Sunday Meditations during the "Ban" on Church: June13, June7,
  May31, May24, May17, May 10, May 3, April 26, April 19, Easter, PalmSunday

Psalms for Going Up

There were said to be fifteen wide steps going up to the southern entrance of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The entrance has long since been walled up, but you can see pictures of what is there today, plus a model of what was there in the first century here. In one of those pictures I counted 25 steps, but they are modern cut limestone; there's a close-up showing some of the (worn) original steps cut into the Mt.Moriah bedrock, with the modern steps nearby.

Anyway, so there are these fifteen Psalms (120-134) with the first verse in Hebrew -- you see it as small print before the first verse in most Bibles, but it was the first verse in Hebrew -- the first two words read "Song [of] Going-Up" (Ascents) or maybe "Stair Song". The story has it that the fifteen "Songs of Ascents" were to be recited, perhaps sung, one on each step, as you walked up the 15 steps to the "Beautiful Gate" which was the main entrance from the Jerusalem city street [read Acts 3:1-10].

Tomorrow I finish up with the Songs of Ascents in my daily readings, and Psalm 133 (today's) was a nice read, so that's the focus of my meditation today [read Psalm 133].

David's name is on three of these stair songs, Solomon on one, and the other eleven have nothing more in the title than the two words "Stair Song".

"How good and pleasant," he starts off, "when siblings live together in unity." That's a fact, but it's unity that has been earned. It's not fun when one person stubbornly clings to their own opinions, and the other just gives up and says "OK whatever." If one person prefers apple pie and the other likes cherry, that's personal preference, but I find a lot of disputes arise from incomplete facts, if we sit down and look at all the data together, sometimes we might discover that the other person had access to more information than I did. Or maybe they only think they do. But there's a real world out there, and True is what is really out there in the real world, not merely what I personally prefer. Both the Hebrew and Greek words translated "truth" in our Bibles have the same root meaning as "faithful" because truth is faithful to reality. The Hebrew word you all know as "Amen." When we end a prayer with that word, it's like saying "Make it so."

The next verse speaks of oil running down onto Aaron's beard and all over his clothes, and that does not sound at all to me like fun, yet here it is given as an example of "How good and pleasant" it is to live in unity. I'm thinking this is like perfume or cologne (which Wiki tells us is aromatic oils diluted down with alcohol). The annointing oil for the priest was given a particular recipe in the Law of Moses:

"Take the following fine spices: 500 shekels [12 pounds] of liquid myrrh, half as much (that is, 250 shekels) of fragrant cinnamon, 250 shekels of fragrant cane, 500 shekels of cassia--all according to the sanctuary shekel--and a hin [a gallon] of olive oil. Make these into a sacred anointing oil, a fragrant blend, the work of a perfumer. It will be the sacred anointing oil. Then use it to anoint the Tent of Meeting, the ark of the Testimony, the table and all its articles, the lampstand and its accessories, the altar of incense, the altar of burnt offering and all its utensils, and the basin with its stand. You shall consecrate them so they will be most holy, and whatever touches them will be holy.

"Anoint Aaron and his sons and consecrate them so they may serve me as priests. Say to the Israelites, 'This is to be my sacred anointing oil for the generations to come. Do not pour it on men's bodies and do not make any oil with the same formula. It is sacred, and you are to consider it sacred." -- Ex.30:22-32

It doesn't sound so yukky when you think of it as perfume.

The last verse speaks of the "dew of Hermon" falling on Zion. When I was there, Jerusalem was hot and dry, sort of like LosAngeles or Fresno, but Mt.Hermon is at the north end of Israel near Lebanon. I got close in my visit in 1984, at the headwaters of the Jordan, which was wet and almost tropical. There are a lot of trees in Lebanon -- their flag celebrates the cedar trees that Lebanon is so famous for -- and trees grow where there is moisture. So think of this as a cool mountain breeze from Yosemite refreshing the hot dusty streets of Fresno.

"For there [in Zion] the LORD bestows His Blessing, even life forevermore." Eternal life is the Blessing from God through Jesus, and Jesus did his thing on Mt.Zion. That's even better than perfume running down my face. Being agreeable is not bad, too.

Stephen, the "Olympic Medal" Saint

I'm still reading in Psalms and Isaiah each morning, but none of them reached out and grabbed me this week, so I decided to pick on an obscure New Testament character, not one of the Twelve but somebody else interesting.

In Acts chapter 6 there arose a conflict in the early church -- they had several conflicts back then, not much different from churches here and now, and this one was neither first nor last -- and some of the new Christians thought they were being unfairly treated by the management. It was a race thing (sound familiar?), the Greek-speaking people were used to being the top of the heap, like Americans in the world today (or rather before the virus), and the Aramaic-speaking Jews knew that they were "God's Chosen People" with all the priviledges that went with that... This is nothing new, the Disciples were arguing about who was on top all the time while Jesus was trying to teach them that's not the way it's supposed to work.

