Archives for February 2015

Psalm 25:1–7; 2 Chronicles 21:18–23:21; Acts 22:17–29

Psalm 25:1–7: These verses “for David” are about shame and memory. The psalmist, trusting in God, asks “Let me be not shamed,/ let my enemies not gloat over me.” (2) The poet expands the idea of God sparing us from shame to include all who trust in God: “Yes, let all who hope in You not be shamed.” (3a) Rather, “Let the treacherous be shamed, empty-handed.” (3b)

The therapeutic community talks about shame a lot–or at least the therapist I met with has. But I do not think about shame very much, or sometimes even understand what it is. I suspect I’m not alone on that. Yet, here in this psalm it’s clear that shame is very much a part of our human condition. Shame is not just the things we know we’ve done or not done that are wrong; shame has hurt both ourselves and other people. But unacknowledged shame has a crippling effect on our lives and our relationships.

And here, our psalmist is willing to bring the darkest parts of himself to God. And so should I. This comes to memory: ours and God’s. First, the psalmist asks God to “Recall Your mercies, O lord,/ and Your kindnesses–they are forever.” (6) and God remembers only mercy not our shame once confessed. Because once we have admitted our shame to God, he forgets: “My youth’s offenses and my crimes recall not.” Rather, God “in [His] kindness recalls me.” (7b) Me, the person I am, not my shame. But we must remember: shame must be acknowledged; otherwise it festers in ourselves and hinders our relationship with others and with God.

2 Chronicles 21:18–23:21: Jehoram, Jehoshaphat’s evil successor pays for his sins in a most hideous way, what I presume to be colorectal cancer: “After all this the Lord struck him in his bowels with an incurable disease.” (21:18) and he dies “in agony.” But no one cares; they’re just glad to be rid of him: “He departed with no one’s regret.” (20)

Ahaziah, his youngest son, succeeds him–only because “the troops who came with the Arabs to the camp had killed all the older sons.” (22:1) Alas, Ahaziah followed in father’s footsteps and “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord,” (4) under the evil influence of Israel and Ahab to the north, ruling “as the house of Ahab had done; for after the death of his father they were his counselors, to his ruin.” (4) (I love the editorial comments of the Chronicler!)  Ahaziah meets his end within a year, executed by Jehu, Ahab’s successor.

“When Athaliah, Ahaziah’s mother, saw that her son was dead, she set about to destroy all the royal family of the house of Judah” and seizes the throne of Judah. (22:10) But “Jehoshabeath, the king’s daughter, took Joash son of Ahaziah, and stole him away from among the king’s children who were about to be killed;” (22:11). After seven years, the priest, “Jehoiada took courage, and entered into a compact with the commanders of the hundreds,” and Jehoiada sets up a guard around Joash in the temple. Joash is eventually anointed king of Judah and the treacherous Athalia is murdered.

After years of corruption and worship of the Baals, Judah returns to God and worship is restored at the temple. The priest Jehoiada is clearly in charge since Joah is still young.

What are we to make of all this internecine warfare, conspiracies and treachery? The Chronicler is making it clear: that when Judah and its kings turn away from God, chaos and death reign. Alas, I think we have entered a similar age today.

Acts 22:17–29: Paul concludes his personal testimony before the Jews of Jerusalem, describing how he stood by while Stephen was stoned by the mob and concludes with the provocative statement that God “said to me, ‘Go, for I will send you far away to the Gentiles.’” (21) The crowd is clearly unhappy at this and renders its judgement, “they shouted, “Away with such a fellow from the earth! For he should not be allowed to live.”” (22) I’m pretty sure Paul knew this would be their reaction, but Paul can only say what is truth. But the mob is not interested in Paul’s truth.  At this point we see the separation between Jew and Christian that persists to this day. The world is divided: Jew and Gentile.

