Praising with the Saints

For this reason, as we are fully encircled by such a cloud of witnesses, having set down every weight and the easily entangling sin, we should run with endurance the course laying before us.

Hebrews 12:1

This week, I’m going to explore a bit more the theme I introduced last time. Last week, I focused more on what worship means across physical space and briefly mentioned the concept of worshiping across time as well. I’d like to press into that latter point.


Certainly, this seems to be part of what is at play in the Hebrews passage here as the author lays out the claim that we should run course given to us, presumably the course of our lives that God has called us to run, in large part because of the many saints who are now cheering us on now. Giving weight to that interpretation is fact that Hebrews 11 lists several of the members of that great cloud.

To be sure, these weren’t exceptionally faithful men and women, though we often think

them such. The witness to faithfulness that they are is not a witness to their own faithfulness, that would make little sense in context. Rather, they are witness to the

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faithfulness of God. Jephthah, a man whose most well known act is to make a vow in the midst of faithlessness, and Abraham, a man known for lying about his wife twice, for not believing God would start a nation through him and was considered righteous for believing God once, are not men known because of their great faith. Instead it is because God was faithful to them. They are witnesses to the faithfulness of God.

In the same way, you are part of that cloud. When the Author of Hebrews describes the cheering crowd of this cloud of witnesses, you, the believer, are simultaneously the athlete for whom they are cheering, and also part of that crowd. The language of cloud encircling you is very specific. It is not just a stadium around you, it is one into which you are fully enveloped. You are in the very presence of these people and they are in yours. While we are presently unable to be present incarnationally with the saints of our local community, for when God justifies you by faith you are made a saint, we are nevertheless spiritually, present with the saints throughout the ages.

Language to our Prayers

Not infrequently, I will pick up the Book of Common Prayer. To be sure, I come from a non-liturgical tradition (Baptist). While I did attend an Anglican Church during our time in England, it was what might be termed “low church.” So the book of common prayer wasn’t absent, but it wasn’t something you needed to read from every service. My affection for the old Anglican prayer book goes back much further than this anyway.

The book of Common Prayer was originally the work of Thomas Cranmer in the Sixteenth Century, however it was, in many ways, a collaborative effort. Over the years the book has been slightly adapted and modified, the langu1549-BCPage has been updated, but its core has remained largely unchanged. The book has been used for almost 500 years among English speaking saints.

I went to an interdenominational divinity school. The faculty member with whom I became closest was the Revd Dr Wilton Bunch, who was also an Anglican Priest. I had started attending, in addition to my Baptist Church services, some Anglican early morning prayer services at a fairly high church Episcopal Church in College. During my time at divinity school, I continued the practice by attending the midday Anglican service.

One day, while talking to Dr Bunch about Anglican traditions and the book of common prayer. I commented on the beauty of its language. I asked him what he liked most about it. He looked at me and said “The most wonderful thing about it, I think, is that it gives a language to your prayers when words fail you. When you are too full of sorrow or too full of joy, we can reach for the book and find a language, one that has been spoken by many before us, to help us express our inner most feelings to God.” This has stuck with me over the years.

We read the book of Psalms in much the same way. It’s easy to think of the Psalms as a hymnal of sorts, indeed some Psalms likely were sung. But it’s interesting that there are more Psalms of lament and imprecation (asking for God to bring calamity upon enemies) than there are of praise and thanksgiving. At their root, the Psalms are prayers of Ancient Saints. This does not exclude them from being songs as well, but when we read them as giving us a language to our inner hearts, they come alive in new ways.

This past Sunday the church I attend (virtually for now) began with a recitation of the Apostle’s Creed, some version of which has been recited in churches since at least the second century. We concluded, as we do every week, with the Doxology (also known as the Old 100), finding a different way to join with the saints in a song sung for three hundred years (first sung in 1709). Perhaps your church finds other ways to connect with host of Saints from decades, centuries or millennia past.

Regardless, as you get up and go about your day, perhaps not straying from the house even once today, as you pray or read, or even think about God, in a very real and very important sense, you do not do so alone. You are encompassed and enveloped in a great cloud of witnesses. You too, bear witness to faithfulness of God, as Christ was faithful to you, not only unto death but beyond it to new life. So praise God with all the saints.