I guess the Disciples (now Apostles) learned their lesson, because when they picked out seven deacons to mess with the mess, not one of them had a Jewish name! [read Acts 6:1-6]

What do we know about these guys? They were all Jews, or in one case a convert, because the Gospel was still only preached to Jews. Two chapters later, they began to take in Samaritans, mixed-race people descended partly from the foreigners that Sennacharib brought in to replace the Jews he carried off into captivity and oblivion, and partly from the poorest of the poor Jews that Sennacharib didn't bother to carry off. The church didn't have any Gentiles until after Peter's visit to Cornelius in chapter 10.

Stephen -- his name is the Greek word for a laurel wreath, the ancient equivalent to the modern blue ribbon or gold medal you get for winning at the athletic contest -- he gets a whole chapter. Philip -- his name is Greek for "horse-lover" -- gets less than a half-chapter, but later we are told he had four daughters who prophesied, and Paul stayed in their home on his final rip to Jerusalem. The other five? This verse alone is all we know about them, mostly that they did not have Jewish names, but rather Greek or Latin or some other foreign language.

Stephen is first in the list, and the most remarkable, so today we will think about Steve. The first thing Luke tells us about him is that he was "full of faith and the Holy Spirit." In the next chapter, Steve gives a very long sermon, some 50 verses, full of precise details from Scripture, with no notes or iPad or pocket Bible to read from, all from memory. That's very remarkable. This guy knew his Bible. He's probably Jewish and sincere in his faith, so he picked up on the Messiah very quickly, but his family had pretty much abandonned their Jewish roots, and spoke Greek in the home, stuff like that. Sort of like Jews in America -- not New York, but rather LA or Portland -- they speak English in their homes and give their kids names from American tradition, not Bible names like the devout Jews in New York.

Anyway, we pick up the story in verse 8, where Steve got the local Jewish leadership all riled up at him [read Acts 6:8-7:3]

This is beginning of a big long sermon, with lots of historical details (and a few left out, so you know he was't reading it, like he didn't remember the price Abe paid for Sarah's tomb and he even got the location wrong (he said Shechem, but it was really farther south in Hebron), no big deal, he just remembered it wrong. Isaac bought some property in Shechem, but he too was buried in Hebron. The cave in Hebron cost Abe 400 shekels, I remembered that, but I did not remember the s./100 Jacob paid for the property in Shechem. But I've been reading it more years than Stephen.

Skipping over some of the historical details, let's pick it up again in verse 37 [read 7:37, then 7:44-8:3]

So what can we learn from this? For one thing, God accepted Stephen into Heaven, and didn't let a little thing like historical details remembered wrong interfere. Now that my memory is turning to mush, that's mildly comforting. It's not the kind of thing most of us know enough Bible to even notice. I had to look it up. The most important thing is to keep the most important thing most important: Jesus Christ is LORD over all, and he is seated -- no, Stephen saw him standing -- at the right hand of the Father. He's not leisurely sitting there for some entertainment, he's on his feet ready to act on our behalf. Sure, getting hit with big rocks is not a pleasant idea, but the human pain system shuts down in those circumstances. Stephen went home, quickly and without much trouble. Saul of Tarsus, standing there watching, had a lot more to endure before his time was up. Our problems today are small stuff.

Praising God in Our Music

I've been thinking about music this week. There are Psalms about music (I'll get to some of them in a bit) but none of them in my readings this week. Music touches our soul, it's an expression of our inner feelings, and there's a lot about it in the Bible, some good, some not-so-good: we are fallen creatures, and when we go bad, our music reflects what's in our soul.

Mostly we are selfish by nature, and the musicians -- even the church musicians -- cater to our preferences (that's how they make their living, writing and selling music that people want to buy). There was this movie about a song writer with a lot of inner turmoil -- inner turmoil happens when  I am dissatisfied with what a wise and loving God has put in my life. He resolved his problem and wrote a song from it, but it was all about himself, in 285 words, 49 of them I/me/my, compared to 19 you/your/Jesus. It was a best-seller.

When we go to church, our focus should be on God. The best hymns praise God.

Take Psalm 150, it's mostly about music. In 76 words (oNIV) all 13 pronouns refer to God (five more words), nothing about me at all. The next most common word is some kind of musical instrument, 8 of them, plus one "dancing" and three about what musical instruments do. The last five Psalms all end with "Hallelujah!" (Praise the LORD). Psalm 33 also starts with music:

Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him. Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to him a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy. -- Ps.33:1-3

Besides these, another 19 Psalms (25 total) end or begin with praising God. It's all about God. Some Psalms are about inner turmoil or imprecating our enemies, but even they mostly end up praising God.

