Monday, November 28, 2011

Joshua 1:7-16
"Be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to-the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go."—Joshua 1:7

1: 7 "Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you; do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, so that you may be successful wherever you go. 8 This 'book of the law shall' not depart out of your mouth; you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to act in accordance with all that is written in it. For then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall be successful. 9 I hereby command you: Be strong and courageous; do not be frightened or dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go."
10 Then Joshua commanded the officers of the people,
11 "Pass through the camp, and command the people: 'Prepare your provisions; for in three days you are to cross over the Jordan, to go in to take possession of the land that the Lord your God gives you to possess.'"
12 To the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh Joshua said, 13 "Remember the word that Moses the servant of the LORD commanded you, saying, 'The LORD your God is providing you a place of rest, and will give you this land.' 14 Your wives, your little ones, and your livestock shall remain in the land that Moses gave you beyond the Jordan. But all the warriors among you shall cross over armed before your kindred and shall help them, 15 until the LORD gives rest to your kindred as well as to you, and they too take possession of the land that the LORD your God is giving them. Then you shall return to your own land and take possession of it, the land that Moses the servant of the LORD gave you beyond the Jordan to the east."
16 They answered Joshua: "All that you have commanded us we will do, and wherever you send us we will go."

Many people think that a spiritual life is a contemplative one. After all, we are called to meditate on Scripture and abide in God. God gives us peace and rest. Sometimes we forget that God also calls us to action, right here and now. It isn't enough to contemplate the Word of God; we also must discern how God's Word commands us to move and act in the world. It isn't enough to rest in God; we are also called to stir things up from time to time.
Most of us can recall famous paintings of Jesus. There are some in which Jesus, the Good Shepherd, is holding a lamb. In others, he is eating with his disciples, sitting and talking. In others, children surround him. And in many pictures, Jesus is doing absolutely nothing at all. Perhaps the most famous of these is Head of Christ, a painting by Warner Sallman that has been reproduced over 500 million times. These images all inform our understanding of God, and one thing many of them have in common is a lack of activity. However, throughout his life, Jesus was out doing things--healing people, teaching people, walking, talking, and moving with purpose. If we think of Jesus as a still, quiet, contemplative sage, we are missing the point. Jesus was active. He shook things up.
In response to God's provision for Joshua and providence over the people, Joshua is supposed to take action. Previously, we read that God would give the land as Joshua and the people took "steps." In life, we learn that we need to trust God and never forget that we are to move.

God calls for active response from Joshua and the people that he will lead. This Scripture is the second half of a speech from God to Joshua. In the first part (1:1-5), God assured Joshua of God's presence with him. In this second part, God tells Joshua what behaviors are expected of him as a leader. These are imperatives and words of urgency; now is the time to act.
A window of opportunity has opened for Joshua. God says, "For you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them." Twice in this speech, God says to Joshua, "be strong and courageous"; the second time with an emphatic "very courageous." Joshua cannot be an indecisive leader. He must believe that the Lord is with him, no matter the obstacles. There is always a temptation to waver when times are tough, so God wants Joshua grounded in confidence.

God wants Joshua to remember Moses' instruction—to "act in accordance with all the law that my servant Moses commanded you." Joshua's understanding of the law is formed by the speeches that Moses gave while the Israelites were in the wilderness (Deut. 5:1, 32-33; 17:11, 19-20). The law is a gift from God mediated through Moses.
God tells Joshua to "meditate on (the book of the law) day and night," that it "shall not depart out of your mouth." Joshua is to keep this instruction on his tongue, ready to show God that he will never forget. Joshua will take great pains to follow this teaching; it will form him and determine his action.
Joshua is to be focused squarely on the law, not turning "from it to the right hand or to the left." Joshua's leadership is a gift from God to the people of Israel. If Joshua stays on a straight path focused on God, Israel will benefit. The law of God brings good for people; Israel's leaders were to bring this kind of peace to the nation. Joshua would lead the people in recognizing God as the ultimate authority. He would lead, the people not as a ruthless king, but as a servant under the law of the Lord.

Many of us do not like to move. Perhaps we have moved many times because of our jobs and are tired of it. Others may have lived in one place a long time and are comfortable there. Moving is a lot of work and it makes us get out of our comfort zone. God gives Joshua marching orders, as God had done before. Moving requires energy, strength, and courage, and that is exactly what God's charge to Joshua recognizes. It's hard to keep moving, especially when you want a place to call home. Even in this move into Canaan, into the place that the wandering Israelites will finally call home, there is anxiety and fear of the unknown. Whether we are wanderers like the Israelites or have lived in the same place our whole lives, we still face anxieties. We still face journeys into unknown territory. It can be unsettling, until we realize that God's call for us to be settled is not geographic, but spiritual.

In the wilderness, the Israelites were called to settle in the presence of the Lord, made visible in a cloud of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. They were sustained by God's presence through the manna God provided. Now, as they enter into the land that would become their home, settlement was not to be defined by where they planted crops and built homes, but by abiding in the presence of the Lord. Under Joshua's leadership, the Israelites are called to meditate on the law, and to live lives centered on the Word of God.

