Our God Has Wings: A Sermon

Under wings
Psalm 61
For the director of music. With stringed instruments. Of David.
 Hear my cry, O God;
listen to my prayer.
 From the ends of the earth I call to you,
I call as my heart grows faint;
lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
 For you have been my refuge,
a strong tower against the foe.
I long to dwell in your tent forever
and take refuge in the shelter of your wings
 For you, God, have heard my vows;
you have given me the heritage of those who fear your name.
Increase the days of the king’s life,
his years for many generations.
May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever;
appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him.
Then I will ever sing in praise of your name
and fulfill my vows day after day.
This Psalm echoes some sort of unknown problem. We don’t actually know that there was a problem present, even though there’s a cry for help. It’s just a general cry for distress. But the psalmist knows the faithfulness of the God he calls on. He has experienced the sheltering presence of the LORD, the God of Israel. And as he makes his request for being hidden under the wings of this God, he knows that if he’s hidden there, he will be able to fulfill his vows, the king will be enthroned forever, and God’s reign will go on. And that’s good news.
Here’s the deal: in case you didn’t know it, your God has wings. This is not like a Marvel series. Your God has wings, and that’s something to be excited about. Your God has wings. “I long to dwell in your tent forever and take refuge in the shelter of your wings” (Psalm 61:4).
Numbers 15 is a message from the LORD through Moses while the children of Israel are still in the desert.
The LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the LORD, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God. I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the LORD your God.’” (Numbers 15:37-41)
Now this is a weird, obscure text, just like the idea of God having wings is weird. These are two things that seemingly aren’t related. Tassels at the four corners of clothes. If you travel to Israel, you’ll see a little fringe hanging outside of Jewish jackets. Orthodox Jews to this day still wear these four tassels.
tzitzit
Why? The sign of the covenant for Israel was circumcision. Since there is no way to appropriately check if people are circumcised, there is an outward testimony that one is a faithful covenant member of God’s people. It is four tassels that serve as a constant reminder, not only to that person, but to everyone who sees them, that this person belongs to the LORD.
Now what does this have to do with taking refuge in the shadow of the LORD’s wings? The Hebrew for wing (kanaf) can either be translated as wing or corner. It just depends on the context. And these texts collide because of this word. “Take refuge under the kanaf of the LORD.” “Wear on the kanaf of your clothes a testimony of your faithfulness to the LORD.” This is a super weird command. As we read the text, we just don’t understand why it’s here. In fact, just so you get the point, it gets repeated in another list of weird rules in Deuteronomy 22 about not blending your clothes, not boiling a goat in its mother’s milk, etc. It’s the kind of stuff you love in your daily devotional. It’s a command that gets repeated 40 years later as the people are about to go into the Promised Land: Don’t forget the tassels on the kanaf/corner of your garment as a testimony of your faithfulness; as a reminder of faithfulness.
Now we get this interesting story in the book of Ruth; Ruth, who is shockingly repeated as the Moabitess. According to Deuteronomy 24, anyone who marries a Moabitess excludes themselves and all of their generations up to ten generations, from ever entering the tabernacle or temple of the LORD. This is the word of the LORD. In the story of Ruth, several Israelites go down to Moab because there is famine for disobedience because it is the days of the judges when everyone does what is right in their own eyes. They go down to Moab, which is experiencing more fruitfulness than Israel. There they hook up with a couple ladies except all the men die, and one of the Moabitess’s, Ruth, remains with her mother-in-law, as they hear that the LORD has returned favor back to Israel. And when she goes back, she goes out into a field to work and get some food for herself and her mother-in-law. She just happens to run into a certain man named Boaz. And Boaz just happens to be the closest relative, and the closest relative was the one who could redeem back all the fields, houses (anything that had to be sold because of impoverishment).
Here, she receives a blessing. Ruth 2: she’s harvesting the field, and she meets Boaz because she wants to know who Boaz is. Ruth 2:11-12: “Boaz replied, “I’ve been told all about what you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband—how you left your father and mother and your homeland and came to live with a people you did not know before. May the Lord repay you for what you have done. May you be richly rewarded by the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge.” In other words, you have found yourself hidden under the wings of the LORD. Because of your faithfulness, He will be faithful.
Now the story actually unfolds. I’m not sure if Naomi hatches this as a plot or not, but Naomi tells Ruth one night, “Here’s the deal. You should put on your finest dress. Then wait. Boaz is going to work hard all day, and at the end of the day, he’s going to have a feast and drink a lot. And when he’s had as much as he can eat and has drunk all he can, he’s going to feel really good. He’s going to take a nap. I want you to go in to him, and let him take care of what is supposed to happen next.”