Near the end of the Bible, Revelation 19 has three songs that begin with "Hallelujah" where God's people praise Him, a total of 83 words, 7 pronouns refer to God or "the Bride" (Jesus, six nouns), 13 words referring directly to God, and only three first-person pronouns all plural, two "our" in front of God, and one "us" in "let us rejoice." [Read Rev.19:1-3,6-8]

There are other songs in the Bible, and a lot of poetry that could be sung but isn't, but the first actual song is the Song of Moses in Exodus 15:

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD:

I will sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea. The LORD is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation. He is my God, and I will praise him, my father's God, and I will exalt him. -- Ex.15:1,2

It goes on like that for 18 verses, 37 pronouns and four nouns referring to God, and only nine I/my about Moses himself, mostly saying he is singing about his God.
Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing. Miriam sang to them: "Sing to the LORD, for he is highly exalted. The horse and its rider he has hurled into the sea." -- Ex.15:20,21

I'm going to read Psalm 150 in a minute, but I want to start at the other end of the Psalms, a Psalm that does not have any Hallelujah, it's about two kinds of person, good and bad, and yet the focus is still on God [read Psalm 1]

Did you catch that? The good guy, "his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night... Whatever he does prospers." When we focus on God, we ourselves do well, but the focus is on God, not what we are doing.

[Read Psalm 150]



My meditation today is from the Psalm-- I mean from Hebrews... and the Gospels and Acts... and Genesis. I think Psalm 110 is probably the most quoted Psalm in the whole Bible -- that is, quoted in (some other part of) the Bible, not necessarily the verse or Psalm most quoted outside (that would be Psalm 23) -- and Ps.110:1 is the second-most quoted single verse, after the Golden Rule.

But let's start where it all started, in Genesis. Abram's herdsmen were fighting with his nephew Lot's herdsmen over grazing ground (there isn't much pasture in that part of the world), so Abram gave Lot a choice: "Pick a place, a direction, and I'll go the other way." Lot went east towards the lush lowland Five Cities of the Plain (we know about Sedom and Ghomorrah; there were also Admah, Tseboiim and Bela' (also known as Tso'ar) and Abram went west and settled in the hills between Hebron and Jerusalem. So these four kings from farther east and north decided to go to war -- I was going to say against the rich and lazy people in the Five Cities of the Plain, but it's more complicated. Anyway the four kings won and carried off the richest people with their plunder, including Lot. Abram heard of it, so he marshalled his own army (battalion?) of 318 men and took off after them. Abram is the Good Guy, so of course he won and brought everything back. We pick up the story in Gen.14:17...

After Abram returned from defeating Kedorlaomer and the kings allied with him, the king of Sodom came out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh. Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth. And blessed be God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything. -- Gen.14:17-20
And that's all we know about Melchizedek. Everybody else builds on what we know from these three verses. He was a priest of God Most High, and he brought out a Communion meal (bread and wine), and he offered (ex post facto) the Blessing of God over Abram's battle victory. And Abram gave him a priestly gift, the tithe of the plunder he brought back. This is a religion thing.

And David, also king over Shalem but a thousand years later, sang a poem about it, looking forward to another King over Shalem another thousand years later [read Ps.110]

This is clearly a Messianic Psalm. "YHWH [the personal holy name of God] says to my LORD [the coming Messiah], 'Sit here in Heaven at the Right Hand of God while I demolish all your (and My) enemies.'"

Three Gospels tell about the Jewish leaders trying to bamboozle Jesus with hard questions, and he foils them, then comes back with his own trick question. Now you need to understand that in Jewish thinking, no son is ever greater than his father (physical or metaphorical), so this Psalm is already a puzzle. If the coming Messiah is the Son of David, how can he be greater than David? [read Matt.22:41-45]

This blew them away. They had no answer. Even more, they realized that Jesus was totally their superior in all matters theological. No more Hard Questions. Peter picks up this same theme a couple months later in his Pentecost sermon [read Acts 2:14, 16-17, 25-36]

Now we come to that most difficult of the New Testament epistles, the letter to the Hebrews, where the inspired Author builds a different sermon on this same Psalm. [read Heb.6:19-7:10]

He goes on to suggest that Melchizedek is a different kind of priest than the Levitical (Temple) priests, and therefore better. Even though the Temple is gone, Jesus is "priest forever."

And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him: "The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: 'You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.'" Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantee of a better covenant. -- Heb.7:20-22,16
This is now our High Priest, giving us entrance into the very Throne of God.