Two or More are Gathered

“For where two or three gather in my name,  I am there in their midst”

Mathew 18:20

After the Ascension of Christ, one of the big questions that presses the Church is, “Where is Christ?” Those from a more reformed perspective might immediately state “seated at the hand of the Father.” If you grew up in more Baptist or Wesleyan/Arminian circles, your answer might be “in my heart.”

Personally, I’m inclined to agree with the reformed perspective, despite much of my theology leaning in the Arminian direction. When I started my PhD, the movement that was beginning at the King’s College London Theology department was known as “Transformative Theology.” It began, at least for some, with that same question: where is Christ? I never joined the project, really, in large part because of my disagreement over the response to this question. Christ rose as a bodily human, albeit one with a transformed body. He ascended still in that body. Whatever else you might say about heaven or paradise, whatever your view of life after death, there is at least one human in the presence of the father, Jesus Christ. The incarnation, and even moreso the resurrection, represented a change in God.

Not a change in the nature of God, the language of Philippians 2 (μορφη) makes it clear that the change was in the appearance and representation of the Son, not his fundamental nature. But this change, as I understand the scripture, was a lasting one that continues on today. So if Jesus is physically embodied as a particular human, and as that human seated at God’s right hand, or standing before the throne, he remains in heaven. So when posed with the question of “Where is Christ?” I want to turn the question to also state that “His Spirit is with us.”

The Trinity

The doctrine of the Trinity is an interesting doctrine. On the one hand, the early Church Fathers were very clear to note that the Son is not the Father is not the Spirit. On the other hand, they also want to affirm the doctrine of circumincession, the idea that each person of the Trinity is interpenetrated by each other person of the Trinity while also remaining distinct.


The way this distinction is usually maintained is by saying only the Father begets, only the Son is begotten, and only the Spirit proceeds (whether the Spirit proceeds from the Father through the Son or from the Father and the Son was one of many of the precipitating factors behind the split of Easter Orthodox Churches and the Western Churches). To that distinction I might only add that only the Son is incarnate. True there is some discussion of God taking on a temporary human form, such as when YHWH visits Abraham a year prior to the birth of his son with Sarah or when Jacob wrestles with Elohim by the Jabbok river at night, but the kind of full embodiment and lasting incarnation seems unique to the Son.

Regardless, the connection between the three persons of the Trinity is somewhat fluid. Augustine, among many others probably first by Gregory of Nazianzus, referred to it as a kind of circle dance (περιχωρησις). Each member of the Trinity inhabits the space of each other member of the Trinity without assuming the identity of that person of the Trinity. The fundamental entity (ουσια) exists as three fundamental realities (υποστασις) turning and spilling one into the other. So when Christ declares at his departure that the disciples will receive the Holy Spirit, in a very real sense, the Spirit is also a real presence of Christ. So while it is certainly correct to say that Jesus is “seated at the right hand of the Father,” it is also as correct to declare that Jesus is “within my heart” by the power and presence of the Spirit.

Where is Christ?

This brings us back to the quote above. I have long considered the above passage a reason to gather together as a Church. Of course the Bible presents us with many reasons to gather, but one of them, I thought, was that there needs to be at least two people together in order for Christ to be there two. Indeed, Matthew 18 seems to speak at length about the Church and its power. But I think to narrowly focus on physical proximity misses something. And, in an age of social distancing and the (understandable) censure of large gatherings, where the location of Christ matters.


Surely physical presence is important. If it were not so, God would not need to become incarnate in the the person of Christ. When this is over, I will enjoy being physically present with so many others, there are many whom I look forward to hugging (and I am not a hugger). But the physical presence is not what this passage is about. By the Spirit, God is always with the Christian. So much so that the Spirit often prayers and intercedes on our behalf when we are unaware (Romans 8:26). So we have the presence of the Spirit even when we are alone.

Instead, the more narrow passage where this is located is discussing the work of the Church, not the gathering of the Church (that’s important, but addressed elsewhere). Instead, as the Church comes together and meets in one Spirit about some work, so does Christ also join them in the same Spirit. Whatever we bind, he will bind, whatever we loose, he will loose. God in Christ is in the midst of our work, of our worship, or our prayer. So, as you pray alone, feeling isolated from others, know that as the Church prays with you, so also there is Christ, in your midst. In the midst of your loneliness, join the prayers of the Saints (among whom you are now counted) and feel their presence along with the presence of Christ.