God's call is often disruptive. God may call us to pack up everything and move to a new place, or to make bold changes in our lives, in our churches, in our mission or worship. Change of any kind scary, but God still charges us to respond with courage and strength. We can find that courage and strength only by abiding in the promises and presence of God.
God provides opportunities for us in the midst of whatever circumstances we find ourselves. God promises Joshua that he will be successful, but God's definition of success is faithfulness and justice, not fulfilling our selfish ambitions. Joshua has been given the opportunity to be the leader of Israel after the death 'of Moses, but there is a catch. To be a faithful leader, Joshua must stay on track, not departing to the left or to the right. This takes meditating on the law, which according to John Calvin is God's gifts of a "tutor" and a "mirror." Joshua is to keep God's law on his tongue, not letting it depart from his mouth. Joshua must attend to God's wisdom. He is to carry himself with a strong and courageous demeanor. God calls us to depend on God's wisdom. Joshua is a good example of someone who acted with obedience immediately. He did not miss the window of opportunity.

God has given us many promises and mandates. It's much easier to list the promises that make us feel good than to list the mandates that demand something of us. Make two columns and try listing both.
We can all follow Joshua's lead and meditate on the word, keeping it in our mouths. It is hard work, but the fulfillment of God's promise is certain if we will open the windows of opportunity before us.

What are some ways that God calls us to action today? What are our windows of opportunity?
How do we look to Scripture to help guide our steps?
In what ways can God's call to action be unsettling?

Moving, breathing Spirit, we praise you for your action in the world. We praise you for your acts of creation, for filling the void with your life-giving breath. We praise you for the incarnation, through which you emptied yourself to become human, to take on hands and feet, and to show us through the example of Jesus Christ what it means to follow you actively and obediently. Give us your strength and courage as we seek to follow you, wherever you call us to go. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Joshua 1:1b-.6; 11:16-19, 21-23
“As the LORD had commanded his servant Moses, so Moses commanded Joshua, and so Joshua did; he left nothing undone of all that the LORD had commanded Moses”. —Joshua 11:15

“After the death of Moses the servant of the LORD, the LORD spoke to Joshua son of Nun, Moses' assistant, saying, "My servant Moses is dead. Now proceed to cross the Jordan, you and all this people, into the land that I am giving to them, to the Israelites. Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, as I promised to Moses. From the wilderness and the Lebanon as far as the great river, the river Euphrates, all the land of the Hittites, to the Great Sea in the west shall be your territory. No one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail you, or forsake you. Be strong and courageous; for you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors to give them.

So Joshua took all that land: the hill country and all the Negeb and all the land of Goshen and the lowland and the Arabah and the hill country of Israel and its lowland, from Mount Halak, which rises toward Seir, as far as Baal-gad in the valley of Lebanon below Mount Hermon. He took all their kings, struck them down, and put them to death. Joshua made war a long time with all those kings. There was not a town that made peace with the Israelites, except the Hivites, the inhabitants of Gibeon; all were taken in battle....

At that time Joshua came and wiped out the Anakim from the hill country, from Hebron, from Debir, from Anab, and from all the hill country of Judah, and from all the hill country of Israel; Joshua utterly destroyed them with their towns. None of the Anakim was left in of the Israelites; some remained only in Gaza, in in Ashdod. So Joshua took the whole land, according to all that the LORD had spoken to Moses; and Joshua gave an inheritance to Israel according to their tribal allotments. And the land had rest from war.”

Even after the Israelites had land of their own, several threats remained. The Israelites were a tribal people who gathered occasionally to retell the story of God's deliverance of them from slavery. Always they wanted to remind themselves that God had been faithful to them. If you listen to the words of Joshua, you will hear a testimony to God’s faithfulness. God had promised the Israelites land, and land meant security. Several things in this scripture passage remind the gathered community that God is faithful and fulfills the promises. These stories, repeated throughout the generations, serve as reminders that God is trustworthy and always in control

Hearing the stories of their ancestors, hearing the promises that had been given and fulfilled, reminded the Israelites that God would provide for them and would not forget them. These were stories of triumph and stories of encouragement. When things got tough for the people of Israel, they could look back on these stories and be reminded of who they were and who God was—a loving provider and promise keeper.

God affirms Joshua as the one chosen to lead the beloved people into the land promised to Moses. The text begins: "After the death of Moses." There are other times in Scripture where we read similar words of transition: (Judg. 1:1, 2 Sam. 1:1). Times of transition are difficult; it would be easy for confidence in the Lord to falter. God wants to build up trust within the Israelite people. Naturally, the Israelites would be anxious after the death of Moses. God reminds Joshua that he has some big sandals to fill.

We have all known people like Joshua who have had to step up their performance when a strong leader has moved on. Joshua may have some anxiety about the weight of this responsibility, but God initiates this conversation. God's affirmation of Joshua shows how mighty and in control God is. Joshua's name means "God saves." No matter what mighty things Joshua does, God is the source of the power. Joshua's name reminds everyone that God is in control and will provide.

God has blessed Joshua's foot to "tread" and receive the land. The people cannot receive the gift that God has given them without Joshua's leadership. The weight of this leadership opportunity is bearable because God carries it. God promises to be present with Joshua: "As I was with Moses, so I will be with you." In fact, the actions required of Joshua and the people are small compared to the actions of God. The people may take steps, but God promises:
“the land shall be your territory;
no one shall be able to stand against you all the days of your life;
I will never fail you or forsake you;
you shall put this people in possession of the land that I swore to their ancestors.”

