Psalm 121; 1 Kings 6; John 13:18-30

Psalm 121: This magnificent psalm, stunning in its simplicity, and verses often used in benediction, opens with one of the most famous questions in the Old Testament: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains: / from where will my help come?” This line resonates for so many reasons, not least of which that I can see Mount Diablo out my office window, behind which the sun rises every morning.

Which as it rises, is my daily reminder of the psalmist’s question: “My help is from the LORD, / maker of heaven and earth.” This short line brings out the marvelous breadth and depth of God: Our unfathomably great God, who is creator of heaven and earth. And the God who knows the number of hairs on my head (decreasing daily), but more importantly is there to help me. No issue that I face, even if it is a single stumbling step, is too small, too inconsequential for God.

God, of course is everything we are not–and in this verse he is God who is ever-alert: “Your guard does not slumber.” The remainder of this psalm focuses on God as our guard–the word is repeated eight times–ever on the lookout for us, our protector form natural harm and the from wiles of those who would harm us.

“By day the sun does not strike you, nor the moon by night.” (6) The image of God as shade is particularly appropriate in that desert climate, and when the psalm was written, the belief was that standing out in the full moon would lead to mental disorder (whence ‘lunacy’). Above all though, is God’s constancy, guarding us humans who are so inconstant: “The LORD guards your going and your coming, now and forevermore.” (8)

1 Kings 6: Solomon builds his eponymous temple in seven years. Compared to descriptions we will read later in Ezekiel and elsewhere, this chapter, describing its size, construction, material and furnishings is blessedly brief. I’m grateful to the author, who in the middle of the description, reminds us of its real reason for being built:

Now the word of the Lord came to Solomon, 12 “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. 13 I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.” 

Notice again, that unlike his father, who appeared to have had actual conversations with God, for Solomon, it is “the word of the Lord” that comes to him as a pronouncement. These verses are God’s restatement of the Covenant that is the foundation of the relationship between God and Israel. I think by inserting it here amidst all the description of the Temple’s construction details and description of its furnishings, he is reminding us that it is the Covenant that is the single most important furnishing in the Temple. And we can imagine the pain that was evoked when the Jews, exiled in Babylon, read these words that recalled the  beauty and magnificence of what Solomon had wrought, but above all, of the Covenant that they had broken.

As we should reflect on the magnificence of the New Covenant that Jesus forged out of his death and resurrection–and that we so casually forget or worse, ignore.

 John 13:18-30: John gives us a detailed description of the dynamic and the conversation that transpired when he identifies who will betray him. If we accept that it was the apostle John himself who wrote this gospel, it is here that we get his small personal biography. “One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him;” (23) John is reclining next to Jesus and is in the best position to hear what Jesus said, apparently sotto voce rather than to all of the group. Peter can’t completely hear what’s going on and asks John to ask Jesus to identify who Jesus is talking about.  So, it is John who asks the crucial question: “Who is it?” Jesus answers with a gesture rather than words, handing Judas a piece of bread.

This is the moment Leonardo DaVici captures in his great painting of the Last Supper. As I read it here, Jesus handing the bread to Judas becomes a kind of reverse communion–a gesture that dismisses Judas once and for all;  the opposite of our experience of coming to Jesus through the bread and wine.

John tells us that it is Satan who comes into to Judas. And it is at this moment that John makes us understand that what is about to happen is a cosmic battle between God and the powers of evil. Judas and the ones to whom he betrays Jesus, and who actually carry out the events to follow are the means of setting events into motion, but neither Judas nor the Temple officials or even Caiphas or Pilate are more than pawns in this great battle.

The last words in this passage say it all: “And it was night.” Darkness more dark than any night in history has descended.

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