The gathering together, then, is not restricted by either time or space. If you are gathering individually in your homes, but around the same worship, you are not alone and Christ is in your midst. If you are reading through the Book of Common Prayer, or through a passage of the Bible, you are joining with saints throughout the ages. Where two or three are gathered, even across distances of time and space, there is Christ, in the midst of them.

When Exile Doesn’t End

“Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”
says your God
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her
that warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
for she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”

A voice of one crying out:
“Prepare, in the dessert, the road of the LORD;
make straight a highway for our God.
Every valley will be raised.
every mountain and hill will be made low;
the rough will become smooth and the rugged become plain.
And the LORD’s Glory will be revealed,
and all will see it together
for the mouth of the LORD has declared it.”

Isaiah 40:1-5

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The season leading up to Easter is known, in liturgical traditions, as Lent. During these forty days Christians fast from something. Usually you hear people saying they’ll give up one item or habit, such as chocolate, or sleeping in rather than an outright fast, but still a noticeable shift. It’s meant to recall other significant periods of forty. Forty days of fasting that Jesus experienced between his baptism and temptation, forty days of rain upon Noah’s ark, forty years of wandering and waiting in the untamed lands between Egypt and Canaan. It is also meant to recall the period of exile in Babylon. Here, it was not forty, but seventy years of exile. Exile to pay back the land its Sabbath that had been neglected and forgotten.

When Easter ends, the fasting should stop, there is great celebration. In more liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholic or Anglican churches) they might not use the word “hallelujah” from Ash Wednesday until Easter. So when it reappears in the church, it’s a big deal. Celebration, rejoicing. Christ has come back from the dead, laying death down in its grave! The time for fasting is over! It’s time for celebration and feasting, a fore-echo of the wedding supper of the lamb.

This year, many hundreds of millions, if not billions, experienced a taste of some form of fasting or exile, if not necessarily voluntarily, due to the now ubiquitous term “social distancing.” Still, it may have been made more bearable for some as it seemed appropriate for Christians to be more secluded, to spend time struggling, and to have more isolation during the period of Lent, even while we wish and pray the circumstances were more voluntary and less dire. But now, Easter has come. Shouldn’t this fasting and exile be over? Shouldn’t we be coming out of homes, seeing and touching, interacting, and playing and dancing? Shouldn’t the exile of businesses be over and done? Shouldn’t I be able to go to a restaurant, or to a movie theater, or to a coffee shop, or library, or classroom? Why isn’t the exile over?

The bible has a lot to say about exile. During graduation season, which this year will be more than a little different, many seniors receive cards quoting the prophet Jeremiah “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans for bright hope and a future.” The greater context for this passage is, of course, that this message of hope and good will is delivered on the eve of exile. None that could hear and understand it would return back to that land. They would die in exile. Many of their children would be born, grow old, and die in exile. Knowing this, Jeremiah goes out and buys a parcel of land. “I’ll be back for this” he declares; but Jeremiah is never seen again once exile comes.

In the New Testament, after the resurrection, the early Church waited for the soon return of Jesus. They heard his words that “I go to prepare a place for you. If I go, I will come back” and waited…and waited…and waited. The delay in Christ’s return, it seems, caused something of a crisis. This is likely behind Paul’s admonishment to the Thessalonians to continue working as they wait for the return. It may even be a large part of the reason John wrote his letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The people were stuck between Easter and the end of exile (and exile under Roman Emperors renown for their persecution like Nero and later Diocletian, no less). The Resurrection had come, Jesus had ascended, but still they waited. This period, where the tension between the already present and still coming Kingdom of God is felt strongest, continues on today. As citizens of another country, we Christians live in exile, one that has not yet ended. The message for those in exile is one of hope.

The book of Isaiah spends roughly 39 chapters hammering at the people to turn from their sin to avoid exile. In chapter 40, Isaiah changes his tone and audience. The prophet begins to speak not to those who lived prior to exile, but to those who have come through the other side. His opening words are “comfort.”