As it turns out, he eats, drinks, passes out, and Ruth comes in, finds him, uncovers his feet, and lies down by him. In the middle of the night, he wakes up and sees her by his feet.
Chapter 3 verse 9: “Who are you?” he asked. “I am your servant Ruth,” she said. “Spread the corner of your garment over me, since you are the kinsman redeemer.”
He has spoken blessing, “May the LORD cover you for your faithfulness.” Now she says, “Cover me with your faithfulness.” Now we already know Boaz is a faithful follower of the LORD. So what does he have at the corner of his garments? Tassels. He is faithful to the core. And she says, “I see the symbol of your people. You are faithful to the covenant. Be faithful to keep your part of the deal. Be faithful to the LORD. What he has commanded do.”
So the story unfolds, and sadly, while this should be a story about women, it’s not. It ends with David, who is the great grandson of Ruth. Because of the faithfulness of Ruth and Boaz, the LORD is faithful to raise up for himself one who would be king in Israel.
Reread Psalm 61
David does not become king. Saul becomes king and is not faithful. He tries, but he keeps messing up. He tries to kill David a few times even though David works for him. David runs for his life, and Saul uses the kingly resources to actually chase David down and kill him because he believes David is trying to replace him as king. He goes and he finds a cave to relieve himself, and it turns out in the course of the story that David and his men are hiding out in the back of the cave. David’s men think this is a great opportunity to kill King Saul. “The LORD has given him to us today. He’s going to fulfill the promise he made to make you king.”
1 Samuel 24:4: “The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.’” Then David crept up unnoticed and cut off a corner of Saul’s robe.”
The corner was likely the tassel. If Saul is trying to be faithful, he has signs of faithfulness. David just makes a little snip, and takes the tassel. He has just challenged the faithfulness of Saul as a true Israelite. Saul leaves the cave, and he goes to look for David. David is suddenly conscience stricken. He comes out and tells Saul that he could have taken his life but didn’t, and shows him the proof. Then he is repentant and says that the LORD should be the judge. The LORD will be faithful. And he throws himself under the shelter of the wings of God. David does eventually become king. The LORD shows himself faithful to David.
Matthew 9. Jesus is on his way to raise a dead girl. Verse 12: “Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak.” (I’m not pretending the original translation of this uses the word kanaf, but the Hebrew translation done later does use kanaf.)
13-14: She said to herself, “If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed.” Jesus turned and saw her. “Take heart, daughter,” he said, “your faith has healed you.” And the woman was healed at that moment.
This is a beautiful story. She’s trying to get a secret healing. She sneaks up through the crowd that she is making unclean by her contact. In fact, she will make Jesus impure by touching him. Unclean passes, but clean never does. You don’t get accidentally clean. He’s defiled. His faithfulness is challenged and questioned by her laying hold of it, and this testimony is exactly where she touches it. The same place David challenges Saul (the corner of his garment), the woman says, “I know he’s faithful, and if I could only lay hold of his faithfulness, I will be clean.”
She’s healed! She’s cleansed! 12 years, and the faithfulness of this Jew is what sets her free. And that’s not it. In Matthew 14:36, this becomes a trend. “All who touched it (the kanaf) were healed.” There’s nothing magical about his clothes, but at the corner of his clothes are four tassels because he is a faithful Jew. He fulfills everything that the LORD has commanded, and at the shadow of his wing, a woman is healed and others are healed. At the corner of his garment, the corner of his faithfulness begins to cover all the needs of those who reach out for it.
So what’s the point? Here’s the deal. Some of you have a better way of being faithful than others. But here’s the good news: your salvation never rested in your faithfulness to begin with. The fact of the matter is you can’t say enough prayers, cry enough tears, confess enough sins, do enough right, or be faithful enough. It doesn’t work that way. You experience the goodness of our God because his faithfulness covers over you, because you know where to run, hide, and put yourself. It is under His faithfulness, and not your own.
But some of you think it is your faithfulness that has somehow earned His faithfulness. Some of you think, almost as Ruth could get that notion that Boaz said it’s because I’m faithful. But what is Ruth? A Moabitess. Under no circumstances should she experience the faithfulness of the LORD, but she does, because it never depended on her faithfulness, but always on His. Some of you are carrying around this weight of perfectionism, because you think it will make you a better follower of Jesus. Some of you need to know the faithfulness of your God. He covers you not because of your faithfulness, but because of His. And like this woman and these others who get the idea, you seek Him and find yourself laying hold of His faithfulness. Let Him cover you with His wings.

