Matthew 4

From where you are, towards God.

These chapters are so jam packed.

We have Christ’s temptation, starting to preach (“repent, the kingdom is near”), calling disciples, and establishing his public program: teaching in synagogues, proclaiming the kingdom, healing the sick.

He starts to get fame.

The temptation setting is so weird and extreme. In the desert, starving, zooming here and there being shown visions by the devil. But the temptations are so ordinary.

They are how I’d run his ministry of global salvation.

Self care, get a good salary. You don’t need to be distracted thinking about where your next meal is coming from.

Networking. Make contacts, find influencers who will help your mission. Your people need to talk to their people, fundraising, professionalism, structure… Lobbyists, voting blocks.

Show us the power. You’re God, we’ve got to get the message out there with some concrete demonstrations. PR events.

Stability, influence, fame.

Instead he lives a small life. He networks with… err, calls with little introduction… some fishermen, just the random people where he is. He limps through on charity and community support, couch surfing, to sustain his ministry.

He gets fame as a healer as well as itinerant preacher. But he deliberately undermines it and slows it down at first, because he knows any fame without power and connections will lead to the confrontation that will have him killed. He starts away from the populated centres.

His top line message is such a short form gospel: repent, the kingdom is near.

We’ve seen so many places in the old testament where simply responding, recognising God’s voice and moving towards it, wanting to hear it, welcoming it with positivity; is all God wants. The gospel has variable theological content.

I think again of Rahab, who was of Jesus’ line, mentioned as a hero in Hebrews. Saved because she recognised God, somehow, in her brush with the kingdom, the Jewish spies. She responded by helping them.

And those disciples. Was their gospel presentation simply “follow me”? Were they the only ones called or the only ones who responded?

You may end up being Billy Graham, you may end up being Joe Blogs. That isn’t the point.

Small lives, advancing the kingdom in words and in deeds.

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Ezekiel 11

Flip the script!

In this chapter the vision of the past 11 chapters all comes into focus.

Ezekiel is far from Israel, carted away by invaders from Babylon. He’s feeling deserted by God.

No. The foreign land is God’s sanctuary, he’s actually one of those who are marked as God’s child.

His vision of Jerusalem shows the idolatrous sun worshippers in the temple. They would agree that the likes of Ezekiel are the losers.

They describe themselves with an only semi-comprehensible metaphor of a cooking pot. The gist seems to be: we are where it’s at, we’re cooking, we’re the choice cuts, not the scraps who have been rejected.

They feel safe, protected within the city. But they are not.

So the vision is good for Ezekiel, bad for those still in the city. God has flipped the script in their near history, by marking the seemingly unlucky ones as in fact the first to be saved from the destruction of Jerusalem.

And in the meta revelation of his character, he’s talked about making our hearts his dwelling, turning hearts of stone to hearts of flesh. Great verse! He’s not in a building, he’s in our hearts. And he’s literally showing that by destroying the temple, and blessing Ezekiel, who is seemingly remote from God, with this vision showing that God is right with him.

My emotions are regrettably out of sync with this book. This chapter is the first one with any hope. I’ve been quite happy and upbeat while reading all the doom and gloom, and now there is a ray of hope in the book I’m sad.

My bank app has a very helpful summary of money in and money out that showed me we’ve been living beyond our means. I kind of knew it was true, but seeing it laid out there in black and white was a shock. I’ve already gone broke once and it was very stressful, so it made me alarmed. Bought up a lot of ongoing inadequacies.

But I have to look at the good side: things are far from dire, I can respond.

So maybe there is some sort of connection: this vision in my bank app enables me to flip the script. I’ll pray.

Ezekiel 4

Ezekiel is relieved from talking by God until told otherwise… He just has to do, errr… One or two other things.

Street theatre time!!! Can’t be a major prophet without it!

Though this is in his house, more like an art installation. Presumably word of mouth among the Israelites would spread, and they’d all come and see this bizarre display.

There is a picture of Jerusalem drawn in clay, with model armies and ramparts laying seige to it. This mirrors the real seige of Jerusalem simultaneously occuring in Israel.

Ezekiel and the other exiles he lived with in Babylon had been taken in an earlier, minor attack. The destruction of the temple and the removal of most of the people had not occurred yet.

He’s to lay on his left side, tied with ropes, for 390 days, symbolising him bearing the sin of Israel. He faces the clay model but with an iron frying pan between him and Jerusalem, symbolising beseiging the city.

He eats only special recipe loaves cooked over burning cow dung. God wanted human dung, but Ezekiel negotiated him to cow. Symbolises the defiled food the people of Jerusalem will eat in exile.