All of these promises of God make the human action seem superfluous, like the people are about to go on a cakewalk into the land. Perhaps the words of the Lord are stated this way because of how quickly the people forget God. We always face the temptations of pride and boasting. Now the people can follow the leader named "God saves" and remember that God's promise is their lifeline. God's strength is all the more evident in weakness.
For us humans, even with the best of intentions, broken promise are unavoidable. We learn that lesson at one point or another in life. God's promises to us are quite different. In the history of God's relationship with humanity, humanity always breaks its promises. God's word is beyond reproach.

Even so, the Lord recognizes our need for a promise, for more than "trust me." God's covenant with Abram was repeated several times, often in dramatic ways. Gen. 15 tells of one of the particularly dramatic instances of God’s promises to Abram. When "cutting a covenant," two parties would walk between carcasses that were cut in half, essentially saving to each other, "Let this be done to either of us if we break this covenant." God tells Abram to prepare the animal carcasses. That night, God appeared as a flaming torch and passed between the animals, saying, "To your descendants I give this land..." Abram was not asked to pass through the animals; the full burden of this covenant was borne by the Lord. This was God's ”I promise. Cross my heart and hope to die."

The band of travelers that entered the land with Joshua had heard stories of God's promise. The stories had been passed from generation to generation. Perhaps they questioned whether the promise had ever been made, if it was still good, or if God ever intended to keep it. Here and now, they were experiencing the fulfillment of God’s promise. They knew God is faithful, even when the people are not. Now, thousands of years later, we tell these stories to teach our children and to understand for ourselves that God is faithful, even when we are not. We never have to ask God; "Cross your heart and hope to die?"
A common experience for many people today is feeling stuck, unable to make move. In the years since the recession, many people have not been able to find fulfilling or sustainable work. Through our faith, we expect God to take care of us in all times. At times, it may seem that the odds are against us. This strikes fear in our hearts.

At the beginning of the book of Joshua, the people of Israel are camped in the land of Moab at a spot called Shittim, where they have been for months, seven miles east of the Jordan River. It feels like limbo. This is not a good place to live. God has promised to take care of them and give them a land, but it does not appear that God is keeping that promise. The enemies they face mean nothing to us but were more than enough to strike fear in their hearts: Canaanites, Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites. The enemy had chariots and superior weaponry. Israel had foot soldiers and their leader Moses had died.

Have you ever felt fear? Have you ever been overwhelmed with the enormity of what lies ahead? Many things that people face on a daily basis strike fear in our hearts. We want assurance from God in those times. God was ready to do a new thing with Joshua as leader; the Israelites could not let fear stand in the way. The tribes of Israel needed these teachings, so that they might trust God rather than fear their enemy. In reality, their biggest obstacle was fear. Threats were daunting, but God always delivers. God gives life to dry bones, as Ezekiel's story teaches. God is the God of resurrection. God is what makes the difference against all odds. These words can build us up today and remind us that God keeps God's promises against all odds.

What are some of God's promises to us today? How do we see them fulfilled?
How do you think you would have felt if you had been with the people of Isreal, on the verge of entering the land?
Are there times when it feels like God doesn't keep promises? What do we make of those times? Does it change our understanding of who God is?

Our Father, we ask you to instruct us as we study, read, and meditate. Change our lives and thinking so that we might become, through faith, all you want us to be. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Psalm 63

“O God... my soul thirsts for you”

God, you are my God, I seek you, my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
beholding your power and glory.
3 Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
5 My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
6 when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
9 But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
10 they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals.
11 But the king shall rejoice in God;
all who swear by him shall exult,
for the mouths of liars will be stopped.

Many scholars believe that David wrote this psalm while reflecting on his wilderness trials, perhaps the time when he escaped the murderous King Saul. First Samuel 20 tells us that David is on the run from Saul. David would survive this threat and become the great king of Israel. But at this point in the story he is far from the throne. It's easy to imagine that fear, hunger, and thirst are his constant companions. He knows what it is like to be far from sustenance and safety.

Psalm 63 is not a history lesson, though. It captures the emotions of a common human experience. The people of God sometimes face difficult times. We may endure a wilderness of sorts, a time of disorientation in our lives. It could be illness or death or the challenge of living with the consequences of poor choices. Real enemies, human or otherwise, may seek to undo us. When we are in that sort of wilderness, we may feel that we have been abandoned by God.

Where is God when I need blessed assurance that my life is in good hands? Where is God during the wilderness journeys of life, the parched and dry land of the soul? Where do I look when I need to reorient my life, my priorities, and my values?

In the West African country of Ghana, many Christians offer evening and morning prayers daily. Specifically, prior to retiring for the evening, the believer offers praise to God and asks for protection during sleep. At night people are at their most vulnerable. Any number of dangers can befall one who sleeps. At daybreak, as believers in Ghana awaken, they begin the day with a prayer of thanksgiving to God for providing security through the night. So the day ends and begins with prayer that seeks the protective presence of God Almighty.

The church has traditionally employed Ps. 63 as a morning prayer. The Hebrew word translated "I seek you" (shachar) can also refer to "daybreak" or "dawn," implying an earnest search for God by the light of the new day. Psalm 63 conveys the same sense of waking, perhaps after a sleepless night given to fret and worry. The morning dawns, and the believer longs for the assurance of God's presence. Looking to the rising sun in the east, the believer reorients (orient, "east") herself each morning by lifting holy hands and praising God.

