Deuteronomy 31-33, Psalm 63, Luke 21
The gift of endurance
Deuteronomy 31 – 33
We will soon be bidding farewell to Moses, God’s mouthpiece and pacifier, the one who could talk God down from the ledge of destruction, by warning God that his reputation was at stake. The God of the Old Testament is clearly enmeshed in violence. Moses tells us, “The Lord your God himself will cross over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, and you shall dispossess them. (Deut. 31:3)
Moses is now 120 years old. His life has been broken down into three segments of forty years. He was born to Jewish parents of the tribe of Levi. Moses was raised in an Egyptian palace. He later married to the daughter of a Midian priest. He was in many ways like many people today – a religious mixed bag.
My sense is that many people know when their life is drawing to a close. They give out little clues in what they say and do and with the questions that they ask. Now, Moses is experiencing this. “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Soon you will lie down with your ancestors. Then this people will begin to prostitute themselves to the foreign gods in their midst…” (Deut. 31:16)
God then instructs Moses to write a song. God will provide the lyrics. (Deut. 31:19) First, Moses tells the Levites to take the book of law and to carry it with the Ark of the Covenant. Yahweh says, “…let is remain there as a witness against you. For I know well how rebellious and stubborn you are.” (Deut. 31:26-27) There is nothing like God’s honesty.
When Moses finally sings, it’s hard to determine who should be in therapy – God or Moses. Someone is telling a one-sided truth. We read,
[Yahweh] sustained [the Israelites] in a desert land, in a howling wilderness waste; he shielded [the Israelites], cared for [them], guarded [them] as the apple of his eye. As an eagle stirs up its nests, and hovers over its young, as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions… (Deut. 32:10-12)
God is slapping himself on the back. But did not God allow the Israelites nearly to perish for lack of food and to die of water. Did God not send a plague to kill 14,700 Israelites and smote 250 of their leaders with fire and open the group to swallow Korah, Dathan and Abiram and their families? God fumed when the Israelites, “…sacrificed to demons, not God, to deities they had never known…” (Deut. 32:17)
As a result, “In the street the sword shall bereave, and in the chambers terror, for young man and woman alike, nursing child and old gray head. I thought to scatter them and blot out the memory of them from humankind,” says God. (Deut. 32:25-26) Yahweh has an anger management problem.
What would it be like if Yahweh went to counseling? “Tell me again,” the counselor would say as he clutched his pen and pad, “you had Aaron die on Mount Hor and Moses die on Mount Nebo and refused to allow them to enter the Promised Land because they did what? They tapped a stone at your command to allow water to pour fourth for the people would not die?”
In his article written for the Center for Biblical Studies website (www.thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org ) you can find our resources and recent articles Professor Walter Brueggemann’ s article “God in Recovery.” Brueggemann notes,
We have two long established preferred strategies for overcoming the notion of divine violence. The easiest ploy is to say that the claims of violence attributed to God is simply human projections in the service of some ideology so that it is human projection, not divine character. Thus divine violence against the Canaanites is in the service of Israel’s land-ideology. And even divine judgment against Israel serves the rigorous moral passion of the prophets who thus give divine sanction to their own ethical passion. Such a strategy has a compelling quality to it, because it is obvious that we do project on to God whatever our favorite passion may be. Except that if we treat as “human projection” all that we do not like about God in the Bible, we have to consider that what we like about God in the Bible (“God is love”) may also be only human projection. It is a very slippery slope to be selecting only what we prefer.
A second popular strategy is to notice that God has “evolved” and progressed from a primitive character to one capable of mercy, compassion, and justice. Of course what we usually mean by that is the “human articulation” of God has “evolved.” This strategy has been popular since the nineteenth century with Hegel’s notion of historical reality and, more especially, since Darwin’s great work concerning evolution, with the thought that God “evolves,” as does all else in the natural world.