It doesn’t mention toilet breaks, but God is merciful.

After 390 days he does another 40 to bear the sins of Judah, which is an interesting ratio. Would have thought it was tilted more the other way. I suppose Israel just lasted longer.

So this display goes on for over a year. Everyone would have know about it. Ezekiel failed to preach when God gave him the chance. It’s like God said “OK we can do this the easy way, or the hard way…” Ezekiel probably regretted his choice…

The other day I was contemplating the salvation army flag, a Burgundy with gold banner with a star and the slogan “blood and fire”. I love that. I think it was also street theatre.

William Booth had these quasi military squads parade through town in uniforms of their own design, with brass, to gain maximum attention, holding flags saying simply “blood and fire”! Surely the ambiguity was intentional…

They entered places they were completely unknown seeming like a proto-fascist Guerilla junta seeming to threaten to slaughter you and burn your house down!

And as soon as you ask “what is this blood and fire about?”, which of course many will, the conversation turns straight to Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice and God indwelling in your heart! Boom.

Powerful, blunt, loud, provocative, weird, can’t ignore. As a gospel communicator, in an organisation with such a tradition, it’s very inspiring! And totally in the spirit of scriptures such as this.

Makes me think about my church too. The stereotypical Anglican village church, now in the middle of a bustling urban suburb, very prominent siting…

Of course, I’m making it sound fun. Ezekiel’s message was painful and utterly serious. It was about the destruction of hope. But the self-advertising power of it, the scale and commitment of going for a year with it. It’s extraordinary!

Ezekiel 3

Ezekiel’s preparation for ministry is elaborate because God knows the message is hard and Ezekiel is not up to the task. The chapter is God doing everything he can to help Ezekiel to make brave choices.

The Israelite people, carted away from Israel into exile in Babylon, no doubt feel abandoned: that God wasn’t real. Or if they do still believe, his plans make no sense.

So Ezekiel coming and telling them “God is very disappointed and angry with you” is highly likely to make him a target for much of their bitterness and misery.

First he eats the scroll of God’s word he got yesterday. It tastes sweet like honey (didn’t The Psalms say the law was sweeter than honey? Hmmmm… Mind you I called it a poison pill yesterday!)

God promises him hardness to match the hardness of the people. So he has the word inside, and the armour of God outside.

The spirit lifts him and the great glorious contraption of wheels and winged creatures delivers him to the people.

Ezekiel is full of bitterness and anger… At God I’m thinking. For seven days he sits among them, deeply distressed. No message.

It’s what I would have done I think, I’m also a coward. It’s why being a writer suits me so well. Giving other people the scripts to deliver.

God takes him out of there into the desert and ratchets up the pressure with the watchman argument: if the people reject your message, it’s on them. If the people never hear your message, that’s on you.

You are simply the watchman, your only job is to warn them of danger, even if you know they’ll reject it.

It ends with a weird scene of Ezekiel being tied up in his own house, unable to leave, and God making him unable to speak.

If you won’t use your legs and tongue for my mission, God’s seems to be saying, how about you don’t use them for anything else for a while!

At this point is it were me, I would start to be persuaded. It a theme from all the major prophets, God knows being a prophet is his suckiest job. He knows a normal person will find it almost impossible.

So it’s quite a threatening chapter to read. Please God, I don’t want to be a prophet!

I’m reminded of our discussions about the best sign to put out the front of our church.

I suggested “lay down your burdens” which was a big hit. Talking about comfort in a very abstract way. It did start some conversations, engagement with our community, it must be said. I certainly intended the any engagement that occurred would lead to a less abstract message in time.

The next one is probably going to be “Jesus loves you”. Still positive, but it confronts head on that Christianity is about responding to Jesus.

If we ever take that out, we aren’t being watchmen.

Psalm 141

Tender and brutal. Who was king David? A poet and a warrior. Intensely emotional, a tough and effective mercenary. He takes us amazing places, but surely few of us can go to all of them, he’s a rare bird.

He gets that religion is about the heart. He gets that temptation draws your heart to it. You, not it, are to blame. And a rebuke and a slap for the right things are blessings from God.

Please let me recognise that one. So often when I am told off, I reflect back the hurt of the moment, the wound to my pride. Later, when I am cool enough to actually take on board the truth, so rarely do I close the loop and go and express my gratitude to the person who rebuked me.

In the flow of the psalm, this idea leads to an aside from David that those he rebuked will recognise the truth of his words once they have been thrown down from their high place and their bones scattered without a decent burial.