Prayer for safety while we recline on our beds reminds us of a favorite children's prayer:
“Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Common understandings of soul—that it is a separate aspect of the human being, and that the soul, the eternal spark within us, goes to God at death, while the material (body) deteriorates—derive from Greek philosophical and Gnostic worldviews. According to these views, the universe is composed of differing levels of spiritual and material realities. The High God at the highest spiritual plane created the lower gods, or demiurges; the lower gods, less spiritual, created the material world, the lowest plane of reality. In this scheme, the spiritual world has higher and lower levels of that which is deemed good; and the material, better and worse levels of evil. The human body is a prison; the soul (spiritual, good) desires nothing less than breaking out of the prison and returning to the source of everything good. Gnostic understandings of the world continue to perpetuate this dualistic view of reality, even in the church. Even in our children's bedtime prayer: "I pray the Lord my soul to keep ... to take."

In contrast, the biblical understanding of soul presumes for the most part that the human being is a psychosomatic unity. Rather than saying, "I have a soul," it might be more accurate to say, "I am a soul" or "I am a mind-soul-body unity." The Hebrew word nephesh can be translated "soul," "life," "person," "gullet," and "appetite." Especially fascinating is the reference to gullet or throat. The human
throat provides passage for basic, life-giving elements—air, food, water. From the throat and through the mouth come words and songs of praise to God. Thinking of the soul as a passageway for sustenance and praise gives a provocative metaphor for the devotional life of the believer.

Words related to speaking, eating, and drinking are replete throughout Ps. 63:
• my soul thirsts for you (v. 1)
• my lips will praise you (v. 3)
• call on your name (v. 4)
• a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips (v. 5)
• prey for jackals (v. 10)
• the mouths of liars (v. 11)

If, as some students of the Bible maintain, the wings (v. 7) suggest a mother bird's protection of her babies as a metaphorical frame of reference for the psalm, the open mouths of fledgling birds provide a stunning visual parable. Like the baby birds, mouths open wide, necks craning for the mother's provision, so too we yearn, hunger, long for the sustaining presence of God. As the babies chirp in anticipation and learn to sing in grateful acknowledgment of their mother's certain care, so our lips drink in blessing and sing forth grateful praises to God. The liars in the psalm, like baby birds who do not open their mouths to be fed, will have their lips sealed as they go down to destruction.
Baby birds need more than just a bit of help to survive. Newborn birds are extremely helpless. They need to be protected, fed, and kept warm. "My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me" (v. 8). "Clinging" expresses great intimacy, such as in Gen. 2:24 ("... a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh") and Ruth 1:14 (Ruth clings to Naomi). The psalmist recognizes that personal survival depends on clinging to the parentlike nurture of God. This dependency does not embarrass but leads us to sing with joy.

The Bible is full of images feasting. The table is a place of singular intimacy between God and God's people—from the strange visitors to Abraham and Sarah's tent at the oaks of Mamre (Gen. 18) and the consoling word that the Lord sets a table in the presence of our enemies (Ps. 23) to the tables of sinners where Jesus sat and the meal that would become a sacrament for us. In Scripture, table fellowship often accompanies the sealing of covenant and conveys the spirit of hospitality, safety, reconciliation, and celebration. In Egypt, during the first Passover meal, God spared the Hebrew firstborn while a plague killed Egypt's firstborn (Ex. 12). Later after Moses received Torah, on Mount Sinai, God sealed the covenant with a feast (Ex. 24).

Isaiah 55 expands the table intimacy of the personal relationship with God to include the community of Israel and the entire world. Written during the Babylonian exile, another wilderness sojourn for Israel, Isaiah's vision proclaims that the One who feeds, protects, and sustains us extends an invitation to all peoples and all lands. All who thirst for God are welcome and are promised a seat at the feasting table.
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters; and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price. Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
(Isa. 55:l~2b).

Jesus saw the table as the setting for our promised future home with God. From the supper in the upper room to the table along the Emmaus road, disciples of Jesus Christ are assured that the same God who sustains us in the unfolding years of this life is the very same God who promises eternity to us. Regardless of where we are, God will be found, seeking us, feeding us, comforting us, and leading us to greater faithfulness.

Can you describe a time when you were not certain God was present?
What does God's steadfast love mean to you? Can you describe a time when you knew that love?
How would you respond to someone who is not sure that they matter to God?

You, O Lord, are God.
You made us and we are yours:
We are your people and the sheep of your pasture.
We enter your gates with thanksgiving
and your courts with praise.
We thank you and bless your name.
For you, O Lord, are good;
your steadfast love endures forever,
and your faithfulness to all generations.
—based on Psalm 100:3-5

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Psalm 47

“Sing praises to God...sing praises to our King.”—Psalm 47:6-7


1 "I Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
2 For the LORD, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
3 He subdued peoples under us,
and nations under our feet.
4 He chose our heritage for us,
the pride of Jacob whom he loves. Selah
5 God has gone up with a shout,
the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
8 God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
9 The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham. For the shields of the earth
belong to God; he is highly exalted.

Imagine the opening of a youth conference with over six thousand youth and adults in attendance. Lots of energy in the hall: rollicking music, vibrant energizers, and fervent prayers. At the appointed time, the preacher reads the Scripture. But before he can begin his sermon the young people began to shout and clap spontaneously in response to the good news he had just read and in anticipation of what he might say. This is similar to what the people are doing in Ps. 47.

