Archives for December 2014

Psalm 139:1-6; 2 Kings 2:19-3:27; John 21:1-14

Psalm 139:1-6: The NRSV translators of this justly famous “David psalm” title it “The Inescapable God.”  It is also a beautiful description of the qualities of God’s omniscience. No matter what we are doing or what time of day it is, God knows exactly what is going on inside our heads and hearts: “It is You Who know when I sit and I rise, / You fathom my thoughts from afar.” (2)

When God searches; He finds us even when we try to escape him and He knows our habits as well, “My path and my lair You winnow, / and with all my ways are familiar. (3) Perhaps the idea about God that should give us greatest pause is that he knows what we are going to say before we say it: “For there is no word on my tongue / but that You, O LORD, wholly know it.” (4) Would that I remember this verse before I open my mouth to make a cutting or thoughtless remark…

Of course God knows all about our innermost thoughts an being because we, after all, His creation, “From behind and in front You shaped me, and You set Your palm upon me.” (5).

But as created and not Creator, there are things to great for us to know or understand–or control: “Knowledge is too wondrous for me, /high above—I cannot attain it.” It is this simple reality that we refuse to accept and our overweening pride that we know–and can control–everything leads to the disasters we so ably create. To accept this verse is to accept our lesser status and to be humble before the God who has created us. Why is this so hard to do?

2 Kings 2:19-3:27: As much as I would like to hold Elisha in high esteem, I have trouble because of his response to boys who taunted him because of his bald head, “he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.” (2:24) Nevertheless, he is a prophet of God and when the king of Moab decides to declare war following the death of Ahab, Elisha is called in to consult with King Jehoram (who is does evil, but not as much evil as his parents, Ahab and Jezebel) of Israel, King Jehoshaphat of Judah and the king of Edom.

Elisha does not exactly welcome them with open arms, as he says mockingly to Jehoram,“What have I to do with you? Go to your father’s prophets or to your mother’s.” (3:13). But the king acknowledges it is “it is the Lord who has summoned us, three kings, only to be handed over to Moab.” Elisha agrees and prophesies that God will fill the local wadi with water, “which is only a trifle in the sight of God.” (3:18)

The three kings defeat the Moabites who have been fooled by the sun reflecting off the water that it is the blood of the fallen Israelites and Judeans. They attack unwisely with disastrous results.

What does this passage of warmongering say to us? That even though King Jehoram continued to worship other idols, he acknowledged God, and God showed incredible mercy via Elisha. It’s God who will respond to even the smallest acknowledgment–as if He wants nothing more than to have a relationship with Jehoram, even though Jehoram is 98% not with God. That 2% makes all the difference. Unlike all the other idols who demand all and give nothing, God gives us all even when we have given Him very little.

John 21:1-14: Even though they had seen the risen Jesus in Jerusalem, seven disciples return to Galilee and take up their old job of fishing. And while it was a miracle, the implications of the Resurrection have not yet sunk in during this period before Pentecost. It’s been a rough and unsuccessful night and some guy on the beach advises them to try the other side of the boat. They do so and haul in 153 fish (gotta love the precision of this detail!), although the net miraculously didn’t break.

Suddenly, it is John himself who recognizes that it’s Jesus, who has miraculously appeared up here in Galilee. In a very humorous detail, Peter, who has been working naked, modestly puts on some clothes and then jumps into the water. All the disciples drag in the fish and they go have breakfast with Jesus, whose appearance must be oddly changed. They recognize him, but “none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?””

Although as far as the disciples were concerned it was a terrific catch of fish, the symbolism of the incident is clear to us, who know how the story turns out. These disciples will go on to found the Church at Pentecost and will haul in people, whose numbers are beyond imagining. But it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that this happens. They could not find those fish on their own; they got the fish only after Jesus told them where to look. So too for us: we cannot grow the church on our own; it is only through the Holy Spirit’s power that we know where to fish.

Psalm 138:6-8; 2 Kings 1:1-2:18; John 20:24-31

 Psalm 138:6-8: The superscription, “For David,” suggests that the psalm is written to in dedication to him and to reflect David’s voice. As the histories point out, David was never confused about his position before God, even though he was king.  That is why he can “bow toward Your holy temple, and I [can] acclaim Your name for Your kindness and Your steadfast truth,” (2)

David has prayed to God and “On the day I called You answered me, / You made strength well up within me.”  But it is not until we reach verse 7 that we know the reason behind this psalm of thanksgiving: “You give me life in spite of my enemies’ wrath./ You stretch out Your hand, / and Your right hand rescues me.”

The image of God stretching out his hand is most notable in the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo in the iconic image where God’s right hand stretched out to the to infuse the spark of life in Adam. We probably do not realize ourselves how often the right hand of God has rescued us. And it is a marvelous image when I reflect on how I have been rescued from cancer.

The image of God’s outstretched hand becomes an embrace in the final verse: “O LORD, Your kindness is forever. Do not let go of Your handiwork.” And we have the assurance, as David did, that God’s embrace is forever and He will never let go of his handiwork: us.

2 Kings 1:1-2:18: Even though Elijah’s nemesis, Ahab, is dead the woes of Israel continue under the rule of King Ahaziah, who has fallen through a latticework and injured himself. He sends a captain with 50 men to “inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury.” (2). [‘Baal-zebub’ is, I presume, the etymologic origin of “Beelzebub,” one of the chief demons of the underworld.] The captain is intercepted by Elijah, who has been commanded by God to say, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?’ (4). And then God’s fire comes down and consumes the captain and his men. This happens three times. Elijah goes to the king and says that because he has sent messengers to inquire of the false God that the king will die. Which he promptly does.

Such is the price of apostasy. There is no opportunity for the recalcitrant king to repent; nor in his advanced state of disbelief is there reason to think he would have repented. He simply dies as Elijah says he would and his story ends.

