Matthew 5

Love and perfection.

We’ve had the short gospel. Now it’s the sermon on the mount, part 1 and Jesus speaks and speaks.

We’re in the middle of the Trump impeachment crisis as I write. He is in trouble for a phone call that even his most blindly loyal deputies knew straight away was a political disaster. In his way, he’s made it all about fealty to him. So his defence is that is was a “perfect” phone call, which he simply repeats and repeats to make it clear what it takes to stay in his bully club while more and more contrary facts come out.

We saw yesterday that the Jewish leaders couldn’t get past the word “repent”. In their view they don’t need it, because they are sons of Abraham. Perfect people. Living by the Torah, that mountain of humanly impossible rules that opens the Bible.

The sermon on the mount is an all out assault on that view. It’s also an all out assault on human pride, the biggest stumbling block to God.

First the Beatitudes. They are not so much a celebration of being humble, vulnerable and marginalised as of the perspective it gives you. It progresses from blessed are the meek to blessed are those who thirst for righteousness, make peace and are persecuted for righteousness.

When a blessed person discovers things are broken, they actively try to make them better.

It’s humility and honesty designed to stand out with a disproportionate impact: salt and light. I think of art, it is like salt and light. A little bit influences the whole zeitgeist. Ditto a little bit of salt and light, A.K.A: us, is Jesus’ plan to break human pride.

Then Jesus’rules. He takes some of the impossible Torah rules, which humanity has only ever honoured in the breech, and does two things. Shows how they connect to love, and makes them even more impossible.

Murder/anger, life partners, honesty and justice. To have a truly loving take on these things allows no wriggle room at all.

He ends with loving others, even enemies. God the father is perfect, that is our standard. Perfection.

It is so much more than the Jewish leaders think. It’s clear that the only way you can think you are perfect is by corrupting the word itself, chipping it down the way Donald Trump wants to, until it fits what you have done.

God’s love and mercy removes our sin from us as far as the East is from the West. God promises to see us as perfect, which lets us enjoy the rightness of this vision of a perfect world.

This is the kingdom we are working towards, the one that is near.

Where not only is there no murder, there is no anger.

Where people don’t need to swear on a stack of Bibles, because everyone is honest.

Where you don’t have to work out the logistics of divorce, because everyone stays faithful to their nearest and dearest, and are properly loved by them.

Where oppression and enemies are things of the past.

Its impossible and wonderful. Despite the contradictions of the world around us, we can embrace and delight in the rightness of God’s kingdom.

Psalm 131

An arrow to my heart. Thank you Lord! Waves of clarity and blessing in my head already.

I’m going to reproduce David’s little poem in full:

My heart is not proud, Lord,
my eyes are not haughty;
I do not concern myself with great matters
or things too wonderful for me.
But I have calmed and quieted myself,
I am like a weaned child with its mother;
like a weaned child I am content.
Israel, put your hope in the Lord both now and forevermore.

I have been struggling, struggling, with pride at work. Part of it is getting used to hierarchy. It’s been 20 years really, since I was as far down the org chart as I am in my current job. When I last had as much hierarchy, it was in the public service, where it is so absurd it teaches you no practical life coping skills.

So I’m struggling with people having a say over my work and getting approval for everything, not having much sway or autonomy. Partly just with the habit of it, partly with the acceptance of it.

But also I care. It’s Gody stuff, transforming lives physically and spiritually for the better. It’s the bloody salvation army. The last job I had was for a construction contractor. I could check my my soul at the door and just be their comms and marketing technician.

When I sit down, as I did on Friday, to write a prayer, as a template for churches across Australia, for more inclusive relations with Australia’s First Nations people, I bring all that I am to the task. And then someone fixes it. It’s a vulnerable place to be.

In this psalm, humility is described just right: it’s concerning yourself with what is before you, not with things beyond you. Focus, I suppose, but wise, careful and prayerful focus. I’m not 100% Salvo. But there is a large area of overlap, surely, where we can both be completely us, and have hearts for the same outcomes.

And heck, even the General probably has a little bit of himself set aside, a little teensy percent not Salvo. 

In this psalm, humility is a discipline. David just have known how much talent God gave him, how superior his judgement and insight was to pretty much everyone around him. I don’t have his talent, but I got some.

He has calmed and quieted himself. He is mature. A weaned baby comprehends love that is not an instant gratification of need. They have been able to let that go, and probably experienced anxiety, cried in panic, during the process of learning.