Opening words are often important, especially in ancient literature. The Iliad begins with “Rage, rage of Achilles” signifying a major theme that would be that hero’s undoing. At this critical shift, the prophet’s words to the people are “Comfort.”

It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that Isaiah wrote this prior to the end of exile (prior, even, to the beginning of exile). All throughout the years of laboring and waiting and wondering when or if it would ever end, the people of God could look to God’s words of “Comfort” to “my people.”

And so, as this exile feels a bit more acute with the onset of isolation, quarantine, social distancing, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, financial strain, and so much death and mourning all due to a virus most of us scarcely understand, we can still look to these words: “Comfort, Comfort.” God, though not seen as expressly, closely and intimately as before, is still active. He is still working. God is preparing a straight, level, even and therefore swift path in the dessert. All will see it the Glory of God because God Himself has declared it will be so. And on that glorious day, God will bring comfort.

“In this world you will have trouble” Jesus assured his disciples as his death drew near, “but take heart, I have overcome the world.” So in your own exile, take heart, and hear the words of comfort. This is not the end. This is the tension and sorry that comes with anticipation!

A Collect for Father’s Day

For our earthly fathers today we thank you God. For the ways in which they point us to you, direct and indirect, intentional and incidental, we thank you.

For those who are fathers, we ask that you guide us as we ask to be a small glimpse, an incomplete picture of you. Remind us that we are not perfect, but that even in the act of choosing to be a father we reflect the beauty of You who is our Father from before the foundations of the world. For those who have biological children and chose to be a father to those who chose a could whether by adoption, foster care or step fatherhood. We thank You. We ask for strength even as we are being made more into your likeness, giving an imperfect glimpse of true fatherhood.

For those who seek to be fathers, we ask for your comfort. Whether you are preparing them for fatherhood or not, we ask that you reveal to them all of the opportunities to show the love of a father to children even now as they seek a more permanent role as father on earth. We thank you for the ways in which they reveal your loving heart to us.

For those who have an unease with their father, we ask that you show us the way you are a perfect father. For those so hurt by their earthly father, we ask that you meet them as mother first, who covers them with her pinions or gathers them unto yourself as a mother hen and then drawing them toward knowing you as a good father. For those disconnected with parents we ask that you approach them as brother or friend. For those so disconnected from human relationship they cannot even see this, we ask that you come as rescuer and Redeemer. And so, over time, you draw them into relationship with you as a true, good, and better father.

Above all else, we thank you for being a good father. For taking our being, changing our identity into the better and adopting is as your children.

Easter 2019: Mark 16:1-8

Mark 16:1-8


He is Risen!

In Mark’s account, we have only the women going to the tomb. They bore witness to his death, they alone bore witness to his burial, so it stands to reason that they alone go to attend to the body and act as first witnesses to his resurrection. As they were walking along they wondered how they will possibly be able to get into the tomb. Perhaps a Roman soldier would help them. Perhaps a disciple would be there to greet them. Perhaps they could work together to move the large stone. Perhaps they could find someone else there to render aid. And so they went on their journey, walking and wondering.

The sight that greeted them was not one they had expected. “Jesus…has risen!” the messenger’s of God declared! He is not here.

Mark concludes his gospel with the words “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

Textual Criticism

If you are reading the King James Version, the text continues on without note. If you are reading any other modern translation, you will encounter a note about what follows. Let’s talk about that a minute (the remainder of this paragraph will discuss textual criticism). First things, first. Jesus did not speak in King James English. Nor did he speak in Greek. Jesus spoke in either Aramaic or Hebrew or (more likely) a combination of the two. The gospels are written in Greek in large part because that was the most widely read and spoken language (moreso than Latin) in present day Palestine and Northern Africa at the time. The other thing to note is that we do not possess the original writing of any part of the bible. This does not mean you cannot have confidence in the bible. In fact you can have a high degree of confidence in it. Higher than any other ancient text. Instead, a series of copies happened. The gospel message was so wonderful that, early on, several people decided to make copies of it so that others could read it. In fact we have more copies of the gospel than any other text from antiquity. Over time, individuals may have felt the need to insert explanatory bits. Sometimes these were notes, other times they may have been traditions, at times they may have even been imagined pieces that were missing or confusion brought on by awareness of other gospel accounts. Whatever the case, eventually extra bits made their way (often by mistake) into some of these copies. Once they entered a copy, they were likely to be copied by others again and again. So when you have a copy of a copy of a copy, all done by hand, this is the result. This is why textual criticism tends to heavily favor earlier copies over later ones. This is also why the integrity of a source (because some copies were clearly made more carefully than others) also matters. That is what lies behind the note in most modern translations. It also means, that with almost certainty, the Gospel of Mark ends at verse 8. Abruptly. So why?

