Matthew 6

I’ve had a bit of a break, working on musical things in the mornings. Reading Matthew 6, what balm for the soul though.

Chapter five emphasised how antithetical God’s beautiful kingdom is to the ones we live in.

It threw us on God’s grace, requiring one sacrifice on our part, pride. Possible loss of a hand or an eye as collateral damage.

Bringing down the wall of pride facing God lets his goodness flow.

It flows from God to us and through us. We don’t prove our goodness to him. Jesus’ first point was that we can’t.

The examples in this chapter show how reversing flow of goodness changes everything. The way we live every day that flows from being humble recipients of God’s grace.

We give in situations of need because of the need, not to show we are good.

We pray to acknowledge and understand God, not show God or anyone else how devoted we are.

We forgive others not out of big heartenedness to them, but because of God’s to us.

Did you ever hear the joke “the first rule of vegan club is tell everyone about vegan club”. Self control and self discipline are part of the Christian life, but they are not a show for others, they are between God and us.

Then the things that light up our soul. Jesus describes our eyes as lamps for the body, which seems very apt in the modern era of illuminated screens for everything… Those gleaming images from Amazon, eBay, Instagram shining into our minds. All the things we could have, creating desire.

Contrast treasure in heaven. It’s fleshing out the “as above, so below” guidance from the Lord’s prayer directly above the passage. Doing God’s will on earth makes an eternal difference. Buying more stuff does not, of itself.

Then the wonderful message about not worrying. God feeds the birds of the air and dresses the flowers more beautifully than the most elite fashion house.

It’s an overwhelming argument, it’s irresistible. Let God love you. Be a channel of his love.

But it’s also a battle to establish habits we’ll fight for the rest of our lives.

It’s been quite a spiritual time. Some setbacks at church, lots of deep theology at work, a funeral this week for a much loved and kindly father, the approach of the end of another year.

This chapter is about being alive to the spiritual significance of things. So many of the themes of the scriptures land here, it’s like getting to the chorus hook of a song that has had many verses.

Do not worry about tomorrow, every day has enough trouble of is own. Is that comforting or not? Jesus’ deceptively simple, endlessly reverberant sayings.

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.

Ezekiel 14

I’ve taken ages to read this chapter! I’ve had a lot of ideas and projects in my head. Every time I start to read it, my mind flies off somewhere else.

It’s about God’s toughness, it’s about calling out what needs to be called out.

Israelite leaders have assimilated to life in Babylon. Then Ezekiel turns up with his year long art installation about the judgement of Jerusalem. Clearly it can’t be ignored, so they come to him to see what he has to say.

They get no word of Jerusalem or prophesy from the Lord other than the condemnation of their own hypocrisy and idolatry.

I read about Greta Thunberg, the 17 year old climate change activist who lead a protest outside the white house, but when invited to speak to the president refused, because she doesn’t speak to people who don’t accept the science.

That’s where Ezekiel is at here. And if he does prophesy to them, he’ll be complicit in their idolatry.

Then there is a lacerating image of the four judgements God is bringing on Jerusalem: sword, plague, wild beasts and famine.

Noah Daniel and Job would barely get out with their own life from any one of these, let alone save anyone else, let alone all four judgements at once.

Yet when Ezekiel and the others already in Babylon see the new exiles, the ones who do get out, they will understand. They will understand that God’s is in control.

I have a somewhat careering sense all of the plans and projects around. My family faces end of year stress. Years can be a marker of challenges and lack of progress, as much as opportunity. I have a to do list that feels well beyond me.

But things could be a lot, a lot worse and God could still be in control. I need to let the word of the Lord determine what first things will come first.

Ezekiel 6

Hope has to die before idols will lose their grip.

This is a prophesy against mountains, those most symbolic places to meet God, where the 10 commandments came, where Jerusalem stood, where Jesus was revealed as the Messiah to his followers and where he died.

So lost is Israel that every mountain and hill has idols, God-replacements, on it. The hubris! What a slap at Jehovah!

The prophesy is that only the few who are exiled after the destruction of Jerusalem will live to regret and repent of the idol worship.

A strange thing is that this prophesy is already being preached to exiles. Ezekiel is among some early Israelite exiles already transported away to Babylon.

We haven’t had the response of the people quoted yet, but God has predicted it: he says they will be stubborn and malicious.

And it’s because Jerusalem hasn’t fallen yet. While the old, corrupt, City they call home, condemned as it is by prophet after prophet, still struggles against a seige with an inevitable outcome, hope will not die that they might be returned to it.

Such is the depth of our wrongheadedness.

There’s a rather haunting prediction in this chapter of the bones of dead bodies of Israelites at the foot of the useless Asherah poles they hoped in.

So part of our time on the planet will be spent trying to break the tenacity of God replacements, preferably before God has to destroy all hope in them.

Some of the challenges as middle age ticks away is letting go of abilities, achievements, the home as you know it, maybe; relevance, children, at least the relationships as you’ve known them…

There’s a mountain of achievement you’ve climbed, peaked, and the trip down the other side has much uncertainty and confusion. You need to remember that success was the wrong mountain for hope.