Although many of us may have strong traditional ideas about what is appropriate during a worship service, surely there are fitting times to clap, sing, and shout to God during our Sunday worship. We have known God's mighty acts; recounting these acts helps us remember who we are and how to live in hope. We remember and rejoice that God is the great sovereign of all the earth. God's kingdom is not limited to a single region or country. God is king of all the earth. God has authority and power over all human rulers and leaders no matter how great or powerful they may seem to be. We praise God for caring for us. Our ancestors in faith were once slaves in Egypt; we were slaves in Egypt. God delivered us from that horrible existence. God gave us a home and a reason for living. God taught us how to live together through the giving of Torah.

We rejoice because God loves the world. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God of our ancestors, loves the entire creation. God has called us to make known the love of God for the world and to invite others to the broad feasting table in God's kingdom.
We have many reasons to sing, clap, and shout praises to God.

Psalm 47, a song of celebration, opens with a summons to gather and praise God. The people clap their hands. They sing songs loudly and with great joy. The psalm declares that God has gone up with a shout. The Hebrew word 'ala (v. 5; "has gone up") suggests a religious ceremony in which the Ark of the Covenant would have been carried in procession. According to 2 Sam. 6:15, "David and all the house of Israel brought up (ma'alim) the ark of the LORD with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet." Thus proclaims the psalmist, God now sits on a throne. (The cherubim on the top of the covenant box were thought to have served as God's throne.) God has climbed the dais to a place of authority and is ready to rule. Yahweh is king!

Our faith calls us to see and honor God as the ruler of all nations and not just as the benefactor of one country or region. In its earliest days, ancient Israel had no human king; it was a theocracy; that is, the people of God knew no king other than Yahweh. Several psalms proclaim "The Lord (Yahweh) is king" (see Ps. 96—99). The prophets spoke of God as king of the earth (Jer. 10:6-10). Jesus proclaimed God's reign as a present reality: "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news" (Mark 1:15). Jesus demonstrated, much to the disappointment of his followers, that the kingdom of God is not restricted to geographic, ideological, or political boundaries: God's reign includes all the nations of the world, and all who would enter God's kingdom must repent of the notion that God loves one nation or one people over another.

Most of us in the U.S. probably would be uncomfortable with the idea of monarchy as a form of governance. If we describe the president or another elected official as "acting like a king" it is not a compliment. The United States celebrates representative democracy and necessary checks and balances every four years. The election and inauguration of an American president reminds us all that ours is a society built in part on the rejection of monarchy. We tend to associate the concept of a king with either a despotic dictator or a ceremonial figurehead. It's not a favorable concept or something to celebrate. We have no experience of a great king. If we were to find ourselves participating in a ceremony honoring the enthronement of a king, then something would have gone terribly wrong in our land.
However, while most are uncomfortable with the idea of a human monarchy, we are more than comfortable with the notion of God's kingship. We find this same love-hate relationship with monarchy in the Old Testament. Like the religions of its neighbors, Israel proclaimed its God, Yahweh, as "king." However, unlike its neighbors, ancient Israel had no human king. For a few centuries after the time of Joshua, the twelve tribes were organized as an amphictyony, or a loosely connected confederacy with no central government. During times of conflict, God appointed judges, military leaders, from the tribes to stave off threats from enemy combatants. In times of relative peace, tribal leaders were responsible for their particular segments of Israel's population. Yet, not everyone appreciated the confederacy. Some called for a more unified state, with a king to rule all of Israel. First Samuel 7:3—8:22 tells us that the people desired a king so that Israel would be like other nations. The text tells us that in this way Israel rejected Yahweh as its king.

With the advent of the monarchy and the anointing of King Saul, Israel, a covenant people from its birth, became a nation, a secular state. David's rule came to be known as the "golden age" of Israel; and during the reign of David's son, Solomon, Israel experienced a time of political, economic, military, and international success. From the perspective of those who opposed the monarchy, though, this was a time when the people were subjected to tyranny. Solomon's wives and other international alliances introduced pagan worship practices to Israel; shrines were set up to worship other gods. The writer of 1 and 2 Kings makes it clear: Israel and Judah's rulers, with few exceptions, did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, leading the people into idolatry and away from God.

While we may assume the truth of God's universal reign, the declaration that Yahweh is king over all the earth was an audacious claim in that era! Israel's neighbors understood that the gods had certain regional or national alliances. Yahweh was the God of Israel, Baal and Asherah, the male and female gods of Canaan, Marduk, the chief god of Babylon, Chemosh, Moab's god, and so on. Israel made the bold claim that Yahweh was king of the earth and "the LORD, the Most High" (Ps. 47:2; translation of the Hebrew YHWH elyori). El Elyon ("God Most High") was the chief Canaanite deity. Scholars believe that Israel borrowed this designation to refer to Yahweh. (See also Ps. 97:9.) Imagine how Israel's neighbors must have responded to this claim of Yahweh's universal rule! How arrogant they must have considered the people of Yahweh; and how foolish Israel must have seemed when Yahweh apparently turned against Israel in its conflicts with its neighbors, most notably Babylon.

Of course, "the Lord is king" is a tenet of faith and not self-evident. Nations war with one another, suggesting that if there is a God, rulers and leaders flout the call to embrace God's peace with no apparent consequences. By faith we know that we live in the "already," and the "not yet" of the kingdom of God. We hope and pray that God's kingdom will come in its fullness, a time in God's future when peace and justice will be the rule for all. Psalm 47 gives us a glimpse of this eschatological hope, the "end of time" restoration of the whole world according to the reign and rule of God. The language of all the earth becoming a part of the people of God (first expressed in God's call to Abraham and echoed in Isaiah and elsewhere) is a hope that all people will come to worship and serve God as ruler of all the earth.