All Scripture

I wouldn't call it "my favorite" verse -- I can't seem to remember accurately the list of things Scripture is good for -- but 2Tim.3:16 is certainly very important, perhaps the most important, in my life:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
When the Apostle Paul wrote that, the "Scripture" he was referring to was mostly what we now call "the Old Testament." But Peter, the first of the original Twelve Disciples, under the authority of Jesus Christ Himself, extended that to include Paul's letters:
Bear in mind that our Lord's patience means salvation, just as our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
Did you catch that? All of Paul's letters to the Church, Peter makes them equal to "the other Scriptures" meaning the Old Testament, and probably also by extension, the Gospels and the rest of the canonical New Testament.

So in my personal Bible reading, I give equal time to the Old Testament Scriptures as to the New. Many people do that in a "read the whole Bible through in a year" program, but I take it a little slower.

So today my meditation is on Psalm 105, which came up this week in my daily readings. It's a little longer than some of them, and it's mostly about Israel getting (into and) out of Egypt, so what's in it for us in our situation? [read it]

Verse 3 has been done into a contemporary song, "Let the heart of them rejoice that seek the Lord..." Everybody who honestly looks for God can rejoice that He may be found, even if the situation looks bleak at the moment, because God is Good. Verse 5: "Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, and the judgments he pronounced." The rest of the Psalm is about what we can remember about what God did for Israel in Egypt. Verse 7: "He is the LORD our God; his judgments are in all the earth." Not only in Egypt more than 3000 years ago, but also here and now when Bad Things Happen:

He remembers his covenant forever, the word he commanded, for a thousand generations, the covenant he made with Abraham, the oath he swore to Isaac. He confirmed it to Jacob as a decree, to Israel as an everlasting covenant: "To you I will give the land of Canaan as the portion you will inherit." When they were but few in number, few indeed, and strangers in it, they wandered from nation to nation, from one kingdom to another. He allowed no one to oppress them; for their sake he rebuked kings: "Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm." He called down famine on the land and destroyed all their supplies of food; and he sent a man before them -- Joseph, sold as a slave. They bruised his feet with shackles, his neck was put in irons, till what he foretold came to pass, till the word of the LORD proved him true. -- Ps.105:8-19 (oNIV)
Sure, there were difficulties along the way -- people were dying (of starvation back then, we get an incurable virus) -- Bad Things Happen, but God is Good:
The king sent and released him, the ruler of peoples set him free. He made him master of his household, ruler over all he possessed, to instruct his princes as he pleased and teach his elders wisdom. Then Israel entered Egypt... The LORD made his people very fruitful... -- Ps.105:20-24
Then more Bad Things Happened, the Egyptians became afraid of their guests -- rightly so, because the Egyptians worshipped idols, but only God is Creator over all. You know the story of Moses and the Plagues of Egypt. God is Good, but not necessarily the way Bad People want it.

Then for a while it looked like they had jumped out of the frying pan into the fire. There was food in Egypt, but nothing to eat or drink out in the desert. In 1984 I rode a bus from Cairo to Israel, and there's nothing but sand out there. But God is Good, He can rain food out of Heaven, and water can gush out of a dry rock at His command. They all died out there, but it was old age and boredom, not starvation. They could have gone into the Land of Promise, if they wanted to. That's not God's fault.

The Psalm ends on this joyful note:

He remembered his holy promise given to his servant Abraham. He brought out his people with rejoicing, his chosen ones with shouts of joy; he gave them the lands of the nations, and they fell heir to what others had toiled for -- that they might keep his precepts and observe his laws. Hallelujah. -- Ps.105:42-45

The particulars in this Psalm are particular to Israel and Egypt, but the principles are how God relates to His people in all time. That includes us here today. Hallelujah.

Every Knee Will Bow

I'm reading in Isaiah, and this week I was in chapter 45, which reminded me of that fabulous Christological verse in Philippians...

When I was in grad school, my major professor Frank ran a Bible study in his home on Friday evenings. His students were invited (but only three of us came with any regularity), and sometimes other people came. Dinner was provided -- I guess that was an incentive for starving students, but also your major professor can make or break your academic chances, so it was always a good idea to be on his good side.

Several events impressed on my mind from those studies. In one of them, this German student had been coming each week, and each week he would raise some logical objection -- and we'd answer it. Then he came with another the next week. At one point I turned to face him and asked, "If we answer this question, will you become a Christian." He hesitated ever so slightly, then said, "No." I asked "Why not?" and he replied, "I have this relationship." Everybody in the room knew he meant that he was sexually involved with a girl, and I think he actually said he knew he would have to give it up. Which is true. The other Christians there started insisting that no, that would not be necessary, but he knew better. He was more honest than they were, and that might have put him off more than the loss of the sex. I think he stopped coming after that.