“You’ll wish you’d listened to me once you’re dead!” Is an impossible kind of rebuke, but one likely to startle the hearer. It sits oddly in a psalm that has been so reflective up to that point.

He returns to a more worthy tone to conclude, fixing his eyes on God, though he does still express satisfaction anticipating his enemies’ self destruction.

If Trump goes, for instance, I will be satisfied, particularly if it’s dished out with some of the pain and humiliation he visits on those around him too powerless to object. David goes there, some have suggested this might be about his relationship with king Saul. But he knows his thoughts should really be fixed on God and his own holiness.

He knows it is by the grace of God, not his doing, that He can slip by unscathed as others mess up.

We live in a distracting age, may I remember that too.

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 102

The triumph of trust in God over your personal circumstances. It will all work out.

It’s personal story but also a metaphor.

The first half of the psalm details the suffering of the author, who is broken, reviled and will have a short life.

I found the metaphor where he compares himself to a single bird on a roof the most affecting. No help, exposed, vulnerable.

Half way through the Palm he starts factoring god into it, drawing comfort from knowing that time will extend, that God was before and will be after, that generations will flourish.

Also that god’s reign will extend. He will rise and show compassion to Zion.

It’s an exile Psalm, so the broken state of the author reflects their smashed nation. But he he has trust that God will restore Jerusalem, which he did. And further that all nations and rulers will revere God, which via Jesus and Christianity also happened.

He looks forward to his personal narrative of misery being transformed, becoming part of the story of god’s glorious salvation and rescue, which he is.

God laid the foundations of the earth, and is the solid thing that will remain. His compassion, hearing our groans, his releasing us from the condemnation of death, those are the lasting things.

From lonely bird on a rooftop to participant in the universe’s greatest victory.

I’ve woken up a bit stressed about life and work. There’s a few more loose ends than I can keep in my mind at one time, so that they dance from one to the other worrisome thing I mustn’t forget. This is an encouragement.

I know more of the bigger picture than this Psalmist did, what a great example of trust. God is glorious, my problems could even get a lot worse and still not really matter. It will all work out.

Psalm 99

I’ve now realised these are called the ‘enthronement Psalms’. From 93-100.

There is speculation that the collection was used at the feast of the tabernacles, a festival where Jewish people gather and eat and/or sleep for a week in booths; tents, to celebrate harvest by mimicking the traditional sleeping arrangements for farmers, and to recall the exodus journey.

It was a joyous feast and these are certainly joyous Psalms.

This one mentions Gods rule over all nations, but mainly remembers some greats of Jewish history: Jacob, Moses, Aaron & Samuel.

I’ve been thinking a bit about Christian music recently. I had a conversation with a Swiss piano player guy about it last week at church, and he was airing old grievances about the narrow focus of so many modern songs.

To check that it wasn’t just prejudice talking, I analysed the top ten fave BBC hymns of praise, to represent traditional taste and stats of the top ten currently being sung in churches, to represent modern.

9 out of 10 of the modern group had god’s goodness/majesty as the subject matter, 5 of 10 the traditional songs were about living godly lives (eg: make me a channel of your peace) and generally a much wider range of subject matter and theme.

The Hillsong type songs are almost exclusively enthronement songs like these. And the limitations I’ve been pondering in both connect.

Gods reign is actually not that evident. The devil may have been dealt a decisive blow at Calvary but he’s still at large, evil is still in our world and in our hearts.

Jesus made it clear how to respond to this: ask for forgiveness, seek god’s kingdom.

In every one of these Psalms, god’s reign is exciting because it is one of rightness, justice and equity. Which is a clue about seeking Gods kingdom.

Also in most if not all – haven’t specifically checked – the world trembles or shakes.

The majesty is there in those modern songs, and the humbling thrill of personally experiencing god’s love.

Our role in living as citizens of God’s Kingdom by seeking justice and equity throughout the world? Not so much.

Proverbs 9

Ok I’ve had a break for a week and I’ve been a little down. Also focusing on music, though it’s too much of an escape, I need to keep it in check.

Down because of good news, really about work. It seems I will have a full time job, exactly the job I am doing now. Which will make permanent a stop gap job I went to a year ago.

The down side is that it doesn’t pay quite enough, so to carry on will require some careful belt tightening for the whole family. We only survived last year by dipping into savings.

So it’s a little sad not getting the more highly paid job that I had no expectation of getting …until they dangled it as an exciting possibility for over a month….

It will seem good soon. I’ve been praying about it, and there are many up sides.

Also it was really only yesterday that I heard it was real, is just been a quite likely outcome, so I’ve been very uncertain for some time now. The uncertainty has eaten me up a bit.