Psalm 47 is an appointed reading for the Christian observance of the day of ascension (see Acts 1}. Jesus Christ did not come to sit on an earthly throne, but ascended to the heavenly throne where he is at the right hand of God, the seat of power and authority. The reign of God was proclaimed in Jesus' coming (Mark 1:15), and is now revealed in fullness through the resurrection of Jesus and God's triumph over death. Thus, the reign of God has begun. We are called to proclaim it.
How can we resist the temptation to hold different people and nations, denominations and religions, at enmity one with the others? If we feel we can do nothing but pray, then let us pray:,
Great and mighty God,
we praise you that Christ has ascended
to rule at your right hand.
We rejoice before the throne of his power and peace,
for he has put down tyrannies that would destroy us,
and unmasked idols claiming our allegiance.
We thank you that he alone is Lord of our lives.
By your Spirit,
give us freedom to love with his love,
and to embrace the world with his compassion.
Accept the offering of our lives,
that we may obey your commands to serve
in the name and for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.

Above prayer from Book of Common Worship (Louisville: Westminster John/Knox Press, 1993), p. 335.

What key events of faith do you or your congregation remember? How do you honor the memories?
What can we do to help each other remember who God is and who we are as a part of God's people?
What does today's passage have to say to a world in which the behavior of countries often seems governed by narrow national interests?

God, we are forgetful creatures. We thank you that you love us in spite of our forgetfulness. And we thank you for the reminders like Ps. 47. Help us to remember who you are and who we are as a part of your people. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Psalm 46:1-7
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. —Psalm 46:1

1 God is our refuge and strength, a present help in trouble.
2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should
change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
3 though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult. Selah
4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of
God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The LORD of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

When we sing Martin Luther's hymn "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" as part of our worship services, those who may normally mumble their way through the hymns sing out boldly and with gusto. The combination of a powerful and uplifting tune along with lines like "A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing," "on earth is not his equal," and "He must win the battle" inspire us to sing and make a joyful noise. When our voices join together and we sing those words we may be assured that God will prevail over any and all adversaries. Martin Luther was inspired by Ps. 46 when he wrote his famous hymn. Generations of God's people have turned to this psalm for comfort. The words are ancient but they touch universal human emotions and situations. "God is with us" expresses an enduring confession of faith for God's people, especially during critical times. We read these words at challenging and painful moments in our lives. The words remind us of who God is and the nature of our relationship with God. They also serve to remind us of why we trust God when it seems as if the world is falling apart. These words give us comfort in the midst of difficult times.

Biblical theologians tell us that the Old Testament reveals significant tension between two expressions of God's covenant with Israel: the Mosaic covenant and the Davidic covenant. God's covenant with Israel as given through Moses emphasizes key themes of salvation history: liberation from slavery; the land of promise; laws and codes for behavior; and ritual processes and purity. It is a conditional covenant. That is, God says, "If you follow my command, then I will dwell with you."

In contrast, the Davidic covenant emphasizes Jerusalem, the Temple, and the monarchy as undisputed evidence of God's favor. It is an unconditional covenant. God promises to dwell in Jerusalem; Zion becomes a cosmic gateway to the presence of God. The promise includes a ruler—one like David, from David's family tree, will sit on the throne in Jerusalem forever. This feature of the Davidic covenant will eventually develop into the hope for a Messiah.

Following the reigns of David and Solomon, the kingdom split in two: Israel or Ephraim (Northern Kingdom); and Judah (Southern Kingdom). The north fell to the Assyrians in the eighth century B.C. In 701, Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, turned his attention farther south, surrounding Jerusalem with several hundred thousand soldiers. In desperation, Hezekiah, king of Judah, sent for the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah proclaimed that Jerusalem would not fall to the Assyrians. Amazingly, 185,000 Assyrian soldiers dropped dead one night. The Assyrian army retreated; Jerusalem was spared. (See 2 Kings 18:13—19:37; 2 Chron. 32:9-22; and Isa. 36—37 for the story.)

Those who propagated the Davidic covenant and the belief that Jerusalem was indestructible because it was God's home felt vindicated in their belief. However, the prophets warned the people about putting too much faith and confidence in Jerusalem and its Temple. Jeremiah, an adherent of Mosaic covenantal theology, said:

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: Amend your ways and your doings, and let me dwell with you in this place. Do not trust in these deceptive word's: "This is the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD." For if you truly amend your ways and your doings, if you truly act justly one with another, if you do not oppress the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own hurt, then I will dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your ancestors forever and ever (Jer. 7:3-7).

Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in the sixth century B.C. The people of Judah were deported to Babylon. Jeremiah's words rang true, for the people ignored God's commandments to worship rightly and to establish a just society. Even so, God did not abandon them in Babylon. God was at work renewing the relationship with the people during exile, preparing them for their return home seventy years later.

Psalm 46 is one of the songs of Zion, the city of God— Jerusalem. In sure and certain tones, the psalm claims the protection of God over Jerusalem, as if the author and the city have endured difficult times.
God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved; God will help it when the morning dawns. The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge, (vs. 5-7)
"God will help it when the morning dawns" (v. 5b) may be an allusion to the withdrawal of Sennacherib's forces following the night when scores of his troops died. Yet, how are we to claim the truth of Ps. 46 without also falling prey to the false confidence engendered by the unconditional nature of Davidic theology?