I can do this. I can give more of myself to this job than I ever have before, satisfying myself but also being what they, and what God wants me to be. My own tiny part of his presence on earth, focussed on the things before me.

May I hope in the Lord, now and forever more! May I say it, learn it, and mean it: ‘I am content’.

Proverbs 26

This chapter is more organised than others, it even includes a few unexpected twists in the way it is constructed.

You get 11 lines about fools… About how spectacularly useless they are, and deserving of contempt, then this:

Do you see a person wise in their own eyes?
There is more hope for a fool than for them.

It’s so easy to see the faults in others.

Similar with laziness, having attacked for a few verses it says essentially their worst trait is having no conception of how lazy they are… Oops, maybe it’s me?

The meta theme is humility. Like other chapters that barely mention God, there are underlying themes drawing out deeper spiritual truths from conventional wisdom.

The structure of many of these is particularly memorable, funny even. They read like lines from Rowan Atkinson’s comedy creation Black Adder:

Sending a message by the hands of a fool
is like cutting off one’s feet or drinking poison

The last bunch of verses is about lies, and the meta point is about our evil hearts.

Don’t kid yourself you are doing a favour to the person you are lying to, you show you hate them by your deception. Trying to hide your evil nature is futile. It’s only dealt with by exposure, by humility, as above. Lies block grace.

I was aware of lying, in a very small way, at work yesterday. I made a job sound more complete than it was because I was a bit embarrassed about how little progress I’d made

But the breach of trust I risked was a crazy high cost to preserve a tiny bit of pride.

Trust is so much more valuable than the illusion of perfection.

Proverbs 22

Oh my goodness, break in pattern! Ch.22 starts following the same pattern of two line proverbs we’ve had for 10 chapters or so.

But after verse 16 we start “the sayings of the wise” which are 30 choice sayings, with a little introduction and a slightly longer form, averaging 4 lines.

Why introduce the change in pattern mid chapter? Who thinks of these chapter divisions anyway?

Google say they date from the 1500’s when the bible was first printed. Apparently these sayings are a bit of a wrap-up of what has gone before, a greatest hits or summation. I still would have started a new chapter.

And the first 16 verses of proverbs are pretty much gold, too. Including, after my complaints about the pro-bribery verses, a condemnation of bribery/trying to buy influence:

One who oppresses the poor to increase his wealth
and one who gives gifts to the rich—both come to poverty.

I suppose the observational nature of much of this wisdom is a defense against the unrealistic optimism and neatness of some of the formulas. Like its saying, yeah, short term, bribes might do the trick. But long term, ill gotten gain will ruin you. If not in this world, from an eternal perspective…

Rich and poor have this in common:
The Lord is the Maker of them all.

Its one of the few places in the bible where you get specific childrearing advice:

Start children off on the way they should go,
and even when they are old they will not turn from it.

As for the sayings of the wise, we get the first 6 of thirty.

They are clearly targeted at the elite. I tend to read them as applying to me, but I am from the a middle class which wasn’t such a thing in the ancient world. It was rulers, priests and working class.

So the advice on not moving ancient boundary stones sounds excellent, but I’m unlikely to be in a position to take it.

I’m not in a position to crush the needy in court even if I felt like it, so I don’t have to be told not to. However, with adjustments, I can relate deeply to the endorsement of a meritocracy and mercy for the poor. Clearly however, the poor weren’t the audience, rather those in power who get to decide how the poor will be treated. Actually having been at the mercy of the courts and debt collectors a few times in my life, I’m grateful that this is the standard.

It’s really important to look below the specifics reading this book. Love, compassion and humility motivate most of it. And in execution, a large dose of pragmatism.

Job 38

The answer is blowing in the wind…

Oh gosh, he’s here. God speaks.

He asks a majestic series of rhetorical questions designed to demonstrate his awesome power and might relative to Job.

The language is stunning, a poetic highlight.

The one I always remember is ‘were you there when I laid the Earth’s foundation?’ But so many vividly expressed images, such as while God lays the cornerstone of creation ‘the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy’.

I also loved ‘Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place, that it might take the earth by the edges and shake the wicked out of it?’

But all of it was stunning, bang bang bang, and the combined sweep puts you in your place.

It’s like a day in the life of God. You zoom through the vastness and complexity of creation, and being creator. From fine tuning the constellations to teaching ibises; the storehouses of snow, the womb of ice; making sure both Lion cubs and baby Ravens have dinner; irrigating desserts, visiting the springs of the sea, the gates of darkness and death.

