Matthew 11

Our intuitive, default notion is that it is judgment that elicits repentance, and ‘blessing’ is, well, blessing. So Matthew 11:20-21ff. gave me pause this morning:

Then he began to denounce the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.”

In Matthew’s presentation, the ‘mighty works’ refer back to Jesus’ Galilean ministry, summarized in 4:23-25, and again at 9:35-38. After the Sermon on the Mount (chs. 5-7), chs. 8 and 9 are mostly devoted to stories of Jesus’ mighty works of healing and restoration.

My sense is that evangelical rhetoric (and perhaps popular assumptions, too) see such things as signs of affirmation and divine benevolence. And so they are — at least the latter — but I don’t recall hearing calls to repentance in contexts where such ‘mighty works’ are most promoted among Christians today. Nor do I recall the teaching about such works being framed in terms of repentance. If anything, the framework for understanding them is simply that ‘Daddy loves you!’ (or the like).

But that’s not Jesus’ understanding, not here and not elsewhere. Healing and restoration provide a gracious space for responding in repentance and turning in gratitude to the One who alone gives life. Otherwise, as Jesus continued in this passage, what came as blessing results in woe.

2 Kings 1 (again)

This is one of those Old Testament stories that offends modern sensibilities: God incinerates two captains and their hundred men (vv. 9-12). “Harsh” barely begins to get at one reaction to this judgment of God. (And, in the days immediately following the controversial “Strange Fire” conference, this story certainly gives pause.)

I find myself asking this morning, did it need to be so? After all, the third captain–with his men–survives the task of bringing Elijah, “man of God”, to king Ahaziah (vv. 13-15). How?

The words of the first two captains contained an essential lie: they address Elijah as “man of God”, yet they presume to place him under command which, even in the space of two iterations, intensifies in its presumption. In this they participate in the same essential deceit of the king who sent them, whose inquiring after some god betrays a denial of the true and living God.

The captains had another option, as did Ahaziah himself. Like the third captain, they could have acknowledged the God of Israel and his authority, and sought him. Hope for life comes when we align ourselves with the judgments of God; death is inevitable when we oppose them.

One might, from this text, call that the “gospel of Elijah”: it is a pointer to a greater gospel, and a more certain Saviour.

Psalm 22

This psalm — so well known for providing the words of Jesus’ ‘cry of dereliction’ from the cross — took on a new poignancy for me this morning.

How many times have I been through M’Cheyne’s diary of readings? I’ve lost count, actually. But only today I noticed what it means to read Psalm 22 after Psalms 20-21. These psalms teach us to pray for the salvation of the anointed one (Psalm 20), and then rejoice in that salvation (Psalm 21).

Having spent a bit of time yesterday reflecting on Psalms 20-21, this morning Psalm 22:1 hit like a hammer-blow: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ What did the prayer for salvation mean? where has rejoicing in God’s power to save gone? Nothing and nowhere, respectively, seem to be the answers.

Miraculously, Psalm 22 itself contains the resolution to this traumatic prayer…

23 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him,
    and stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
24 For he has not despised or abhorred
    the affliction of the afflicted,
and he has not hidden his face from him,
   but has heard, when he cried to him.

…while the remaining verses in the psalm (vv. 25-31) provide some specific responses to the prayers in the two preceding psalms. So, when it looks like everything has unravelled … it hasn’t. Much more than that, the prayers of Psalms 20-21 which might have looked naive, superficial, or triumphalistic, are seen to be anything but. Thanks be to God!

Psalm 142

One of the interesting features of M’Cheyne’s calendar of readings is that the quantity of biblical text on any given day can vary, sometimes quite a bit. Today, for example, although the 2 Kings 23 chapter is quite long, the others are reasonably brief, and it gave some extra time for reflection on Psalm 142 in particular. (In fact, as a set, I sense a number of resonances between the various readings today.) Continue reading “Psalm 142”

1 Samuel 13, Romans 11

The “what if’s” of Scripture fascinate me. We see one in 1 Samuel 13:

13 And Samuel said to Saul, “You have done foolishly. You have not kept the command of the Lord your God, with which he commanded you. For then the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom shall not continue. …

The rough syntax of the Hebrew perhaps hints at some hurt and agitation–perhaps growing anger–in Samuel’s voice. For Saul, a tipping point had been reached. It will reach its definitive climax in chapter 15, but it appears from this point that Saul’s rejection is certain.