Then there’s alcohol, unhealthy eating, low energy levels and an ever more creaky body tempting you with laziness…

Don’t want to trivialise Ezekiel’s message, but next time I’m lying on the sofa with a piece of pizza and contemplating a 3rd glass of cheap red, I’ll say a little prayer…

Psalm 150

Psalms starts with the word “blessed” and flows like a rich nourishing river of God’s word until it ends with “hallelujah” – praise the Lord.

And a little like a river, following the course of it can get a bit repetitive, but coming across it can be the best part of your day.

This simple burst of praise is one of my faves. We praise God in his sanctuary, and out of it. With every musical instrument we can grab, but especially the cymbals, extra especially the loud ones. AKA come on, feel the noise! With dancing, singing, music.

I want to dance more. I’m a terrible dancer, but I would like to dance more!

Everything that has breath. In my mind I always add “while they have breath”, and imagine praising God with my last breaths, as my sister reports my mother did, singing about clinging to the old rugged cross.

And I imagine all the animals praising God and dancing, like those happy visions from Disney, snow white and the seven dwarfs.

But even without anthropomorphism, animals are praise of God’s creativity, they give us comfort, joy, awe, amazement and fascination.

I imagine the Israelites chanting this over and over to some wild beat, dancing away into the night. Uncle Rex, a classic old Aboriginal Christian leader talked about dancing and praise under the stars deep in Arnhem land, all night, from dusk til morning. Timeless. This psalm is about praising like that.

And for me each day, praising God in the sanctuary means in my heart, practising the presence of Christ, taking him with me everywhere, being alert to the spirit, seeking to obey, looking for the joy.

Hallelujah!

Psalm 113

These all seem to be special purpose or novelty type Psalms. The next group, 113-118 were a set sung at Passover. Jesus would have sung them at the last supper, most likely. We just had two acrostic alphabet Psalms, and Psalm 119 will be the super long one that has a whole stanza per letter of the alphabet… The longest chapter in the Bible.

It’s an appropriate way to kick off passover because it’s praising that God lifts up the lowly.

Praise him: who? The lord. His servants, his name: praise.

Praise him for: who he is. Psalm 8 moment… He’s so big, above the stars, and he’s so loving he has to stoop down just to see heaven and earth, to think of us.

We’re told of the emotion Jesus felt on the night he was betrayed. To think he’d probably sung this. How low must I stoop?

Praise him for: what he does. God stoops down, and lifts up the poor and the needy, the most vulnerable. The miserable slaves in Egypt….

He makes them Princes.

He makes childless women happy mothers, settled in their home.

It reminds you that’s he did literally do that for Rachel, Elizabeth. It’s a sign of blessing about to be poured out.

The world remains a mixture of crappy and wonderful, with a lot of meh besides. Are these things God does happening? On some metaphorical spiritual level? Or literally?

Well was the rescue from Egypt practical salvation of a group of slaves or part of a plan to free the world from the grip of sin? Both.

When Jesus fed the hungry and healed the sick, was it because they were hungry and sick, or to show he was Messiah? Worked both ways.

This praise is the Bible’s promise of optimism, that things should be right, and will be. God is inherently abundant, caring, and strong enough to deliver on these. It a message to shout and a way to live.

Believe it, proclaim it by praising him all day and all night, and live it by doing what you can for the poor and needy in any dimension of those terms.

We won’t and can’t fix all the problems, Jesus didn’t try to feed all the poor, but it has this context of praise, of telling a great truth about the nature and existence of God, of hope that makes it work on multiple levels.

There’s a good start to the day. At work I’m busy, on stuff I’m glad to be doing, and that I’m not necessarily up to doing, it challenges some of my weak spots. I’m feeling keen!

Psalm 111

A straight praise Psalm. Talks of god’s goodness, provision, strength and eternal nature, and his kindness in revealing himself to us, “causing his wonders to be remembered”. That stuck out for some reason.

I think I have a massive case of overthinking. I was listening to Taylor Swift’s new song “me” yesterday and, yes it’s probably a cynical zeitgeist-driven money-making machine, but what a catchy chorus!

For me pure pop has always accessed a blissful euphoria that helps me feel, and let go a heap of complexity. These praise Psalms are like pure pop to me.

God, help me smile, help me relax and get on with the stuff I need to do.

I didn’t work worthily and vigorously yesterday like I hoped, I did stuff but it was piecemeal and poorly prioritised. Am I too hard on myself? Dunno. I’ve decided not to overthink today!

Sigh.

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.

Ecclesiastes 3

Oh chapter 3! Each bit feels like arriving at a moment of significant personal truth, but then at the end I also think “what was that?”

Puts you through the wringer and remains enigmatic. It’s quite an experience.

First there is the time for every purpose under heaven. Can’t help but hit play on the Pete Seeger/Byrds song, ‘turn turn turn’ in your mind’s iPod (unless you’ve absolutely never heard it).

I aways thought it was a cheat the way they added “I swear it’s not too late” after “a time for peace”. I thought “it’s not just about peace”.