The Markan Secret

Throughout the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is constantly telling people not to say anything. Don’t tell anyone who I am, he seems to say to people, to demons, to everyone. He’s holding it in secret. This ending is a continuation of that. The women, the only witnesses Mark records, said nothing. So what’s really going on here. Well Mark himself was not a direct witness to these events. He’s telling them because someone told him. That’s kind of the point. Clearly, at some point, someone said something to someone else. The women didn’t keep the secret forever. The angels absolve anyone of ever keeping their secret with their command to “go and tell.” So someone said something. And that’s kind of the point.

By demonstrating the opposite, the author is calling us to engage more actively with the text. Clearly it can’t be the case that the secret was kept, that the women never spoke again. I’ve heard this story. Here I am reading it. Exactly! You can’t leave it up to someone else. The word must get out. He is alive! Go tell someone.

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Lent 2019Day 46: Mark 15:42-47

Mark 15:42-47

He was Buried

Today is known as Holy Saturday. It stands between the cross and the resurrection. The cross is God’s ultimate identification with humanity, and the resurrection is the promise of the future. In the cross we find reconciliation, but in the resurrection we find victory. Today stands between those. This is where we live constantly. The battle has been fought and we are assured of a final, future victory, but it is not yet fully come. Today is a day to contemplate this in between period. We live in the in-between.

God in Christ so identified with us that, as the ancient creeds tell us “he descended into the realm of death.” This was not some fainting spell, this was not some temporary situation. This is not something to be explained away. When Jesus died, he truly died. Pilate did not take Joseph of Arimathea’s word for it, he conducted his own investigation. Jesus had really and truly died. So Joseph bought a linen cloth (Jesus’ own clothes having been gambled over by others), took the body down from the cross and placed him in a tomb. Watching over all of this again, were two Mary’s. They saw where he was laid, and they knew he was dead.

So today we sit in between. It doesn’t always seem like the final victory has been won. It feels like there is death around. The world is still not made right. We sit in between and must have faith for we know how the story ends/will end. But for now the story is not yet concluded, and we wait at the cusp of an as yet unfulfilled (yet somehow fully fulfilled) promise. Looking forward to the future, being affected by the past, sitting at the juxtaposition of the victory of the kingdom of this world and the greater victory of the Kingdom of God. This is where faith is made real and hope drives us forward. Sit and wait in the silence of the in between.

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Lent 2019 Day 45: Mark 15:21-41

Mark 15:21-41

The King is Dead

So much could be said. I hope today you will reflect on the cross of Christ.

I would perhaps recommend you reread today’s passage as a lectio divina, a divine reading. It’s a way of meditating and praying on the passage that comes from the early centuries of the church and survived throughout the middle ages until today. There is so much here, you could even take a few, or perhaps even just one verse and meditate on that.

To read the text in this way, read through it once again. As you do, stop and run over every word. Then pause and meditate on the meaning on the words. Think about the sounds they make, the way it feels in your mouth or in your head. If it helps, continue your meditation by trying to get an image in your head. Perhaps it is of you, perhaps of Christ. Lastly, pray your thoughts and the text back to God. Between each step, pause, breath, refocus yourself, and move on.

In the text there is so much. A stranger forced into the horrors of the day. Jesus’ refusal to give the sign people requested because the true God of love would not and could not come off the cross. The charge against him over his head. The sun being blotted out signalling that this was an end-of-the-world type event. The temple curtain torn in two, removing any and all barriers between us and God. The declaration of the centurion that this was the Son of God, and indication of both his divinity and his superiority over Caesar. Meditate on it. Reread it. Do it several times if you need to do so. Don’t rush past the crucifixion to get to the end.