Brueggemann notes that, “Both of these explanatory strategies conform to modern Enlightenment reason and provide a way past the hard parts of the testimony. The result is a more ‘enlightened’ God who conforms to our Enlightenment reason, even though it is a God who cannot save.” He adds,
My take on it is that the God of the Bible is “in recovery” from a propensity to violence, a recovery that requires, on God’s part, intentionality and resolve against an easy reactive treatment of any opposition. Such a view permits us to see that the character of God in the Bible is a real character, with a real internal life, and an on-going resolve to be faithfully God.
While I greatly admire Walter Brueggemann, who is a friend, I disagree with him. We cannot side with any texts that suggest that God “destroys” people and forcibly removes them from their property. This is human projection. The God of love is not. The latter is called Jesus, not projection. It is not in God’s DNA to destroy. God, however, will have to remain in therapy for much of the Old Testament.
Sometimes the psalmist does not know when to be quiet. His says too much. He writes,
…when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me. (Ps. 63:6-8)
This is beautiful. Sadly, the Psalmist transforms from contemplative to angry.
But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
they shall be prey for jackals. (Ps. 63:9-10)
I had lunch today with our former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold. After dining, we spoke outside the restaurant about the different ways that people read Scripture. “You know that the whole idea of reading and trying to determine what was true from what was false did not develop until the Enlightenment. Prior to that Christians had a much more nuanced way of reading the Bible,” noted Bishop Griswold. He added, “When the Church Fathers like Origen were reading the Bible, they found it possible to find spiritual truth in virtually every part of the Bible. You just have to sift through and determine what can be read on a spiritual level.”
Luke tells the story of the widow’s mite in 64 words versus Mark who take 93 words to convey the same story. Matthew omits the story altogether. The story reminds us that it is not how much we give, but what percentage of what we have that we share that matters most to God. Giving from our excess is not really giving. Being a steward means living freely and giving with joy. It should cause us to alter our lifestyle, because we have made God and others a priority in our life and in our giving.
Jesus then predicts the destruction of the Temple. By the time Luke is writing, the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed. It is lying in rubble, never to be completely rebuilt. The Temple spanned 11 football fields. It was like a university. Think of what it would be like to have Capitol Hill in Washington destroyed and lying in rubble for 20 years. This is the environment in which Luke wrote.
The section which follows is known as the “Synoptic Apocalypse.” Jesus predicts the end times and a tumultuous future. “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them. When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” (Luke 21:8-9)
Jesus predicts that nation will rise against nation, and there will be earthquakes, famines, plagues and other dreadful portents. He is the bearer of doom and gloom. Some people take these predictions too seriously. I encourage readers not to do so. Each generation has lived in difficult times. Ours is worse than some and better than others. Fear cripples us. Love sets us free.
We read, “By your endurance you will gain your souls.” (Luke 21:19) This little verse is like a piece of gold unearthed inside a dark mine. This is how marriages and relationships are saved. Sometimes, you just must hang in and hold on for dear life. You feel as if you are doing all the work, giving all the love or making all the compromises. Hang in, because “by your endurance, you will gain your soul.”
Luke 21:34-39 is not found in Mark or Matthew. Jesus warns his followers “Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and worries of this life, and that the day does not catch you unexpectedly, like a trap…Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.” (21:34-36)
Luke concludes by telling us that Jesus spent every day teaching in the Temple. At night he went to the Mount of Olives to pray, renew his strength, replenish his powers and unite his will with God’s will. Many Christians today live under incredible stress. They live with fear about their job, the economy, the safety of their nation, the stability of their relationships and the health of their family members.
We need regular prayer and reading the Scriptures. Living takes its toll. Trying to live as a Christian in the midst of a chaos requires strength and wisdom. We need a spa for the soul, soaking in the Spirit, reading the Scriptures and carving out time for solitude, silence and prayer to mend frayed nerves and prepare for the challenges that lay ahead.
By your endurance you will gain your souls. (Luke 21:19)
When do you find it easiest to pray – in the morning or in the evening? What situation or challenge facing you makes you recognize your need for endurance? Where do you go and what do you do to renew your spirit and replenish your resources?
Heavenly Father, we are running a race and the race is long and our legs are weak and we must endure and keep on running with grace to achieve the glory that you set before us. Help us to run with confidence and faith and to trust that you will guide our steps. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania