Today is the Fourth of July which means a lot to many people here in the United States. It's a happy time to celebrate freedom and the glorious wonder that is the backyard BBQ. I like spending my freedom doing things that folks in other countries cannot do so freely. For example, reading my Bible is something I enjoy doing freely. Blogging is another way I like to enjoy my freedom because in some countries, like China for example, blogging is restricted greatly. Speaking is another way I enjoy my freedom.
In the USA I can say whatever I want, whenever I want, to whomever I wish to say it. They don't, of course, have to listen and I'm not always heard, but these truths in no way diminish my freedom to say whatever is on my mind.
So as I thought about today's readings (and yesterday's for that matter), I noticed a trend was taking place. So I offer some brief thoughts on readings from Matthew, Romans, Numbers, and the Psalms.
Romans 8 There is so much going on in this chapter that it is really difficult to get our heads around it in one sitting or in one lifetime. I'm not even certain I have any idea where to start, and if I started I'm not even sure where I would end–if I could end. But what I want to focus on in in this short climactic chapter of Romans is that there is a voice being heard here in this chapter. It is the voice of creation, the voice of our spirit, and the voice of the Spirit–all groaning. The world is full of pain and suffering, hurt and hell, disease and distress. It's ugly. We groan. There is something wrong with the world in which we live and even the earth knows there is something wrong. There is something out of place and our spirit knows it. So we groan. We tend to get down on folks who are carrying about a bit of melancholy, but sometimes I think what is happening is that the deep sorrow that lives inside all of us–the deep sorrow that knows there is something profoundly wrong with this world–simply makes its way to the surface of our lives. What we carry in our hearts sometimes shows up on our face. Some folks are better at concealing it, but others among us serve as signposts to the rest of the world that even though we have great things to look forward to we are not all that we will be just yet. We don't always hear the groaning, we don't always see it, but some of us always feel it and we refuse to conceal it because it is, nevertheless, a part of our testimony to the world. And it must not be that bad if this is the very same thing the Holy Spirit does, sometimes without words. You ever hear that low, dull roar coming from within? You ever feel a tremor in your heart? You ever feel a quake in your soul? You ever feel the weight of wordless sighing? I suspect it's the Holy Spirit himself uttering before God the very things we cannot say. If the Holy Spirit cannot find words to utter, how can we be expected to? So we groan. (Romans 8:26-27)
Matthew 22 At the end of chapter 21, we learned that the chief priests and Pharisees were looking for a way to end Jesus. We learn at the beginning of chapter 22 that Jesus did not relent. He keeps telling stories and baiting them. It's kind of ironic because they thought they were setting up Jesus, but it appears the truth is that it was the other way around. Jesus had said, "From the lips of children and infants you have ordained praise" (21:16). Talk. So often when reading the Bible we think we are reading something like a textbook, but if we read it closely we see it is actually a book of stories–or, more precisely, a book of talk. People's voices are raised, others lowered, and over all of them we hear the mouth of Jesus uttering mysteries hidden from the beginning of time. But there are always some folks who seem discontent with what Jesus said. Even nowadays, people get really bent about the things that Jesus said–far more so than about the things he did. People love when Jesus heals a blind man or forgives a woman caught in adultery or makes bread from nothing. That Jesus we get and love. But let Jesus start talking about forgiving killers and rapists and loving our enemies and things take a southerly turn faster than hand slapping a pesky mosquito on a sweaty summer night. Jesus told some stories and the leaders started making their run: "Then the Pharisees went out and laid plans to trap him in his words" (22:15). There it is. Actions are cool; words are dangerous. Later Jesus seemed to confirm this when the crowd came to arrest him in Gethsemane: "Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching and you didn't arrest me" (26:55). I suppose if Jesus had never said anything people would flock to him–as long as Jesus is making bread from stones and calming the storms–but let him say anything offensive. Will we follow then?
Psalms 140, 142; 134-135 I took a class on the Psalms when I was in Bible College 20 some years ago. It was one of the best classes I ever had not least because it opened my eyes to the utter harsh language of the Psalmists. I think if we read these Psalms thoughtfully and perhaps not so carefully or theologically, we will see that there is a depth of honesty that we never hear preachers utter from the pulpits of our churches. I mean the Psalmists were blatantly honest with God. Sometimes I think we are afraid of such honesty. I used to preach at a church and there were some people who would sit on their thrones on Sunday mornings absolutely appalled that I was so blatantly honest. As I was leaving the church, more than one person told me I needed to learn how to hide my emotions. My honesty and emotion were offensive to some because it demonstrated a lack of professionalism. The preacher is supposed to be cheerful and happy and fully of all sorts of fake joy even when deep inside he knows he is groaning along with the creation (see thoughts on Romans 8 above). The Psalmists are harsh with God. They are honest about their feelings and emotions. They let it all out with a gusto and grit that would make the true grit of John Wayne pale by comparison. I think we ought to be free to speak to God–I think that's why God was not unhappy with Job. Job was brutally honest with God. I also happen to believe that preachers have failed to tell us or demonstrate to us that we can be so honest with God and get away with it. God may let us end up in prison, we cry out for his rescue. People talk shit, we ask for 'disaster to hunt them down.' People cause us grief, we pray that 'burning coals fall on them.' Well, when was the last time you asked God to dismember someone who hurt you? Or when was the last time you simply praised God because he is God? If the Psalms teach us anything, and I think they teach us a lot, they teach us that people have pain, that everybody hurts sometimes (REM reference there). The Psalms teach us that it is, frankly, imperative that we be utterly honest with God. The Psalms teach us that we can be utterly honest with God.
Numbers 24 I think the key here is this: "When Balaam saw that it pleased the Lord to bless Israel, he did not resort to divination as at other times, but turned his face to the wilderness." So here's what I think happened. I think early in these episodes (chapter 21) Balaam's motives were uncovered. The underlying current seems to be that there was something unsavory about Balaam's motives from the start–maybe he was greedy, maybe he was a people pleaser, maybe he liked being so heavily sought after. This opening verse in Numbers 24 tells us a lot, I believe, about what's going on in Balaam's mouth: he was no longer saying what the Lord told him to say, he was just saying whatever he wanted because he thought it would please the Lord. I believe Balaam's error was that he was trying to get the Lord's blessing for himself. He was using his position to get something from God rather than going forward in strict obedience to God. I could be wrong, but it seems that chapter 24 is kind of farcical precisely because it didn't come from God. No longer did the Lord 'put a word in Balaam's mouth' (23:5, 16). Now it was just Balaam talking, running off at the mouth because he hopes to manipulate the Lord. His words were not sincere, nor were they necessarily of God. (I also believe it helps to keep Genesis 12:1-3 in mind when reading these stories. I have a hard time with the Balaam stories being positive if only because he is spoken of negatively in 2 Peter 2:15-16.)
So, talking. In Romans we groan. In Matthew we plotted. In Psalms we cried out, we praise. In Numbers manipulated. In some way or other we do all these things unto the Lord. I think it is fair to say that each day we talk–we talk a lot. We say a lot of things. We utter a lot of mysteries and from whence they come we are often in the dark. There's a lot of talk going on in the world, coming forth from our mouths. Today I believe I will examine my speech a little more carefully.
Today we live in freedom. Let us be careful with our freedom and our talk. Or just ask yourself: what am I using my words for today? Am I blessing or cursing (Numbers)? Am I praising or crying out (Psalms)? Am I praising or plotting (Matthew)? Am I groaning or hoping (Romans)? I think whatever we are doing, we must remember that it is God who is ultimately hearing and listening to our words. And not a single word escapes his notice.