A Sermon No One Should Preach

David and GoliathI know it’s often easier to critique than to offer positive contributions, but I was just meditating again on the story of David and Goliath in 1 Samuel 17. And I was remembering poor sermons I have heard over the years on this favorite Sunday School story (you know it’s fun when talking veggies have their own rendition). At the time, they seemed like poignant Biblically-based messages that spoke to my life, but as a pastor now (and wanting to be faithful to the intent of Scripture) they were simply atrocious (even when offering valuable points that have little if anything to do with the text’s intent itself).
So here’s one: “You need to slay the giants in your life!” The preacher begins to name those giants: pride, lust, fear, smoking-drinking-and-chew, and going-with-girls-who-do (or something like that). It’s animated. You bring to mind all the sins you have committed and all the potential challenges you may face in life. You swing your air sling, followed by a chopping motion…and now the head of victory is in hand. It’s powerful. You are ready for any altar call given. The problem is…it just isn’t the point of this story.
Another day, another preacher: “God has given you five stones to defeat your enemies!” The stones are rattled off with exaggerated booming-voiced, staccato-like gunfire. The giants from the last message won’t stand a chance. Your stones of faith, forgiveness, prayer, reading your Bible, and going to Sunday School (or something like that) are powerful weapons in the arsenal of any David looking to be victorious over the enemies of their soul. The problem is…this also is not the point of the story.
Yet another day and another preacher (indicating the rejection by David of Saul’s armaments): “Use what has been tested and proven!”- followed by six more points every David-like leader needs to know in order to succeed (you have to have at least seven to be a truly spiritual leader after all). The litany of kingdom-wise business bullet points is overwhelming. You know you will actually need to have a couple of pens just to take all of the notes, because this message is LOADED with truthiness. Again, not the point of the story.
Is there no end to the directions this favorite tale has been taken? What is the point anyways? Put simply, the LORD (the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob…the God of Israel) is lord of all. The LORD will not be mocked. The LORD is truly God. The LORD is the champion of His people. The LORD will act to deliver through those whom the LORD chooses to anoint.* This is ultimately a story about the LORD.
So the next time you preach 1 Samuel 17…make sure you know the point of the story…and don’t just start loading your slingshot with whatever you find along the way, try using what is already there. You may be surprised what the LORD will do with His own word.
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* I just realized I gave five points…now that should go in my pouch for future slinging. 🙂
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Adapted from my post authored at bluechippastor.org on July 1, 2013.