On Saturday I went to the Aboriginal service at church. The visiting pastor was quite Pentecostal. We wrote our hearts prayer requests on a sheet of paper and put them in a bowl that he and other ministers present prayed over and claimed the answer to.

I put in concern about the job and my kids, unsurprisingly. Sunday morning he was there and I thanked him, and he and his wife wound up praying over my job a second time.

Then Monday I heard about the job! And I’m ungrateful enough to feel prevarication about it. Perhaps the Lord is speaking to me, an uptight old Anglican, through this prayer bowl.

Another reason I’ve been down just this last day because I made an uncharacteristically harsh Facebook post, criticising the Anglican church and I feel a bit exposed.

They sold the archbishop’s palace an old Gothic pile that looks like Hogwarts, for $17 million and I read in the paper that they have commissioned one of Sydney’s smartest architecture firms to build a new ‘palace’ in glebe, where my church is, for $7.3 million.

I linked to the article and said ‘strikes me as obscene, and I’m in the club!’

I just thought, why not take the opportunity to make a very normal house for the archbishop? The second most extensive fancy house in glebe sold recently was $5 million, the average is $1.5m, to put it in perspective.

The comments shot back saying the new compound included a 200 seat hall that would be used for University work (it’s across the road from Sydney Uni), and extra accommodation that would be used for visiting missionaries or church dignitaries and that the article hasn’t taken all that into consideration.

The discussion was pretty civilised actually, at least.

But that was how it struck me in the moment of reading it, and I wanted to preserve that reaction. I knew if I spoke to people I would move back inside the churchy bubble where it made sense, But most of the world is outside the bubble.

I did doubt my wisdom in doing that though. I wonder if there wasn’t an element of feeling frustrated at being so long at the mercy of indecision over my job, feeling powerless. I don’t know.

Proverbs chapter 9 refers to two houses.

Wisdom’s house calls people in to food and wine, it appeals to the simple to leave their foolish ways and gain insight.

Folly also has a house, offering stolen food and drink, which promises to be more delicious, but which leads to death.

It’s easy to see it as the choice to avoid immorality, sexual as per the last few chapters, or dodgy ways to get money.

It’s also talking about whether your heart is seeking truth, moving towards God, or fighting truth, hardening your heart to God. That’s why it can talk about the way of the simple, those who go into folly’s house, as leading to death. The ultimate foolishness is rejecting God.

In the middle was a section that seemed to speak to my fears over Facebook. About not arguing with scoffers or rebuking mockers.

Basically not having pointless arguments where you dispute the views of people who hate God. It’s a dead end if it just hardens your opposition to each other.

Also describes a fair whack of Facebook. It’s just people stating their prejudices at each other and getting angry at others who don’t agree and never will. It’s not constructive.

And I wondered if I was foolish for attacking my own church in front of non Christian friends. I also got to stand up for my faith very publically. So it’s not a clear situation.

Out maybe it is, maybe I’m in folly’s house.

My pastor invited me to the pub for a drink on Thursday. I thought ‘how great’ but then I worried – is this about the Facebook post? His wife personal messaged me a contribution to the argument, so it’s in his radar. Time will tell.

So there’s my start-of-year joys and blues, wisdom and foolishness, certainty and mystery, all woven with proverbs in a long ramble.

At least now I can also start on concrete, optimistic planning elements of a new year.

Job 32

New commentator, Elihu.

He – like me – is impatient with the dead end the arguments have come to, the three friends saying Job must have sinned, job saying he didn’t.

They have nothing more to say, but he is like bottled up wine, bursting at the skins.

He refers to the spirit of God inspiring him, and criticises job for justifying himself, not God.

His beef with all of them comes back to the fear of the Lord being wisdom, they need to go deeper into God rather than continuing to rely on their own understanding.

Its good advice, I’ve been very earth bound this week. Classic busy December stuff. I’ve been out every night socialising, and I complain of tiredness, but when things get calm and normal, I’m actually restless and can’t settle.

Still no news on any jobs, January looms … Tomorrow will be one month exactly of my contract left. I have 5 job applications in, still only the one interviewed. No one seems in any hurry!

I feel some comfort from a kind of catch 22 which is is they don’t fill all the roles, they’ll need to extend my contract until they do.

I think the worst case scenario I’m looking at is the only job I can get not paying enough, and needing to live frugally until I can get a better outside job. But I’m pretty sure I’ll at least get something.

The weekend away was interesting, but I think it gave me pause to think about what I am really getting into. Is it really me? Where do I draw the line at my commitment?

But I’m definitely needing to do a David and slow down before the presence of God.

Gotta go now!