I read a great science blog entry about the storehouses of snow, suggesting its referring not only to the amount but the variety – no two snowflakes are alike – literally boundless creativity of pattern and variation.

It’s intended to overwhelm and it does, magnificently for a believer, who has heard that God is love. What it would do to a serious atheist, who’s god is their own understanding, I don’t know. I’d love to ask!

It’s clear creation is not tame. It’s a balancing act. For every light, there is a dark. For every lion fed, there is a creature gone. Evil is part of it, glory, beauty, fear and death.

And loud and clear, God is saying ‘this is not going to make sense to you’. It does actually make sense, to God, but not to me.

And our response? We can’t go and find another God we prefer. God is a monotheist.

The effect of any response other than respect is described in verse one: ‘who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?

Thank you, father for sending your son, the very image of you, to die for us. Die… for us!

Job 34

Elihu continues to speak, and will for several chapters.

He seems here to be saying exactly the same argument as the friends have made thus far.

He’s highly critical of Job. He devotes a stanza to each of these concepts: God is all powerful. He is just. He knows and sees all.

So if he has seen fit to bring down misfortune on Job, it is deserved. And if Job continues to say it is unfair, then Job is unrepentant.

‘To his sin he adds rebellion’ he concludes. Everything Job says in his defence just multiplies his sin.

It’s a bit of a yawn. He’s a bit like a younger, more black and white version of the older friends. Like a kid fresh out of theological college, full of zeal but knowing more of theology than the world.

Great at loving God, more to learn about loving his neighbour.

The thing that struck me most was when he talked about the contradiction of suffering. He really knows God and talks about the spirit a lot. He understands God as the sustainer. If he withdrew his spirit, we would be nothing. I visualised it as the valley of the dry bones in Ezekiel in reverse.

That’s his reason for rejecting the idea that God would allow random suffering for good people. It’s contradictory because God is the author and sustainer of life. And he’s right, in pure logic.

But all we have to return to is that pure logic is not wisdom, the fear of the Lord is.

I’ve got to concentrate until Wednesday. I have a second interview then for the job managing my department! I’m in contention! But I have to do a 15 minute presentation on what I would do in the first 90 days running the department.

I make a pact now to quote that verse from Job about the fear of the Lord at least once in that interview. Because you can’t run a faith based organisation on logic alone!

Job 22

The log in your own eye…

The friend and commentator on Job’s situation Eliphaz speaks a third time.

Fairly or unfairly he lists a bunch of things Job has done wrong.

The crimes are ones that could be levelled against many prosperous people. Turning away some of the poor and hungry, cautiously demanding security on loans to relatives. Lacking generosity to the vulnerable.

They match rather well the behaviours that separate the sheep from the goats when Jesus teaches (when did I see you hungry, naked, homeless, Lord?) They echo the strong practical compassion theme that runs through the Torah.

Then he has a section on ‘who are you to question God?’ he gives him ironic advice, telling Job to put away his wealth, study God’s words and accept his instruction.

Well God has already seen to the wealth, and job has been pleading for God to speak to him, alternating with, it must be admitted, requests to be left alone by God, which Eliphaz has seized on as a sin.

But Eliphaz’s advice seems more relevant to himself. He is still prosperous, yet he and his friends appear to have hardened their heart to Job. Would they not also victim blame the poor and hungry if they encountered them?

Instead of chastising Job for the wealth he no longer has, perhaps they should look at their own. Rather than Job’s fate making them wonder what he did wrong, they should treat it as warning from God to humble themselves lest the same happen to them.

The moralising is not wrong. Many of his points are like things Jesus would say. But his moralising is getting in the way of his ability to accept the truth in what Job is saying, and his self reflection.

There’s lots of talking, but little dialogue because no one is actually listening to each other in their haste to make points in support of their own point of view. It’s very familiar.

If the friends accepted the injustice of Job’s situation, they could start to become as Christ to him, helping him instead of attacking him.

Using God truth to avoid doing his will in the present moment, what a classic!

I pray for wisdom today in my job interview, all I can do is give a full account of myself and hope there isn’t a better candidate (for my sake… Not a problem for them!)

Either way, it brings a little more clarity to my situation.

Job 2

Having lost everything dear to him, Job is further tested by being covered in sores. We get the iconic image of him sitting in ashes, scraping his sores with pottery.

The heaven of Job is such a strange pantomime. The characters of God and Satan are like those Warner Brothers cartoons where bugs bunny goes to the afterlife.