It need not have been so. Had Saul been obedient, how different things might have been. Would have been, in God’s providence.

Romans 11, of course, strikes a similar note, now of warning to any Gentile believers inclined to be complacent in their new-found status as members of the people of God. But Paul knows about “tipping points”: “For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you” (v. 21). Another kind of “what if”, then, here noted in warning rather than judgment as in the case of Saul.

The root problem in both cases, it seems, is being “wise in your own sight” (Romans 11:25). God grant us the humility to see ourselves as we really are: recipients of grace (cf. Romans 11:6), calling for humble obedience.

Jeremiah 33

Verse 9b:

They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it.

The context in ch. 33 is a curious mix of confirmation of destruction (vv. 4-5) and assurance of restoration (vv. 6-9), with both intermixed in vv. 10-13. The trajectory, however, is towards the promise of restoration.

The LORD’s words as spoken by Jeremiah here give pause. Although the passage goes on to speak of the return of “mirth” and “gladness” (v. 11), that is not the initial response to God’s gracious restoration. Rather, as v. 9 has it, the reaction of those so favoured is one of fear and trembling.

There is an obvious resonance with Philippians 2:12 (“…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…”), and the connection is illuminating. My expectation would have been that restoration occasions rejoicing, and judgment induces fear. At one level, that is certainly the case. But there is a deeper level, these passages suggest, at which the realization of God’s sheer grace grasps the awesome holiness of God’s love, and our utter dependence on his mercy for our salvation.

At such moments — whether for the restored Judaeans, or rescued sinners — fear and trembling is very much in order.

Psalm 73:22 // 2 Peter 2:12

The psalmist in Psalm 73:22 records the result of an embittered, angry spirit:

I was brutish and ignorant;
I was like a beast toward you.

Although there is no direct overlap of language, the realm of thought is remarkably similar to Peter’s account of false teachers (2 Peter 2:12):

But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and destroyed, blaspheming about matters of which they are ignorant, will also be destroyed in their destruction…

This suggestive ‘intertext’ at least hints that an angry saint can be quickly reduced to the status of a destructive heretic, for in both cases the community is endangered and the individual separated from God.

As Peter will go on to point out (2 Peter 3:9, 11-12), and the psalmist discovered (Psalm 73:17, 23), considering the ‘end’ leads to repentance and faithful living in the presence of God. God’s patience brings hope.

Genesis 19

Lot did not want to leave Sodom. He was by no means alone. It seems none of his family was moved by Lot’s invitation to avoid destruction, not even his intended sons-in-law (19:14). (In)Famously, his wife — although she fled with Lot and their daughters — looked back to Sodom contrary to their rescuer’s instructions (19:17, 26) such was her longing for the place of destruction.

In this setting, the brief comment on the action is all the more telling. The Lord’s messengers physically dragged Lot and his family from the city, setting them on the path to preservation, in which act, the narrator tells us (19:16):

…the LORD [was] being merciful to him…

It must have seemed very far from “mercy” at the time. All Lot’s fondest hopes and dreams were wrapped up in the place that put him in the path of destruction. His insistence on fleeing to another city rather than the “hills” as instructed (vv. 17-21) indicates his inability to let go of his misplaced affections and desires.

I can’t think of many parallels in the Bible to being saved against one’s wishes. The man by the pool of Bethesda is, I think, the only instance of Jesus taking the initative to heal in the gospel accounts, and the exchange with the man suggests he wasn’t especially in tune with what Jesus had done for him, or what it meant for the rest of his life (John 5:1-17). Similarly, when Paul warns the Corinthian church about abuses at the Lord’s Supper, he tells them that these abuses account for the deaths of some as judgment by the Lord — but judgment that saved them from being “condemned along with the world” (1 Corinthians 11:30-32).

In the light of Lot’s experience, and its limited echoes in Scripture, one can’t fail to reflect on this and pose the question: what cherished hopes and dreams in my life prevent me from cooperating with God’s saving work in my life? Thank God for mercy which rescues us from our own foolishness.