Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 – Longing for the Lord

The Hand of God by Korean artist Yongsung Kim

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
    display your radiant glory
    to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
    Come to rescue us!

Turn us again to yourself, O God.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved.
O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies,
    how long will you be angry with our prayers?
You have fed us with sorrow
    and made us drink tears by the bucketful.
You have made us the scorn of neighboring nations.
    Our enemies treat us as a joke.

Turn us again to yourself, O God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved….

Strengthen the man you love,
    the son of your choice.
Then we will never abandon you again.
    Revive us so we can call on your name once more.

Turn us again to yourself, O Lord God of Heaven’s Armies.
    Make your face shine down upon us.
    Only then will we be saved. (NLT)

Let us continually keep in mind that the psalms are quite Jewish. Yes, I often refer to the psalms as the Church’s Prayer Book and unabashedly see them through Christian eyes. Yet, the psalter, at its core, are prayers and songs of the Jewish experience.

The deep longings and yearnings of the Jewish people within a constant stream of hardship, difficulty, and persecution give voice to all humanity. In other words, the bearing of the Jewish soul as the people of God is the crying out on behalf of us all.

The Jews know a thing or two about lament. Today’s psalm is a lament, a prayer, longing for God to come and restore Israel, to no longer look upon them with anger.  The people knew in their exposed vulnerability that they needed God.  It is the Lord who would come to save and bring a revitalized nation.

Amid awful circumstances and emotional pain, it can be hard to focus with concentrated prayer. The Jews also help us here because they crafted and arranged the psalms in such a way as to enable and foster recall and memory. So, where many of us Gentiles can be rather more like pagans babbling on in our distress, the Jewish psalms offer us the ability of short, succinct, and staccato prayers. Early Christians called them “breath prayers.” 

Throughout the day we can utter “Stir up your power, O God; come to save us.”  The intention of saying it repeatedly in a day is not to get God’s attention because we already have it. No, the purpose is to connect us with Divine resources for deliverance. The purpose is to be in constant touch and continual communion with the One who can ultimately restore, renew, revitalize, and reform the world with justice and righteousness.  It is to be longing for the flourishing of the earth and its inhabitants again, and to enjoy walking with God in the garden of fellowship, peace, and goodwill. It is to be restored.

Restoration is a beautiful thing. I rarely watch makeover shows on television, but if I am channel surfing and catch an old house which seems best suited for the wrecking ball getting restored to its original charm and beauty, I am hooked.  We as people seem to resonate deeply with things being repaired and rejuvenated to looking brand new again.

Again, the Jewish people go before us, through the psalms, with the vision to see the old become new. Whereas some may get lost in the drab discouragement of a gray and dreary environment, forgetting the original shine of how things once were, Asaph, the consummate Jewish song leader, guided the people in remembering how God’s people enjoyed the covenant and the promises of God.  But over time the relationship was not maintained and cared for; the people gradually slid into disrepair.  Centuries of neglect brought a situation where it seemed the only recourse was to do away with the people and begin again.

I certainly do not want to make God angry. I would much rather learn my lesson from the Jewish experience throughout the millennia and enjoy Divine favor. I would also like this old fallen world to be restored to her original beauty. So, we must come to God – not once – but again and again, over, and over. Like the hammer of perseverance, pounding nail after nail, so we must offer our prayers morning, noon, and night, day after day, crying out to God with the great cry of the Jewish people:  “Restore us, O God; let your face shine, that we may be saved!”

Merciful God of all nations bring restoration to our lives, our families, our faith communities, our workplaces, our human institutions, our neighborhoods, and our shared world. Send your Holy Spirit so that we might enjoy seasons of blessing again.  Restore, renew, revive, and rejuvenate our disordered love.  May your face shine upon us once again through the mighty name of Jesus.  Amen.

Isaiah 40:1-11 – Comfort for the Weary

The Shepherd by Indian artist P. Solomon Raj (1921-2019)

Comfort, comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and proclaim to her
that her hard service has been completed,
    that her sin has been paid for,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
    the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
    a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be raised up,
    every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
    the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out.”
    And I said, “What shall I cry?”

“All people are like grass,
    and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    because the breath of the Lord blows on them.
    Surely the people are grass.
The grass withers and the flowers fall,
    but the word of our God endures forever.”

You who bring good news to Zion,
    go up on a high mountain.
You who bring good news to Jerusalem,
    lift up your voice with a shout,
lift it up, do not be afraid;
    say to the towns of Judah,
    “Here is your God!”
See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power,
    and he rules with a mighty arm.
See, his reward is with him,
    and his recompense accompanies him.
He tends his flock like a shepherd:
    He gathers the lambs in his arms
and carries them close to his heart;
    he gently leads those that have young. (NIV)

As we journey through the Christian Year, we have spent the past twenty-five weeks in the longest season on the Church Calendar: ordinary or proper time. It is only appropriate that the dog days of summer and the bulk of autumn should be within this time.