I developed plans as a youth to write a musical of Job, where God and Satan were depicted by hand puppets in like a punch and Judy show. Its like Uz, Job’s mysterious home town, is Oz, a dreamscape of the actual world.

Ray Minniecon, the indigenous pastor at our church memorably taught it as an indigenous story. There are none of the chosen people in it, is about non Jewish spirituality. Job has abundant blessing and is righteous and known by God. Everything good and dear to him is taken away from him one day, and replaced by disease.

This is the chapter where Job’s 3 friends arrive, who will discuss his situation, and his wife who tells him to curse God and die.

It hooks you in by setting up this extreme case. I react, ‘I’ve got problems, but not compared to job’ and the majority of readers are in that boat, it instantly challenges your frustrations with life, your anger at God or the universe. The psalms give you permission to vent to God (though they ask a despairing ‘why?’ rather than actually curse God).

This chapter of Job sets up a doubt about my perspective on my problems. I may not have job security, my kids may have all sorts of issues, but at least they are alive and I’m not homeless and covered with sores, eh?

Psalm 51

Psalm 51! David’s second most famous Psalm after 23.

He faces his evil, his sin. His crime of lust and murder, perfectly covered up with the corruption of his kingly authority is dragged into the open by Nathan the prophet.

But though he’d technically gotten away with the ghastly mess until Nathan, it was ever before him, the poisonous guilt between him and God.

So ugly. And he knows it runs so deep. He speaks of being a sinner in the womb, original sin, but not by way of some sort of excuse.

Acknowledging the whole ugliness to God means experiencing the complete beauty of forgiveness and renewal. Mercy, grace deep down to every dark place. All the evil he’s ever done and been, the evil he will do and all the horrible consequences, known and borne, absorbed, by God.

What can I say? I too know that grace. As a child I sang Allegri’s ridiculously beautiful music – I got to sing the really high note. These things are meant to be sung. Into a frame of misery, remorse and sadness, the entry of God’s mercy is too beautiful. Praise him!

1 Chronicles 28

David was so much more involved with the temple than I ever imagined. Solomon built it, but David micro managed about every detail before he died.

He repeats, as he hands over the final instructions, that he can’t build it because he’s a soldier that shed too much blood.

He did. But God could forgive him that, I wonder if God is also leading the old man not into temptation.

The census debacle a couple of chapters ago showed David’s very human desire to be proud of his reign, to want to leave a legacy to what he achieved as Israel’s greatest king, bringing together their greatest period.

Maybe he could not have built the temple without falling into that sin, an old man’s sin.

It’s so Moses-like, leading God’s people to the edge of closure, but not being the one to claim it.

Moses’ sin, such as it was, was pretending to be God’s voice. He berated the people out of his own frustration, when God had not asked him to. Both needed to fight pomposity.

As I head towards late middle age, if not old age, it’s not what I expected to see in the passage. I have achieved remarkably little on earth, so I would have thought I was safe from pomposity.

But this blog is driven by a sense of legacy, it’s in there, in my motives. And my plan to write a song for every book, definitely. Though it’s also my identity and my pleasure in who I’ve been created to be. David was a song writer, and God didn’t seem to put any limits on that.

Intriguingly though… I wonder if he wrote crush/love songs about Bathsheba? Only the regret song, Psalm 51 made the Bible cut. But I digress.

I also have a problem with timidity, and the verse that rang out to me in the spirit was when David said to his son Solomon “Be confident and determined. Start the work and don’t let anything stop you.

I also let everything stop me. I seriously do.

So is God saying: achieve lots, and don’t achieve lots?

Perhaps the resolution of the conflict lies in the centre phrase, which I hadn’t noted till now “start the work”. Not “make sure you finish it” that is not the point.

Collaboration is a word bursting with godly potential. It’s how dreams become a journey, which is what they perhaps need to do to lead us not into temptation. In the process, they break a bit, get tarnished, they morph, perhaps you never actually reach them.

Sounding very “it’s a wonderful life”.

Do what God needs to be done. Live in God’s present, respond to it. That is closer to eternity than devoting our energy to planning our earthly memorial. As Jesus put it “store up for yourself treasure in heaven”.

So there is my dual message: be bold, seize the promptings of the spirit in the present, but don’t plan a self aggrandising future. Do and don’t do.

My job insecurity is eating me up a bit this week.

I offer that, my present, and my legacy on the altar God says is within the temple of my body, built upon the ruins of David and Solomon’s earthly monument of stone and cedar.

Woah!