On another occasion, Frank's wife was dandying their newborn baby girl on her lap or bosom (or both, I don't recall) and I noticed on the baby's finger a tiny gold ring, and wondered out loud if she (the mother) wasn't afraid the kid would suck her fingers (babies do that) and swallow the ring. Nowdays there are prominent labels on stuff like that "Warning: Choking hazard, not for children under 3," but there were no such laws back in 1980. Nobody said anything, but the next schoolday Frank called me into his office at the university and told me in no uncertain words, "If you EVER insult my wife in my home again, I will ask you to leave immediately." At least he told me; most people do not have the integrity to tell me what's wrong. I thought about it hard over that week, and decided that I am too honest to withhold comments (and possible warnings) from situations like that, and I did not want to be embarrassed as he promised, so I took preventative action and never went back. After a lot more thought, I decided that if I never think negative thoughts about people, I cannot speak negative words to them, and my sister soon decided that I was a nicer person than before, and I became her best friend until the day she died. I don't know if it was related, but my income doubled that year and every year after, until I finished grad school. The problem is, you cannot get useful work done in a group setting that way. People need to be told, "No, do it this way." Maybe there is a way to achieve some balance, but I am hopeless at finding it. I bungled it with my other sister's grandson, and she "Frank"ed me. It is what it is.

One evening our host Frank had invited some Jehovah's Witnesses, so instead of our regular verse-by-verse study of Colossians, we bounced around looking at the usual verses Christians aim against JWs. They have their own translation of the Bible, in which they have substituted the goofy English word "Jehovah" for the Greek word 'kyrios' in every quote or allusion to the Old Testament text where the original Hebrew text has 'YHWH' (the holy Name of God) -- generally pronounced in Jewish readings as 'Adonay' (meaning "Lord") so they are not pronouncing and possibly profaning the Holy Name of God, and usually rendered in the English translations of the Old Testament as "LORD" (all caps) -- except Philippians 2:10, which in context is almost a direct quote of Isaiah 45:23. Let's back up to verse 18 in Isaiah for context:

For this is what the LORD [that's Hebrew YHWH, "Jehovah" in the JW translation] says -- he who created the heavens, he is God; he who fashioned and made the earth, he founded it; he did not create it to be empty, but formed it to be inhabited-- he says: "I am the LORD [YHWH, "Jehovah"], and there is no other. I have not spoken in secret, from somewhere in a land of darkness; I have not said to Jacob's descendants, 'Seek me in vain.' I, the LORD, speak the truth; I declare what is right. "Gather together and come; assemble, you fugitives from the nations. Ignorant are those who carry about idols of wood, who pray to gods that cannot save. Declare what is to be, present it -- let them take counsel together. Who foretold this long ago, who declared it from the distant past? Was it not I, the LORD? And there is no God apart from me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none but me. "Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, 'In the LORD alone are righteousness and strength.'" -- Isa.45:18-24 oNIV
Five times in seven verses, God refers to Himself as YHWH -- "Jehovah" is actually a nonsense word made up from the consonants of the Holy Name (our best guess is that it was originally pronounced "Yahweh") combined with the vowels of 'Adonay' so that the Jewish readers would remember to pronounce it 'Adonay' and not as originally written. That is God's personal and Holy Name, the Name revealed to Moses in the Burning Bush.

Let's see what the Apostle Paul -- born and trained as a Jewish Rabbi -- did with it [read Php.2:5-11]...

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is LORD [YHWH, "Jehovah"] -- Php.2:9-11

Paul gave Jesus the very Name of God. The Jehovah's Witnesses got that one wrong. Don't argue with them John 1:1, you will lose. If you only know interlinear Greek, it looks like the Greek text there calls Jesus "a god," and you need to be a serious Greek scholar to know otherwise. The same level of Greek sophistication and you would know that Heb.11:11 is about Abraham's faith, not Sarah's (the NIV got it right, but the KJV is too literalistic and misleading).

We are Trinitarians, because Scripture teaches -- not all in one place, but clearly enough -- that God exists in three eternal Persons. This is part of that package.

The Prayer of Moses

I read through the Psalms and Proverbs, one chapter each day, 150 Psalms is five months of 30 days each, then Proverbs is 31 chapters on each of January and July (both 31 days), total six months. The extra days on the months with 31 days, I subdivide Psalm 119 (the long one) and distribute it into the 31st days.

I've been doing this in Hebrew for several years now -- well trying to: Hebrew poetry, each verse says something, then says it again using different words. The trouble is, all those different words do not get used all the time, they only show up in poetry (Psalms, Proverbs, some of the Prophets), so I don't remember what they mean, and I need to keep looking them up -- ah, down: I'm reading this in the Interlinear, with the English translation under the Hebrew, and I cover up the English, except when I don't know the word (which is all the time in the Psalms) and also when I need to verify that I remembered correctly (sometimes I don't, blame the hair color), so I slide the card away to look down at the English.