The Revelation of Yahweh in the Exodus: The Theological Center

Summary of ExodusI was struck by a re-reading of Exodus recently as I meditated on just what the overarching theology of Exodus might be. The Scripture that struck me most strongly was Exodus 4:22 (NET):

Thus says the Lord, ‘Israel is my son, my firstborn

In light of the wider book of the Exodus, one encounters a god (Yahweh) who is able to deliver His people (His “firstborn”) from all other powers and authorities and, thus, from the gods of Egypt. This sheds light on the death of the firstborn of Egypt and thus the preservation of Israel and all who gathered in obedience in each home dedicated to Yahweh’s provision.

Moses said, “Thus says the Lord: ‘About midnight I will go throughout Egypt, and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt will die, from the firstborn son of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, to the firstborn son of the slave girl who is at her hand mill, and all the firstborn of the cattle. There will be a great cry throughout the whole land of Egypt, such as there has never been, nor ever will be again. But against any of the Israelites not even a dog will bark against either people or animals, so that you may know that the Lord distinguishes between Egypt and Israel.’ (Exo.11:4-7 NET)

The preservation of the children of the god of Israel was a revelation of that god as true God, and the name of Yahweh as that God who had and was making covenant with Israel among all the nations. The children delivered from captivity (Exo.1-6) , preserved through judgment (Exo.7-13), passing through the waters (Exo.14-15:21), provided for in the wilderness (Exo.15:22-18:27), trembling at the mountain (Exo.19), and attending to the glorious, gracious, and holy presence of Yahweh in their midst (Exo.20-40). In all of this, and through all of this, the revelation of Yahweh as Yahweh (God of Israel) stands at the forefront…and as God of Israel, Yahweh is self-revealed as Father of Israel in every respect. Israel begins in the narrative as slaves building houses for the gods and rulers of Egypt and ends with building the tabernacle for Yahweh as sons and no longer slaves…as those brought into covenant relationship not simply as subjects, but sons of their God under the cloud of smoke and fire, eating and drinking at the table of their Lord and Father (Exo.40:34-38).
And thus at the first we read:

God answered, “I will be with you. And this is your sign that I am the one who has sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God at this very mountain.”
But Moses protested, “If I go to the people of Israel and tell them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ they will ask me, ‘What is his name?’ Then what should I tell them?”
 God replied to Moses, “I Am Who I Am. Say this to the people of Israel: I Am has sent me to you.” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: Yahweh, the God of your ancestors—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.

This is my eternal name,
my name to remember for all generations. (Exo.3:12-15 NLT, emphasis added)
And at the last:

Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him; and he called out his own name, Yahweh.  The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,

Yahweh! The Lord!
The God of compassion and mercy!
I am slow to anger
and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness.
I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.
I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin.
But I do not excuse the guilty.
I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren;
the entire family is affected—
even children in the third and fourth generations.”

Moses immediately threw himself to the ground and worshiped. And he said, “O Lord, if it is true that I have found favor with you, then please travel with us. Yes, this is a stubborn and rebellious people, but please forgive our iniquity and our sins. Claim us as your own special possession.” (Exo.34:5-9 NLT, emphasis added)

The Ambiguity of Wisdom

English: The Wisdom of Solomon, by James Jacqu...
English: The Wisdom of Solomon, by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French, 1836-1902) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The wisdom of Solomon (not meaning, the ancient book by that name) is something of an ambiguity. And perhaps that is the nature of wisdom, recognizing ambiguities and trying to steer the right course. Take another look at the all-too-familiar first demonstration of Solomon’s wisdom: 1 Kings 3:16-27: *