Most of the Christian’s life is lived in the mundane yet necessary work of mission. Small and seemingly obscure acts of kindness, careful yet often discreet acts of love, and graciously chosen words of encouragement which may not be noticed by many are what mostly characterize the daily pilgrimage of faith.

I am sure the ancient Jewish people felt that, for an awfully long time, they were plodding along as faithfully as they could with often little to show for it. Yet, they knew it would not always be this way. God’s people anticipated that a time was coming when their pedantic service would see the light of day.

I am sure we, too, have times when it feels as if our prayers are only bouncing off the ceiling. In such times, words of comfort and assurance come as a breath of fresh air. When we least expect it, God speaks to us tenderly and with compassion. The Lord steps into our weariness and exhausting work and says, “Enough!”

Whereas our walk with God may often feel like trudging up and down hills, sloshing through muddy valleys, and traversing hard terrain, the proclamation of comfort assures us that it will not always be this way. The way to God will be made level so that we can connect with the Lord post haste.

No matter how much our worldly circumstances break us down, even shattering our expectations and dreams, we carry with us an unflagging vision of wholeness, integrity, and hope. God is our true home, our polestar, our ultimate destiny. Feeling displaced, out of sorts, or like we just do not belong are signs that we long for our place with God.

And when we find our home with God, all might be going to hell around us, yet we are buttressed and sustained by living divine words. For those with eyes to see, ears to hear, and hearts attuned to grace, there is John the Baptist, smoothing the highway to our Lord – preparing the way to Jesus. (Mark 1:1-4)

God, as both the warrior who powerfully fights our battles, and the shepherd who lovingly tends to our needs, firmly takes the initiative to bring us home, going out of the way to gently pick us up and carry us back to the place we belong.

The good news is that the world is changed by God. The world around us is no longer the way we thought it was or was supposed to be. Despair gives way to confident expectation, and discouragement is slowly replaced by consolation. The long exile is coming to an end. Jesus is coming soon. All will be made right; justice and peace will have the day.

Let your hearts be true and humble, as befits God’s holy reign. For the glory of the Lord is on the earth and will be from everlasting to everlasting.

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to people of goodwill. We praise you; we bless you; we adore you; we give thanks to you for your great glory. Amen.

Joshua 6:1-16, 20 – Seven Times

Now the gates of Jericho were securely barred because of the Israelites. No one went out and no one came in.

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have delivered Jericho into your hands, along with its king and its fighting men. March around the city once with all the armed men. Do this for six days. Have seven priests carry trumpets of rams’ horns in front of the ark. On the seventh day, march around the city seven times, with the priests blowing the trumpets. When you hear them sound a long blast on the trumpets, have the whole army give a loud shout; then the wall of the city will collapse and the army will go up, everyone straight in.”

So, Joshua son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant of the Lord and have seven priests carry trumpets in front of it.” And he ordered the army, “Advance! March around the city, with an armed guard going ahead of the ark of the Lord.”

When Joshua had spoken to the people, the seven priests carrying the seven trumpets before the Lord went forward, blowing their trumpets, and the ark of the Lord’s covenant followed them. The armed guard marched ahead of the priests who blew the trumpets, and the rear guard followed the ark. All this time the trumpets were sounding. But Joshua had commanded the army, “Do not give a war cry, do not raise your voices, do not say a word until the day I tell you to shout. Then shout!” So, he had the ark of the Lord carried around the city, circling it once. Then the army returned to camp and spent the night there.

Joshua got up early the next morning and the priests took up the ark of the Lord. The seven priests carrying the seven trumpets went forward, marching before the ark of the Lord and blowing the trumpets. The armed men went ahead of them and the rear guard followed the ark of the Lord, while the trumpets kept sounding. So, on the second day they marched around the city once and returned to the camp. They did this for six days.

On the seventh day, they got up at daybreak and marched around the city seven times in the same manner, except that on that day they circled the city seven times. The seventh time around, when the priests sounded the trumpet blast, Joshua commanded the army, “Shout! For the Lord has given you the city!…

When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so, everyone charged straight in, and they took the city. (NIV)

Today’s Old Testament lesson is the famous account of the ancient Israelites taking the city of Jericho. The Lord gave the people unusual instructions to march around the city once each day for six days. On the seventh day, they were to proceed around the city seven times and then give a loud shout and the walls would come down. The Israelites followed the command to the letter and, as a result, saw an incredible work of God.

There are two words in this story that are repeated frequently: “seven” and “shout.” Seven priests with seven trumpets march around the city seven times on the seventh day. And the people were to do more than shout on the seventh day – they were to give a great big lung-filled roar together.

The number seven shows up many times in Holy Scripture. Maybe it is God’s favorite number. Whenever we see the number seven, it points to God. For example, the psalmist said:

I will praise you seven times a day because all your regulations are just. (Psalm 119:164, NLT) 

Ancient Israel took this verse literally and seriously by instituting a daily offering every day, seven times a day, of prayer and worship, spacing it out over the course of a twenty-four-hour period. The early church continued the practice, and even today many liturgical traditions still hold to the “Daily Office” which are seven distinct times in the day (and night) of intentionally connecting with God.