Anyway, so the reading for April 30 is Psalm 90, "The Prayer of Moses, the Man of God." It's the only Psalm naming Moses as its author, and it's one of my favorites, I don't know why, there are several memorable verses in it, especially at my age. Like verse 10 (verse 11 in the Hebrew, which makes the title a separate verse and renumbers the rest) -- this is the old (1978) NIV..

The length of our days is seventy [that would be "threescore and ten" in the King's English, but the Hebrew word is 'sheba`im' = "seventy"] seventy years -- or eighty, if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away.
I already passed my proverbial "threescore and ten" and am already closer to "fourscore" (80) and I can feel the strength ebbing -- well, a little bit renewed the last couple months, because I feel energized for the Work God gave me to do -- but especially last month I experienced the "trouble and sorrow" part, which I don't usually get much of. I read about (and pray for) the persecuted people in "10/40" countries, where it's the atheists and Muslims doing the persecuting; here in the USA it's the so-called "Christians" doing it. Persecution is what you do to people who have the Truth and you do not, so you are afraid of them. They're not going to hurt you, it's your own cupidity and wickedness that hurts you when the bright light of Truth shines on it.

When I'm reading in Hebrew, it goes a lot slower than reading in English, so I have time to notice more. This week I was surprised to see so many words meaning "anger" referring to the Wrath of God. Actually there are only five in three verses in English, but it seemed like a lot more in Hebrew, one each before and after the verse I just read.

Then he's done with the wrath and moves on to the next verse I remember, verse 12 in my (oNIV) English here:

Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.
Why is it we so quickly skip over the verses about God's anger? Maybe because they suggest that we could use some improvement? We could. My late sister told me several times, "If you don't like doing The Right Thing here and now, what makes you think you will like it any better in Heaven?" She didn't say, but I figured out all by myself, that nobody can be allowed to do Bad Things in Heaven, because the nature of sin is that innocent people get hurt, and if that happened in Heaven, then it wouldn't be Heaven for the other people, would it? So I try to be Good. It makes people mad at me, but it's better than God being mad at me. 

Oh wait, he's not quite done with the anger. The next verse,

Relent, O LORD! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants.
"Relent" means "let up with the anger thing." So Moses gives us an example of what he is praying for and lets up with the anger thing. Like many of the Psalms of David, which call down God's wrath on his enemies but always end on a positive note of praise, Moses also ends positive... [read the whole chapter]

I would like the work of my hands established. 

Every Good Gift

My friend is both a Christian and a technologist, and sometimes it feels like he helps me more than I help him in both arenas. He doesn't merge the topics very often, but this last Friday it seemed that there was an unintended linkage.

On the Christian side, he offered John 16:2 (and 3) as particularly relevant to my situation today. Which it is.

On the technical side, you know that I've been mentoring this computer day camp in Portland each summer for the past three years. Last year it didn't go as well as we had hoped (for a variety of reasons) so I suggested we turn a corner and instead of an elite "Advanced" autonomous car workshop, we go the other direction and put together an entry program to teach kids -- particularly disadvantaged kids in school districts with no computer science program -- to give them an opportunity to be exposed to the fun of controlling the computer. The director, who had his own reasons for disappointment in the program last year, agreed and after he saw how the presentation was developing, has become very enthusiastic. He now thinks this could change the way computer technology is taught to students in the whole country. It is both exciting and not a little scary. My friend has been helping me with the server side (technology) support as I work on this.

This latest email from him expressed concern for protecting the software I'm developing from theft. It seems somebody had developed a popular YouTube video that was stolen by a larger company and claimed as their own, and he (not the other company) got the take-down notice. Now that I think about it, he might have a point. But unlike video, software has a substantial (written) development history making it much easier to prove ownership. So at first I dismissed his concern.

Except the juxtaposition of the two topics in that one email helped me to realize how similar they are from an economic perspective. As I sometimes say, "Same only different." The same economic equations apply, but with different coefficients, so the outcome is different.

It's a case of supply and demand. In the one case I was the consumer, and the supply was being limited below the needs of the consumers (in this case, me). In the other case I'm the producer and the supply is infinite, because I explicitly depend on and credit God for the anti-entropic effects of software development, and God is infinite. It's an educational tool, and part of its educational value is being open so the students can learn from looking at the code. Besides, there's lots more where that came from. It's not like the unbelievers -- the liars and thieves -- who don't know where it came from, and are afraid the supply is limited. The other situation, I didn't realize it until my friend's email put the two together, it can and should be the same. I am now again the producer, and there's more where that came from, because God is infinite. The liars and thieves don't know where it came from, and they are afraid the supply is limited. "Leave them," Jesus said, "they are blind guides. If a blind man leads a blind man, both will fall into a pit" [Matt.15:14].

So my study today will take a look at how God gives us so much Good, there is nothing to worry about, beginning with the keynote text in James 1:16-27... [read it]

Gen.1:31, "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning, the sixth day.