Some time later two prostitutes came to the king to have an argument settled.
“Please, my lord,” one of them began, “this woman and I live in the same house. I gave birth to a baby while she was with me in the house. Three days later this woman also had a baby. We were alone; there were only two of us in the house.  “But her baby died during the night when she rolled over on it. Then she got up in the night and took my son from beside me while I was asleep. She laid her dead child in my arms and took mine to sleep beside her. And in the morning when I tried to nurse my son, he was dead! But when I looked more closely in the morning light, I saw that it wasn’t my son at all.”
Then the other woman interrupted, “It certainly was your son, and the living child is mine.” “No,” the first woman said, “the living child is mine, and the dead one is yours.” And so they argued back and forth before the king.
Then the king said, “Let’s get the facts straight. Both of you claim the living child is yours, and each says that the dead one belongs to the other. All right, bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought to the king. Then he said, “Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other!”
Then the woman who was the real mother of the living child, and who loved him very much, cried out, “Oh no, my lord! Give her the child — please do not kill him!” But the other woman said, “All right, he will be neither yours nor mine; divide him between us!” Then the king said, “Do not kill the child, but give him to the woman who wants him to live, for she is his mother!” (1 Kings 3:16-27 NLT)

We think we know this story, but do we? Let’s have another look.
First, there are two “prostitutes” implying these women should be put to death themselves (according to Torah – see the proscriptions against sex outside of marriage in Lev.20:10-16) and not simply have a dispute settled. Does “wisdom” pertain to knowing when not to apply torah? We are also intentionally given this detail to cause us to question their character (and thus whatever they might say) from the beginning.
Second, to help clarify some details let’s label these women “A” and “B”. “A” is the prostitute who claims to have had her live newborn switched in the night for prostitute “B”s dead baby. “B” claims that the dead infant was indeed “A”s baby, and thus that “A” is lying. Our problem is that we tend to believe the first one to speak (“The first to speak in court sounds right…” Proverbs 18:17a), but forget that there is always more to the story (“…until the cross-examination begins” Proverbs 18:17b). We seem to automatically act unwisely in such readings where we have given the benefit of the doubt to the first claimant (A) and denied the words of the second (B). So how could one wisely discern who is speaking the truth, especially when the character of both is questionable (at best)?
Third, Solomon’s answer is to kill the living baby and give half to each of these women (both of whom are themselves actually worthy of death). We acclaim Solomon for his “wisdom” in this because it seems apparent to us that this makes it clear who the real mother was. But the ambiguity of wisdom is that Solomon did not really know how these unsavory women would respond and his only answer appears to be a death sentence to the baby. A strange “wisdom” if you ask me.
Fourth, note the ambiguity of the text where neither “A” nor “B” is identified as either woman: the one willing to have the baby cut asunder and the one wanting the baby to survive if even as the child of the other woman. The text does not clarify for us which woman said what. It uses the terms “the real mother of the living child, and who loved him very much” contrasted with “the other woman”. This calls for wisdom (with all its shades of ambiguity). It is apparent to the writer that the “mother” is not simply the “mother”, but also “loved” the child “very much”. The portrayal is of one who indeed is the mother (according to the narrator) and whom Solomon chooses because this woman “wants him to live” and thus (at least functionally) would be “his mother”.
So what is wisdom and where is it required? In the ambiguous moments where one is uncertain and needs to know what to do and how to do it. It is certainly not a “clear” way, but the way that demands that we ask of God for it (1 Kings 3:10-11; James 1:5).
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* See the helpful analysis of this account in Richard S. Briggs, The Virtuous Reader: Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Studies in Theological Interpretation; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010). It was Briggs work that first alerted me to note these ambiguities in this wisdom text.

Jesus Led Israel Out of Egypt?