Elisha is Elijah’s faithful protege and the company of prophets who accompany the pair come to Elisha and say “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” (2:3) Elisha responds, “Yes, but stay quiet.” Elisha sticks by his master as they cross the Jordan in an echo of the Red Sea, as Elijah has struck the river’s water with his rolled-up mantle; it parts and they cross over. Elisha refuses to leave Elijah’s side and the old prophet asks, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha replies “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (2:10)

Elijah ascends into heaven on the fiery chariot and Elisha “picked up the mantle of Elijah” (Aha! That’s where the saying comes from!), uses the rolled-up mantle exactly as his master had to strike the water of the Jordan; it parts and he crosses back over–a clear sign that Elisha is taking Elijah’s place. That this is so is readily apparent to the other prophets.

This is a story of succession. As kings succeeded each other by birth, the younger succeeds the older by the power of the Holy Spirit. We see that succession again at Pentecost. The power of the Holy Spirit is passed from Jesus on to those who believe him.

John 20:24-31: Jesus appears before my favorite disciple, Thomas, who I believe was an engineer and represents all of us who are data-driven. Of course, as Jesus notes, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Yes, it is all about faith, but I think Jesus is also allowing that we are free seek evidence–and many after Thomas certainly have. I think Thomas is an essential character in showing us again what separates the story of Jesus from myth lost in the mists of time. Jesus came in a specific historical time and place and verifiable things happened. Yes, we need faith, but it is faith based on evidence based in concrete reality.

John leaves us with the tantalizing observation, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” We all certainly wish we knew what they were. But then he states the entire purpose of writing his gospel: “But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.”

It is no accident that this statement immediately follows the story of Thomas. Like Thomas, we want demand evidence, and that is exactly what John has provided us. But we have to be satisfied with what John has told us. Actual belief comes only with that final leap of faith.

Psalm 137; 1 Kings 21:17-22:28; John 19:38-20:9

Psalm 137: There is a beautiful song, “Rivers of Babylon” whose lyrics are drawn from this psalm (and Psalm 19 according to Wikipedia). The opening verses are among the saddest in all the Psalms, for they evoke what was–and what might have been: “By Babylon’s streams, / there we sat, oh we wept,/ when we recalled Zion. /On the poplars there / we hung up our lyres.”

This psalm was doubtless written shortly after the exile of the Judeans to Babylon. The wounds are fresh and some Babylonians–“our plunderers rejoicing”–ask “Sing us from Zion’s songs.” The psalmist’s reply, “How can we sing a song of the Lord/ on foreign soil?” only deepens the psalmist’s longing. But the request also leads to reminiscence and a vow, which are sung in Hebrew sung to the Babylonians who do not understand:

“Should I forget you, Jerusalem,/ may my right hand wither. / May my tongue cleave to my palate/ if I do not recall you,/ if I do not set Jerusalem /above my chief joy.”

The psalm concludes with the notorious last line, “Happy who seizes and smashes / your infants against the rock.” Which their listeners surely did not understand but allows us to see and comprehend the deep bitterness and outrage of what has happened to Israel in captivity–what Robert Alter notes is surely a bloodcurdling curse. This psalm is proof of how the Psalms cover the entire gamut of human emotion.

1 Kings 21:1-22:28: King Ahab wants Naboth’s vineyard so he can plant a vegetable garden, but Naboth will not sell to the king because it is ancestral land. Ahab whines about this to Jezebel, who arranges to have a false charge–‘You have cursed God and the king.’ (21:10)– brought against Naboth, who is denied a defense and promptly stoned. Ahab takes possession of the vineyard.

The “word of the Lord” comes to Elijah and he pronounces a curse on Ahab in God’s name:“Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (21:19) because Ahab has “sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” (20). Elijah also pronounces a curse on Jezebel, and AHab repents, putting on sackcloth and “going about dejectedly.” Because of this repentance, Elijah reduces the sentence, “Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.” (21:29)

The author editorializes about Ahab, “(Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites.)” (21:25, 26). Ahab has sinned personally, but as king he has committed a greater sin against God, “because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin.” (21:23) Once again, Israel’s downfall stems in great part from the failure of its leadership. People will follow the example of their leaders, which is why they have a greater responsibility. Unfortunately, Ahab is only one in a long line of failed leaders down through history.

John 19:38-20:9:  Jesus is removed from the cross and buried by his”secret disciples,” Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, his public disciples having fled the scene. Why these two men? And why does John name them? Practically, of course, Jesus’ public disciples have fled, so there was no one else to do the job. But I think there’s a deeper message here. John is saying that Jesus has influenced men of standing; he’s not just a rabble-rouser from the countryside. Although they have no idea of what is about to happen, these two Jews knew that Jesus was extraordinary. I think they represent those who know in their hearts that jesus is who he says he is, but for one reason or another are not prepared to admit it–perhaps even to themselves, much less to others. 

It is at the Resurrection that we get the most intimate glimpse of John himself. He is “the one Jesus loved” and he’s a faster runner than Peter. Even though John arrives first at the tomb, it is Peter, arriving later, doubtless out of breath, who goes into the tomb first. Only then does John enter the tomb, “and he saw and believed for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (20:8,9) No matter how many times Jesus had told them that he would rise in accordance with scripture, it was not until the evidence of the empty tomb that “they believed.”

I think John is speaking of head and heart here. They had heard Jesus again and again, but had never “gotten it.” It is only when they see the simple yet astounding fact of the empty tomb that they believe. So too, for us: We can read Scripture until we are blue in the face. But it is only when we confront in one way or the other the reality of the empty tomb that we can truly believe who Jesus is–and realize that faith is a matter of the heart, not just the head.