I love the Gideon story, which is particularly relevant to today's topic. Israel has strayed from the God who brought them out of bondage to Egypt with many and great miracles, so the Midianites are oppressing them and stealing their crops. God sends an angel to Gideon where he is threshing his wheat in a hole in the ground to hide from the Midianites, and says "The LORD is with you, mighty warrior." But first things first: Gideon is tasked to tear down the altar to Ba'al and build an altar to the LORD in its place. And when the people of the town came to "kill the infidel" (that would be Gideon) his father shows great insight, "Are you going to plead Baal's cause? ... If Baal really is a god, he can defend himself when someone breaks down his altar" [Judges 6:31]. The Midianites (and their successors, the Muslims) do not have a God able to fight his own battles, they must do it for him. But that's another story. Gideon collected 32,000 Israeli soldiers to go into battle against 120,000 Midianites -- that's about the right odds for modern Israel, one joke had Moshe Dayan saying "It helps if you're fighting Arabs" -- and God said "Too many." Gideon eventually pared that down to 300, so that God could do it alone, while those 300 just stood around and watched.

Matt.5:44,45,  "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." God is Good, even when we are not.

Col.1:15-17, Scientists used to call this "the Colossian Principal" back when they knew about God. [read it]

There is more [frex Eph.2:10, Eph.4:8=Ps.68:18, Ecc.2:24], but this is getting a little long, so one final verse,

James 1:5, "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him." Entropy is the scientific principle that things get worse, not better. Add millions of years, and things still get worse, not better, it's physics. If anything new comes along, it came from outside the system, from God. The believers and unbelievers alike benefit from God's generosity, but we get to ask for more. If we want it.

God is Good. And with God's help, we also can be Good. If we want it.

Doubting Thomas

The Sunday After Easter

All the children of my parents were given Biblical names. I was told that I was named after my mother's brother and my father's uncle, but my late sister Elizabeth, there were no near relatives named Elizabeth that I ever knew of. She was born about the time of England's Crown Princess Elizabeth's coming out, and quite a number of baby girls were named after her that year. It was still a Biblical name. My little sister Becky, her given name is Rebecca, the name of the wife of Isaac. Daniel the youngest, who died in infancy, another Biblical name.

Be careful what you name your child, because they will think of their name as reflecting Who They Are. There is only one Thomas in the whole Bible, and we usually attach a descriptive word in front of his name. Do you know what that is? ... Right. Doubting Thomas, Thomas the Doubter. As far as I know, my Uncle Tom went to his grave an atheist.

It affected me too, but I spent a lot of my formative years in social isolation with only my Christian parents to provide direction, and when I began to question my faith, I got good answers from an Apologetics professor at seminary. The Christian faith is intellectually credible. Most kids growing up in American churches never hear that, and the American church is far weaker for it.

Anyway, I like to think of the Sunday after Easter as my day, the day the Apostle Thomas found his faith. Not the day when he declared his doubt -- that was late Easter Sunday -- but one week later (today) when he declared his faith. Today is my day. The Catholic Church, which assigns every "saint" a special feast day, does not agree, they gave him December 21 (I looked). The Syrian Catholic church gave him July 3, and the Greek Orthodox church October 6. Whatever. They are wrong, his Sunday is today.

So today we will look at who Thomas was in Scripture. There's not a lot, far less than Peter and John, still less than Judas Iscariot the Betrayer, but more than Bartholomew and Thaddeus -- did you ever hear of them? Nobody has, but they were Disciples too, listed with the Twelve, but that's all. Judas got his name in 22 verses, three listing him as a Disciple in the three Gospels that listed the Twelve, two verses in John with reference to his carrying the Disciples' bag of money, and all the rest about the Betrayal. Take out the Betrayal stuff, and Thomas' eight verses (not counting the listings of the Twelve, including one partial list in John 21:2 where Peter went fishing after the Resurrection and Thomas joined some of the Disciples who went with him) don't seem so small.

Let's look first at two verses you don't hear about, also in John's Gospel (which tells us everything we know about him other than his listing as a Disciple). John 11, Jesus is with his Disciples on the far side of the Jordan, doing Jesus things, but nothing worth special mention, and we pick it up in verse 1 [read it]...

There, in verse 16 is Thomas' contribution, and it is totally sarcastic and pessimistic and morbid. He completely missed the point of verses 9-10, where Jesus had just told them (somewhat obscurely) that when you are doing God's work in God's way, you are immortal, and when that work is over, nothing can keep you out of Heaven.

Three chapters later, Jesus and his Disciples are in the Upper Room, they finished the Last Supper, and Judas has gone out to make good on his promise to the chief priests to betray Jesus, and Jesus is giving his final instructions to the Disciples [reading from 14:1-7].