In our contemporary religious milieu and fragmented world, methinks we need to re-connect with the number seven. Maybe we would see God do the miraculous if we prayed with the words “seven” and “shout” as our guiding motifs. I wonder what kind of spiritual health would result from committing to intentional times of prayer seven times a day. I am curious if we followed our prayers with a great shout together of confident faith if we would see mighty divine works in ourselves, the church, and the world.

Almighty, ever-living God help us to obey you willingly and promptly. Teach us how to serve you with sincere and upright hearts in every sphere of life through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Joshua 4:1-24 – Remembrance

When the entire nation had finished crossing over the Jordan, the Lord said to Joshua, “Pick twelve men from the people, one man per tribe. Command them, ‘Pick up twelve stones from right here in the middle of the Jordan, where the feet of the priests had been firmly planted. Bring them across with you and put them down in the camp where you are staying tonight.’”

Joshua called for the twelve men he had appointed from the Israelites, one man per tribe. Joshua said to them, “Cross over into the middle of the Jordan, up to the Lord your God’s chest. Each of you, lift a stone on his shoulder to match the number of the tribes of the Israelites. This will be a symbol among you. In the future your children may ask, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you will tell them that the water of the Jordan was cut off before the Lord’s covenant chest. When it crossed over the Jordan, the water of the Jordan was cut off. These stones will be an enduring memorial for the Israelites.”

The Israelites did exactly what Joshua ordered. They lifted twelve stones from the middle of the Jordan, matching the number of the tribes of the Israelites, exactly as the Lord had said to Joshua. They brought them over to the camp and put them down there. Joshua also set up twelve stones in the middle of the Jordan where the feet of the priests had stood while carrying the covenant chest. They are still there today.

Meanwhile, the priests carrying the chest were standing in the middle of the Jordan. They stood there until every command that the Lord had ordered Joshua to tell the people had been carried out. This was exactly what Moses had commanded Joshua. The people crossed over quickly. As soon as all the people had finished crossing, the Lord’s chest crossed over. The priests then moved to the front of the people. The people of Reuben, the people of Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh crossed over, organized for war ahead of the Israelites, exactly as Moses had told them. Approximately forty thousand armed for war crossed over in the Lord’s presence to the plains of Jericho, ready for battle. The Lord made Joshua great in the opinion of all Israel on that day. So, they revered him in the same way that they had revered Moses during all his life.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Command the priests carrying the chest containing the testimony to come up out of the Jordan.”

So, Joshua commanded the priests, “Come up from the Jordan.” The priests carrying the Lord’s covenant chest came up from the middle of the Jordan, and the soles of their feet touched dry ground. At that moment, the water of the Jordan started flowing again. It ran as before, completely over its banks. The people came up out of the Jordan on the tenth day of the first month. They camped at Gilgal on the east border of Jericho.

Joshua set up at Gilgal those twelve stones they had taken from the Jordan. He said to the Israelites, “In the future your children will ask their parents, ‘What about these stones?’ Then you will let your children know: ‘Israel crossed over the Jordan here on dry ground.’ This was because the Lord your God dried up the water of the Jordan before you until you crossed over. This was exactly what the Lord your God did to the Reed Sea. He dried it up before us until we crossed over. This happened so that all the earth’s peoples might know that the Lord’s power is great and that you may always revere the Lord your God.” (CEB)

I like coffee. I like coffee mugs. I like buying a coffee mug from places I visit. Although it drives my wife nuts, the mugs serve as a continual reminder of a certain place or event I have experienced. As we journey with the Israelites in the Old Testament book of Joshua, we experience with them the significant places and events of their taking the Promised Land. God did a miraculous work by causing the Jordan River to congeal so that the Israelites could cross over on dry ground in entering the land.  Once they were across on the other side, God instructed them to take twelve stones, one for each tribe, and pile them up together.

Crossing Over the Jordan River by Yoram Raanan

The purpose of the heap of twelve stones is made clear in the story and had a twofold purpose: to educate future generations inside Israel that God kept the promise to bring them into a land of abundance; and, to educate those outside Israel that God is mighty.

It is important to be tethered to the past and aware of why and how we are here. Yet, there are many families and faith communities in which the children know little about how God worked in previous generations. So, having tangible reminders of God’s past actions serves everyone to remember, and especially enables children to know the past actions of God. Just as people ask me about why I have certain coffee mugs, so having reminders of God’s grace in prominent visible places serves to aid kids and others to ask why those mementos are there.

It is good to have reminders of faith and the faithful people who influenced us around our homes, places of work, and communities so that others may know the redemptive acts of God, that the Lord keeps promises. And it is a whole lot more important than a coffee mug.

Almighty God, we praise and magnify your holy Name for all your servants who have finished their course in faith and patience. May we remember them and their service well. We humbly pray that, at the day of resurrection, we and all who are members of the mystical body of your Son may be set on his right hand, and hear his most joyful voice: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Grant this, O merciful Father, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen