promised land, they slipped into scorn for God. Tried something new, because Jehovah wasn’t working for them. Diverted from clarity by an urge for gratification either denied or supplied, dangled in front of them.

It’s written from exile, from remorse. They’ve lost the promised land. You can tell because of the anticipation of being gathered in by God, from all nations.

All they have at that point is God’s character. It’s all any of us have. His constancy, his promises.

Vs. our lack of focus, our rapid cycle always back to our own comfort, the grip of our self- obsession, greediness.

We stand or fall on the promises of God.

Remember me, Lord, when I forget myself!

Psalm 97

These Psalms are like a playlist of songs with the same good vibe.

This one like yesterday’s announces its content straight away. Yesterday was a new song, today the Lord reigns.

Bam, there’s your Psalm.

Like yesterday it’s global, the whole earth. It’s very grand and a bit scary, there’s so much power. But it’s good power, so also joyous and exciting.

I’ve been thinking about god’s truth.

Sometimes it’s magical the way the Bible predicts things that happened way into the future. The spirit is guiding the author’s pens to say things they surely couldn’t imagine the significance of.

But it’s also unsurprising if it’s the truth. Like witnesses in a court case (if they are reliable), you’ll get stories from lots of different angles and times. But they will inevitably agree with each other and join up into a larger narrative, because they are all merely describing a central truth. In the case of God, an eternal one. I’ve experienced it this week.

The grand vision here recalls Sinai, when Moses got the law. You can’t see God through darkness and clouds, but you tremble before the kingly throne of righteousness and justice, spitting out fire that destroys all opposition. Thunderbolt and lightning, putting all other gods to shame.

Then darkness accompanied Calvary, fire came at Pentecost, and the name of Jesus lit up the globe, and continues to do so.

So the different glimpses of truth, 1000s of years before and after this psalm was written, come together with it to tell a story of joy, light and wonder.

Verse 11 “Light shines on the righteous
and joy on the upright in heart.” was apparently used in a Jewish collection of verses to help you get to sleep. Bach used it for a wedding cantata.

A better king than anyone else: the Lord reigns. A bit scary but very wonderful and reassuring 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!

 

Job 25

Bildad speaks again. Always the most direct of the friends, he concisely discusses the awesome glory of God. He has complete dominion, and he sets everything in order.

Job is low, very low, a worm. How dare he have the arrogance to claim righteousness before God.

He understands the power but not the love of God. Job has already said his righteousness comes from God, his redeemer.

Sure if God hadn’t said he knows and cares how many hairs are on our head, if he hadn’t died for us in the person of Christ… It would be as ridiculous as Bildad says.

Bildad expresses our human love of patterns, which is a way of finding God. Science is about discovering the brilliant order in creation. But God also makes the first last and the last first.

I go to Melbourne today for a big salvation army weekend. Wondering if I’m in or out, in the middle of a tribal gathering. It’s an oddly intense time. Am I loved or a worm?

I should be carrying on with other job applications, but even looking at the list of jobs is somewhat stressful, and so many distractions to think about.

King Hezekiah tunnelled half a mile through stone to protect Jerusalem, and also had the faith to rely on God when attacked ‘we don’t know what to do, we turn out eyes to you’. Wholehearted focus.

Keep at it, don’t pine for the job I’ve interviewed in, don’t let stress allow you to doubt God’s plans or stop you doing the obvious practical things. Not a worm.

I turn my eyes on you in confidence of your amazing love father. Help me be calm because of that confidence and deal sensibly with the things before me.

Pray for my family, and Christmas.

Psalm 63

David is in a desert… No one knows exactly what part of his life it relates to, his exile before he was king or after he was king. The dry, empty, parched desert becomes a metaphor to him of the contrasting abundance of God’s love.

Well that was going to happen…

Apparently St Chrysostom, who lived around the year 400, and was sort of the pope Francis of his day in terms of anti-materialism and unlikely ascent to high church rank, had his followers read this psalm every day.  He spent a few of his early years as a hermit in the desert, memorising the bible, to the permanent detriment of his kidneys and stomach.

The desert cliche is that you start hallucinating, and David’s vision is so total and enveloping, I feel like he pushes it to a trippy place. He is lost in God.

He focuses on his dry lips, contrasting them with praising in the sanctuary, God’s love is better than life, his praise will last all of life – quality and quantity. His praising lips are tasting the richest food. In singing out praise our lips ingest God’s love.

He keeps singing praises through the watches of the night. Maybe he’s camping, so staying a bit alert, waking up a few times. But in his bed, the shadow of his bedclothes are like God’s wings over him, and he clings to God and is held in God’s big hand. A pile of mixed metaphors, a dreamscape of comfort and security.

God has anointed him king, but all can know God’s glory. His enemies have made themselves king but don’t know God’s glory: they’ve chosen destruction. They are the ones the spiritual desert will claim.

So my visualisation of David’s poetic advice for today is: being lost in God’s love.