One way to read the psalm without fear of misplaced devotion is to think of "the city of God" as beyond any specific geographic location. The poetry of the psalm gives us license to apply "city of God" to any time or place where the people of God live out their lives in obedience to God. The care and authority of God is not limited to any one location or to any one era of history. God is our refuge and ever-present help in any place and at any time. That might help us avoid the problem of glorifying Zion. We do not glorify Zion in and of itself, but as the place where God is known and worshiped. Jerusalem is not our refuge; God is. Jerusalem, by its faithful worship and obedience, draws the nations of the world to the holy mountain so that the true God of the universe is worshiped and served (see Isa. 59, 60).

God is our refuge. God is our strength. God is our help in times of trouble. God is not just an occasional help but is readily found. The psalm gives a straightforward description of the nature of the relationship between God and God's people. God is like a fortress, a safe place where those who would do you harm cannot reach you. Psalm 46 does not offer a theoretical exploration of God's nature. This is not idle speculation. Trouble is a part of life. The people of God experience grief, pain, and hard times. God has not abandoned us; the psalm celebrates the presence of God in the midst of those bad things. God is our refuge and safety.

The people of God can expect difficult times to be a part of their lives. Problems can feel like earthquakes sometimes: Financial stability, like the ground below us, breaks apart. Medical problems threaten to drown us like the raging seas during a tsunami. All people experience "earthquakes" that no geologist can measure. But the psalm assures us that God is with us in the midst of these "earthquakes."
Psalm 46 is prayed at funerals and before serious medical procedures. We pray these words because we find comfort in them, as have believers through the ages. The psalm does not declare that the people of God are privileged to live lives without suffering and pain or hard times. All sorts of troubles, and illnesses, and eventual death are realities for all people. The people of God must face these things. But God does not abandon us in the midst of pain, suffering, or any other "earthquake" we may be facing. God is present with us. God is our refuge. God is our source of strength.

How are we to square the seeming message of Ps. 46 with the death or destruction of those who are faithful?
Why do you think that the people of God are not "immune" from difficult times?
What does it mean to trust God in times of economic or political turmoil?
How might people's faith guide their responses to global terrorist threats?

O God, our refuge, we thank you for your promise to be with us in the midst of all kinds of turmoil. Thank you for sustaining us in our darkest times. Help us not to forget you during the good times. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Psalm 19:7-14
“The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”

This psalm celebrates the work of God in creation and the particular way God has acted to sustain God's people through the giving of the law. Even though creation displays God's glory and power, God does not stay removed; the psalm will show concrete ways in which God is involved with creation. And we have the opportunity to find challenge and comfort in these ancient words as we seek to live as faithful people of God.

Students of the Bible suggest that Ps. 19 is a compilation of two distinct poems. Verses 1-6 extol God as creator of all things, especially the sun; while vs. 7-14 celebrate the Torah as God's gift to humanity. Even if this view of the psalm's construction is true, it has been given to us as a single psalm, and deserves to be read as such.
The psalm resounds with the praise of God and answers the question, “Who is the God of creation?” Ancient peoples held that there were many gods; they paid homage to their gods in ways that crossed cultural boundaries. Hymns similar in structure and language to the biblical psalms have been discovered in the Middle East. These hymns extol Marduk, Ishtar, Chemosh, and other gods and goddesses. Creation is one of the key features of these hymns. Yahweh, Israel's deity, was one among the gods. However, as Israel's faith and religion developed, the priests began to make an awesome claim: the God of Israel, Yahweh, is the God of creation, El. Psalm 19:1-6 uses the Semitic name for God, Elohim, the plural form of El. The wonder of creation reveals the glory of God; the sun, thought in ancient religions to be a divine being, moves across the sky-dome in and out of its bedchamber at the behest of God. Verses 7-14 make it clear that the God whose name Israel knows (Yahweh) is the God of the cosmos, the sole creator and redeemer. Just as God has ordered the heavens and the earth, with the illumination of the sun shining on the paths we walk, so too has God given the Torah, the Law, as a lamp to our feet and a light to our path (Ps. 119:105).

"The law of the LORD is perfect,” declares the psalmist. We may have trouble wrapping our minds around a connection between "law" and "perfect." After all, the laws passed by our legislatures and councils are far from perfect. In our experience, "law" more often refers to overly complicated and convoluted codes and rules. Law-abiding adults recognize that society's laws are not uniformly just. No human law is perfect or can ensure a perfectly just society.
Even in an imperfect world, we know the importance of law in preserving order and promoting the common good. As such, human laws, however flawed, reflect the perfect law of God, which was given that God's people might live in peace, unity, and fidelity. God's Torah has a far richer meaning than what we think of as law. Rules and codes are definitely a part of the Torah, but the word also means "instruction" and "teaching." As Scripture, Torah also includes the stories of God's interaction with God's people from the day the first people were created. It especially focuses on the promises God has made to Israel. Through Torah, God instructs the people in the ways they should live.

Further, the Torah provides content for the covenant God has established with God's people. God's law provides the community's boundaries for our relationship with God and with each other. The Law of the Lord is life-giving. It is not a burden but a gift from God that has the power to revive the soul. Properly understood and observed, the Torah is greater than gold and sweeter than honey.