Lastly, notice the women. There is no mention of any other follower, disciple, or other faithful member of Jesus’ group. Only the women. Surely that says something.

Holy God, thank you for your incarnation and death. We pray we not rush past it. We pray that we maintain our focus on you and your being. Amen.

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Lent 2019 Day 44: Mark 15:1-20

Mark 15:1-20

King of the Jews

Despite the predilection of some to place the blame for crucifixion upon the Jewish Leaders, the inescapable fact is that the Romans are the ones who crucified him. And so, the Jewish Leaders hand him over to Rome.

Pilate’s reluctance may have been a true desire not see someone he viewed as innocent be crucified. To declare Jesus deserved crucifixion is to affirm that Jesus not only sought to establish a new kingdom in opposition to Rome, but that there was sufficient cause to be alarmed that it had happened or might actually happen. In short, to execute Jesus for sedition (which was the actual charge) would be to affirm the words of Jesus: that he was the King of the Jews. Hence Jesus’ declaration to Pilate, when the charge was read, “you have said so.” This is Jesus pointing to the words on Pilate’s lips as evidence of his own identity.

The soldiers decide to take these same words and use them as a form of torture and mocking. In doing so, though, they unwittingly crowned him as King. A King who comes into a world of suffering and pain only to redeem that world.

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Lent 2019 Day 43: Mark 14:66-72

Mark 14:66-72


The denial that Jesus predicted comes to pass. This is a sobering passage and a reminder of who we all are when it really comes down to it. We like to think we would never do such things. We like to imagine that it’d have been different if we had been there, regardless of the situation. But the reality is, we are all like Peter in that moment. This was, after all, the boldest, bravest and brashest of Jesus’ disciples. He was the one who later who preach to massive crowds and die heroically. But there, in the moment, Peter denies Christ. Not once, but three times. There’s Peter, running from a servant girl, running from his identity as a Galilean. There’s Peter cursing himself.

I think there’s something in that. Peter curses himself, but does God? God was too busy preparing to be the curse for us. We are all Peter not only in the cursing, in the denial, but in the fact that God in Christ remains faithful to us. Blessed be the name of the Lord who will remain faithful for it is who he is.

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Lent 2019 Day 42: Mark 14:43-65

Mark 14:43-65


Today I just want to highlight two contrasts in this scene. In the first, Jesus is betrayed with a kiss. The greeting reserved for those who know each other closely and deeply, the type of greeting between long friends, this is the tool of betrayal. Much has been made about the kiss and I doubt my words will add much. Suffice to say this was a deep betrayal. Jesus became familiar with betrayal of the deepest sort.

vv. 51-52 are a bit of a curiosity in the Gospel. Only the Gospel of Mark records anything like it, which has led many to presume that this is the author. Nothing anywhere else really seems to support such evidence, so that is conjecture at best. This could be a sermon that Peter (if he is the source behind the text) gave, and just never really pulled back around. It could also have some deeper symbolic meaning known to the early church, such as the need to be free from worldly goods, or a covert reference to resurrection of the dead (the linen) in the last days (under persecution), that has since been lost to history. At any rate, caution should be exercised here and no reading seen as definitive.

Instead, the second contrast I want to look at. While Jesus is being judged by the Sanhedrin, he declares to them that HE will be judging them. That is what lies behind Jesus’ reference about the “Son of Man…coming on the clouds”. In the midst of judgment, Jesus declares himself to be the rightful judge. This sort of inversion is exactly the sort of thing God does when he establishes new covenants. Abraham, the childless old man, is told he will father a nation. Jacob, who seems to have won power over God/the angel of God, has his victory stolen by trickery of words and a dirty wrestling trick to become Israel. Moses, the man who declares himself to be incapable of speaking well is given the very words of God to declare to all people. David, the smallest of his brothers, is the one made king. God loves the inversion. So God inverts the scene again. It is not the Sanhedrin that judges Jesus, but Jesus who sits in judgment of them.

Thank God that Jesus is our judge, for he is also our defense attorney. If only we will step aside and let him take control. If Jesus is King, as HE who sits on God’s right hand, then I must abdicate any claim to rule, so that He may judge me as a friend.

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