Thomas is confused -- probably they all are -- but he blurts out, "We don't have a clue what's going on, or where you are going, let alone how we are supposed to follow you there!" And Jesus gives an answer that we now understand to be very Spiritual and metaphorical: "I am the Way, and the Truth, and the Life. Nobody comes to the Father except through me." The Disciples still didn't get it, but that's another story, another Disciple. That's ten days ago, on Maunday Thursday. Fast-forward six chapters and three days, and...

We come to Easter, John 20:19-29 where Thomas had his OMG moment -- you know what the letters "OMG" stand for? It comes from today's text -- [read it].

We, you and I here today, did not see the Risen Lord with our eyes, we did not stick our finger in the holes in his body, but we believe anyway. That is God's promise to us through Thomas, the no-longer Doubter. It is the Gospel -- that's "Good News" in Greek -- for us today.

Easter Thoughts

The Lord is Risen! --> He is Risen Indeed!

I was in Jerusalem on Easter 1984. I don't remember much about it, but Bill Bright preached a sunrise service at the Garden Tomb. The guy in this picture was the son of a couple in the church where my father spent the last years of his life. He was a self-appointed missionary to the Jews in Israel, and this may be the last picture ever taken of him, a few days before Easter. He was supposed to meet me later in the city, but never showed up. His body was found a couple weeks later in a ditch in Egypt. He got the "Prophet's Reward" (an early trip to Heaven).

Anyway, when I visited the Garden Tomb before Easter, I took this picture. You can see him leaning over the trough where the stone could roll away from the door. Part of the wall got knocked out and later replaced with stone bricks, and a window added, which you see high on the right.  The entrance is too low to go in without bending over, as reported in John's Gospel. Inside there is nothing straight ahead or on the left, but on the right (as reported in Mark) is a raised shelf long enough for a single body. I think they had a folded napkin there when I looked. The tomb is archeologically dated to the First Century, and around the corner to the right is a cliff with caves in it that make it look like a skull.

The Resurrection, which we celebrate today (and every Sunday) is the foundation of our religion. Without the empty tomb, there is no Christianity. Reading 1Cor.15:1-7, 12-23.

Charles Colson, President Nixon's "hatchet man," often said,

There were only eight or ten of us in the inner circle around the President who really knew what was going on. All we had to do was stonewall for a couple of months and the Watergate Scandal would be over. We had all the power and prestige of the Presidency at our fingertips. And if the truth broke there would be embarrassment and perhaps a prison sentence. There was no grave danger. Our lives were not threatened, but we could not hold the conspiracy together for more than two weeks. We could not contain the lie. Once prosecution was possible the natural instincts of self-preservation was so overwhelming that the conspirators one by one deserted their leaders. They caved in and they stood in line at the prosecutor's office to escape jail.
I know that the disciples could not perpetuate a lie like the resurrection, because it was not just their reputations that were at stake. Their lives were in danger. They had no clout. They had nothing to gain by the lie and yet every one of them stood fast in the conviction that Jesus is alive. Take it from one who saw firsthand how vulnerable a cover-up is: Nothing less than a witness as awesome as the resurrected Christ could have caused those men to maintain to their dying whispers that Jesus is alive and he is Lord!
The Lord is Risen!


Palm Sunday Thoughts

10 (12?) palm trees outside. Only John 12:13 mentions the palm branches.

"Hosanna" is Hebrew for "Save us now," which is what the people said in the road as Jesus their Messiah came by on a donkey in fulfillment of the Prophecy. It's sort of what David was saying in his Psalm, but with a positive spin. Jesus was there to save them. Jesus is still here to save us. I first heard this sermon in Jerusalem the day before Palm Sunday, where the preacher pointed out that the people were quoting from Psalm 118:25,26. His text was from Luke, who quotes the people saying

"Blessed is the king who comes in the name of the LORD!" -- Luke 19:38
but the original Hebrew he quoted -- (sounds like) "Barook habah v'shame adonay" -- "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD" left out, or rather the people added, the word "king" ("hamelek" in Hebrew, inserted after the first word). The same story is in all four Gospels, but only Luke gave us the people's words instead of quoting the Old Testament text directly. Mark added a line not in the other Gospels (and not in the Psalm they were quoting)
"Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!" -- Mark 11:10
Mark and Luke were writing to Gentiles, so they realized that we need to be reminded what the good Jews on that road in the first century already knew: This is a Messianic Psalm, and the One Who Comes in the Name of the LORD is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, and we all look to Him for salvation. Hosanna!

Except Luke left out the Hosanna, it's a Hebrew word that would have been misunderstood -- and was misunderstood in later years -- by Gentiles who know no Hebrew: most people today think it's a shout of praise, not a request for salvation.

See also Mt.21