The psalm lifts up the two ways theologians contend that we know God: natural revelation and special revelation. What is true for both forms of revelation is that they are initiated by God. We can only know God if God chooses to be known.
Natural revelation encompasses our knowing God through contemplation of the creation. The wonder of the heavens, the sun, the moon and the stars; the grandeur of the sea and its amazing creatures; the intricacies of the human being; and the mysteries of life, death, growth, and love testify to the presence of a divine designer. That we can detect order and rhythm in the natural world and its processes witnesses to a creator who imposed an order and rhythm on creation. As the psalmist insists, "The heavens are telling the glory of God" (Ps. 19:1). Natural revelation, however, does not lead to saving knowledge.

Special revelation insists that God speaks to humanity, issues a call to us, and makes a claim on our lives. God tells us how we are to live and how to be in right relationship with God. Rather than being the harsh demands of an impersonal God, Torah is the gift of a loving God to a beloved people. God speaks through Scripture in these ways, and most significantly through the logos, the Word of God incarnate, Jesus Christ. Special revelation tells us that the God of creation entered human history to speak the word of salvation and guide us into all righteousness.
Natural revelation may be thought of as a general word to humanity. Special revelation is a personal word.

Psalm 19 ends with familiar words: "Let the words of my mouth and the mediation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer." Preachers pray these words before they preach a sermon. Even though we might be inclined to think of these words as a "preacher's prayer," nothing in the psalm indicates that these words apply only to a few of God's people. These words are for all of God's people. And they apply to all of our words, thoughts, and deeds. The psalm invites us to call on God to guide us in our daily lives. God has given a gift to help us live faithfully: the Torah.

The law of the Lord is perfect. It is worth more than gold. It tastes sweeter than honey. But the life of the person who wants to embrace the Torah is not without challenges. Living according to God's righteousness cannot be accomplished alone. Psalm 19 recognizes that even if we embrace the law and live as God wants us to live, we won't be able to do it perfectly. Sometimes it may be obvious when we do something wrong, but other times those errors will be hidden. We may do something wrong that at the time seems like the right thing to do. The psalm includes acknowledgment that our lives will include such mistakes; through the psalm's words God calls us to repentance.

The law that is celebrated in many different ways in Ps. 19 is clearly not a burden for those who sing or pray its words. It's not a trap or a path leading to quicksand. The law opens up new possibilities for those who embrace it. The law has the power to warn the people of God about the wrong directions they might want to go in their lives. But the law also offers rewards to those who embrace it. Torah is given to help us to love God with everything we have and with everything we are, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. When the law is received as a gift from God, it has the potential to help transform our lives that we might be more faithful in our love for God and for those with whom we live and work each day.

In relation to Ps. 19:14, what kinds of words and meditations might God find acceptable?
How have you found the law of the Lord or the Torah to be life-giving?
How does the law help us maintain a healthy relationship with God and others?

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

Compiled from The Present Word and Congregational Ministries Publishing is not liable for for the content of this Bible Study and Blog.

From The Present Word © 2011 Congregational Ministries Publishing. Used by permission.

Monday, June 6, 2011

“O LORD, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

Psalm 8

Many scholars think that Psalm 8 was written during Judah's (the Southern Kingdom's) exile in Babylon (about 587 to 538 BC). How did it come to this? To make a long story short, despite the fact that God was faithful to the people of Israel, leading them out of Egypt, providing for them and sustaining them as a people and later as a nation, the people went back to worshiping other gods AGAIN!   It was the golden calf times a thousand. Despite warnings from several prophets, the people just didn't get it. Moses wasn't around anymore to argue with God so God finally let Israel suffer the consequences of its actions. By the year 930 BC the nation of Israel had been divided into the Northern Kingdom (Israel) and the Southern Kingdom (Judah). In 720 BC, the Northern Kingdom was conquored by the Assyrians. The people of Judah may have thought they were safe when Assyria was defeated by Babylon (Iraq) in 612 BC, but that wasn't the case. Babylon continued to grow more powerful ans in 587 BC the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and deporting most of the people to slavery in Babylon.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

“A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

Scripture: Exodus 34:1, 4-10
“A God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.”

This week we will make the final stop on our quick four-week tour of a few passages in Exodus. We
have witnessed highs and lows as Moses and the people of Israel have learned what it meant to be in
relationship with God. They have learned about the nature of God both from God's direct words to
them and through their experience of God's inescapability.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Scripture: Exodus 32:1-10
“The Isrealites have been quick to turn aside from the way I have commanded them.”

The story of the golden calf illustrates that God, and God alone, deserves our complete devotion and loyalty. But what will God do if we split our devotion between God and other gods? Will the holy God remain true to the covenant promises and to an idolatrous people?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Exodus 20:1-11
“I am the Lord your God...”

As we resume the story, Moses and the liberated slaves have arrived at the place where Moses first heard God speak—Mt. Horeb. God has a word for the freed slaves. In fact, God has ten words—the Decalogue or Ten Commandments. (Ten commandments means "ten words.") With these words God outlines the nature of a covenant: how Israel is to live in relationship with God and with each other. A covenant is like a contract: I promise to do this and you promise to do that. The commandments also reveal more about the nature of the God who calls a people to spiritual fidelity.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Exodus 3:1-6, 13-15
“I Am”

Have you experienced surprise at the sound of an unfamiliar voice calling your name? Perhaps across a crowded room or on your phone? It can be a disconcerting experience: Who knows my name? Why are they calling me?

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


Welcome to our Bible study blog! One of the adult Sunday school classes at Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church in Orlando, FL, has begun a study called “The Inescapable God” and we would like to share some of the thoughts from that study with others.