Manuscript of JudeIn a phone conversation with a friend today, we were discussing grammatical-historical methods of interpretation and how the NT writers simply did not appear to observe this modern system for interpretation (which claims, in my opinion, an overly “scientific” approach to Scripture that fails to grapple with the full complexities of language, inspiration, and later interpretations, but all that aside [if you want a glimpse at my own brief forays in my quest for better methods read HERE, HERE, and HERE]).
He mentioned Jude 5 which reads:

“Now I desire to remind you (even though you have been fully informed of these facts once for all) that Jesus, having saved the people out of the land of Egypt, later destroyed those who did not believe.” (NET -bolding added)

Talk about a strange reading of the Exodus account! (Origen would be proud 😉 ). So I went to look it up in my NA27 and discovered an overwhelming manuscript support for the reading “Jesus” (A B 33. 81. 322. 323. 424c. 665. 1241. 1739. 1881. 2298. 2344. Vulgate, Coptic (Bohairic, Sahidic), Ethiopic. Origen, Cyril, Jerome, Bede; “the Jesus” 88. 915) over “[the] Lord” (K Maj.).* Not only is the textual support overwhelmingly in support of such a reading, but the probability is overwhelmingly in favor of an original “Jesus” being changed to “Lord” (rather than vice versa). Who would think of changing “Lord” to “Jesus”?  It would seem to make things more defensible (for reading the OT as it was intended by its original human author) with reading  “Lord” in light of the OT, but “Jesus” offers a sharply Christological reading of the Hebrew scriptures (which fits Jude’s overall agenda). Even Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (ABS, 1994, p.657) has an extended bracketed discussion of this issue suggesting that the reading “Lord” really does not appear original in any sense. And yet, the UBS4 and NA27 texts maintained κύριος (“Lord”) in the main text. I don’t have access to NA28, but I would be curious to know if they’ve continued this strange tradition.
Incidentally, some English translations actually have “Jesus” (ESV, NET, NLT; and the Latin Vulgate)** in their primary text despite the preference for “Lord” in these two critical Greek texts (which are knowingly nearly identical) which typically form the basis for English translations (not that there aren’t plenty of times where the translators chose a different variant, but this one is rather fascinating).***
To me, the most significant (and fascinating) thing I was reminded of in my searching through the evidence and the translations, was that it appears issues of congruity for English readers often drives translations against where the textual evidence may actually point (one of the reasons I quite like the NET for boldly trying to follow the original text closely…at least at times).
So what are your thoughts on a variant like this and the need to translate what is considered the “best” (or most appropriate?) text?
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* To be fair there are a number of other lesser attested readings which are not supported well by either internal or external criteria.
** The ESV footnotes “some manuscripts” having “Lord”; the NLT says: “As in the best manuscripts; various other manuscripts read the Lord, or God, or Christ; one reads God Christ.” The NET reads:

“tc ‡ The reading ᾿Ιησοῦς (Iesous, “Jesus”) is deemed too hard by several scholars, since it involves the notion of Jesus acting in the early history of the nation Israel. However, not only does this reading enjoy the strongest support from a variety of early witnesses (e.g., A B 33 81 1241 1739 1881 2344 pc vg co Or1739mg), but the plethora of variants demonstrate that scribes were uncomfortable with it, for they seemed to exchange κύριος (kurios, “Lord”) or θεός (theos, “God”) for ᾿Ιησοῦς (though Ì72 has the intriguing reading θεὸς Χριστός [theos Cristos, “God Christ”] for ᾿Ιησοῦς). In addition to the evidence supplied in NA27 for this reading, note also {88 322 323 424c 665 915 2298 eth Cyr Hier Bede}. As difficult as the reading ᾿Ιησοῦς is, in light of v. 4 and in light of the progress of revelation (Jude being one of the last books in the NT to be composed), it is wholly appropriate.”

*** Those translations offering “Lord” are KJV, NAB, NASB, NIV(1984, 2010), NJB, NKJV, NRSV, TNIV. The NAB footnotes that “manuscripts vary”; the NASB only mentions “two early mss” mentioning “Jesus”; the NIV tradition has “some early manuscripts” reading “Jesus”; and the NRSV has “Other ancient authorities read though you were once for all fully informed, that Jesus (or Joshua) who saved.”