But now I like that it ties it to a moment, civil rights and the peace movement of the 1960s. This passage is all about being tied to moments.

It’s such an evocative piece of writing.

It’s clearly about time, but also dancing on one spot, not making progress, because the series of opposites balance or cancel each other. A time to gather stones, a time to cast away stones. One day the stones matter, another day, they don’t.

You get its pattern straight away, and that rhythm creates a space in which your mind can wander and personalise the examples.

So it’s different every time you read it. Today I might think a about notre dame cathedral burning down, or how my son is slipping through my fingers and I can’t seem to connect with him, or regret not being more successful in the worlds terms, and mildly resent it.

Read it again tomorrow and your mind will go a bunch of different places.

Today it also reminded me of my mother’s use of the word “philosophical”. As in “I don’t like it, but I’m trying to be philosophical about it”

She wasn’t unique in using it to mean “coming to terms with a less than desirable outcome”. But it was while talking to her that I first wondered “how did the word for all the world’s collected efforts to understand the meaning of life become a word for shrugging your shoulders when things are out of your control?”

And at the same time, that memory gives me a warm sense of maternal comfort from beyond the grave.

Which is typical of the honest and emotional – cathartic I suppose – places this passage always takes me. While also supporting the general argument that life goes in ultimately meaningless circles.

Whew. Then comes the amazing bit!

How we are tortured by eternity. Because we can imagine it, conceive it – God put it there right in our hearts. But we live animal lives that just end one day. We are tied to time. And not.

That’s why “meaningless” is not a good enough translation for the frustration and restlessness the writer feels. If life were genuinely meaningless, it would be easier. He almost envies animals when he asks rhetorically if we aren’t the same? But the original word, Hevel, has the sense of life seeming like it’s going to mean something, but the meaning lying just beyond our grasp. Wisps of smoke.

I love that verse, it describes the human condition so perfectly. It explains almost everything. You can’t write off the Bible if it contains that verse, without telling yourself a lie.

Then the rest of the chapter talks about enjoying what you do have, and living a good life, calling out injustice because what little we know of eternity is the glimpses we have revealed to us of God’s unchanging character. He is just. He will will bring judgement for those wronged.

The writer seems to arrive at “We can’t know for certain what will happen when we die, but we do know what is good”.

And I have to get breakfast. Or should I say “a time for blogging, a time for tea”.

And to pray? Does God get a look in?

Too much! Use of time, relationships, mourning and dancing – connecting to eternity.

Ecclesiastes 2

I omitted to mention yesterday that the book has a bit of a citizen Kane structure.

There is a narrator. In the movie there is an investigator looking into the life of Kane. Ecclesiastes is bracketed by the narrator, beginning and end, setting up and wrapping up the first person narrative of the “teacher”.

The teacher is either King Solomon himself, or a later fictional invention of a Solomon-like character, similar to how citizen Kane is a lot like the real life magnate Randolph Hearst.

There are certain anachronistic language anomalies in the text which mean the fictionalised Solomon theory has gained a lot of traction with Bible scholars of late, though most chronologies of the Bible list it as written during Solomon’s time. I just think of the teacher as Solomon.

The teacher talks through the sort of dilemma movie stars or retired entrepreneurs face. You make a lot of money young. You never need to work again. How do you spend life?

You can live for pleasure, which he illustrates with enticing vividness. Even though part of you knows it’s shallow.

Or you can do a great body of work. You don’t have to do that to survive, you just do it for the work.

You can be more successful, even though you already never need to work again, just for the buzz of being successful, for the power.

He calls all meaningless. Which means by extention, he’s calling the wildest dreams of humanity, our most ideal fantasy lifestyles, meaningless.

The word from the original text, “hevel” is a richer word that has a metaphoric comparison to smoke or vapour. It includes the idea that it looks substantial, but when you try to grasp it, there is nothing there. Also the idea of obscuring clarity, of an enigma.

He says having done both shallowness and wisdom, shallowness is worse. But both end in death, even if you are wise all your life, you may well hand everything you have achieved over to an idiot after you die, which Solomon in fact did. What do you actually gain by being wise?

He hasn’t explored social conscience in this chapter, living for others. I don’t know if he does later on. But in terms of living for yourself, he concludes, it barely makes a difference if you are a shallow, indulgent hedonist or a successful disciplined achiever. It promises satisfaction, but you don’t get it.

Watched the series return of Game of Thrones last night. It will be fascinating to see how they resolve it.

It drew you in with all these characters all with different takes on what drives you in life being made a mockery of – it’s famously random scythe killed off the pleasure seekers, the ambitious, the pure, the dutiful, the corrupt, the self interested, the philanthropists. It’s constantly showed how meaningless our plans can be.

But it sustained you with a meta story woven in the background, of supernatural forces of fire and ice from which the characters find a greater purpose. These have taken us, as we near the end, to the point of a meaningful narrative arc, a resolution, a sense of destiny which contradicts the trademark provocative meaninglessness.

So how does it end?

Needless to say, I’m already loving this Ecclesiastes ride, bring on chapter three!