The Roman troops take Paul into the barracks, where he is “to be examined by flogging, to find out the reason for this outcry against him.” (24). Paul is bound, but before the lash hits him he asks, “Is it legal for you to flog a Roman citizen who is uncondemned?” (25) The Tribune knows there will be serious trouble if Paul, as a Roman citizen, is flogged without having been tried. The Tribune admits that he bought his citizenship, but Paul says, “I was born a citizen.” And “the tribune also was afraid, for he realized that Paul was a Roman citizen and that he had bound him,” (29) realizing that Paul could bring the weight of Roman law down on his head.

What is Luke telling us here in this exchange between Paul and the Tribune? There’s more going on here than the fact of Paul’s Roman citizenship. It’s a fascinating reversal: Paul was also born a Jew, but he is now a citizen of the Kingdom of God, a citizenship that was purchased by Christ’s death and resurrection. The Tribune had to pay a lot of money to buy his Roman citizenship, something Paul got for free because he was born into it.  Could it be that Luke is implicitly saying, that the Jewish mob outside were born as Jews into the citizenship of the Kingdom of God if they would acknowledge Jesus as their Messiah, but in rejecting Christ have also rejected citizenship in the Kingdom?

Psalm 24; 2 Chronicles 20:20–21:17; Acts 22:3–16

Psalm 24: We can imagine this psalm being sung as a procession of pilgrims winds its way up the mountain to the Temple. The psalm begins with God as Creator–and master of all creation: “The Lord’s is the earth and its fullness, / The world and the dwellers within it. / For He on the seas did found it.” (1,2a) making it clear that God and creation are separate.

Then, the rhetorical question, “Who shall go up on the mount of the Lord / and who shall stand in His holy place?” Who is worthy to enter the Temple? That would be “The clean of hands and pure of heart.” (4a) Now that those “who [have] given no oath a lie / and [have] sworn not in deceit” (4b) have arrived at the Temple, one imagines a moment of silence as all heads turn to the entrance and the singing: “Lift up your heads, O gates / and rise up, eternal portals / “that he king of glory may enter.”

This is exactly the image of warriors standing at attention waiting for their leader as the question just asked is answered: “The Lord, most potent and valiant, / The Lord Who is valiant in battle.” Or, for Israel, when the Ark of the Covenant was brought to the battlefield, as we see in the early chapters of 1 Samuel. The question is answered: it is God, “The Lord of armies, He is the king of glory.” (which lines are found in Handle’s Messiah)

This is a wonderful psalm on which to ponder when we think of God as small or when we try to put God into our little controllable boxes.What does it mean to be king of glory? That God is infinitely greater than even our imaginations.  God is the king of creation and we, even we who are pure of heart, are his creatures–whom he leads in battle, and whom he loves.

2 Chronicles 20:20–21:17: Jehoshaphat and the people of Judah have abandoned themselves completely to God, and now, ready for battle, “Jehoshaphat stood and said, “Listen to me, O Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem! Believe in the Lord your God and you will be established; believe his prophets.” (20:20) and just as we read in psalm 24, a choir goes before the army singing, ““Give thanks to the Lord,/  for his steadfast love endures forever.” (21). The Judeans rout the enemy completely (or as our author has it, “the Lord set an ambush against the Ammonites, Moab, and Mount Seir”). The conquest is so complete that it takes three days to gather all the booty.

Jehoshaphat is Judah’s most successful king after David and Solomon because except for a few missteps out of which he learns his lesson, he has trusted God absolutely. But all good things come to an end. He dies and his son, Jehoram, takes the throne of Judah, who commences his reign by assassinating his six brothers and marrying the daughter of Ahab, aligning himself with Israel. Things go downhill from there, and the great curse of the historian is laid on him: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.” 921:6). But, doubtless unknowing since he was certainly not paying attention, Jehoram was spared because, “the Lord would not destroy the house of David because of the covenant that he had made with David,” (7)

The prophet Elijah enters Jehoram’s life via a letter the prophet sends to the king, telling him that because he has not followed God and has done evil things such as killing his brothers, “ the Lord will bring a great plague on your people, your children, your wives, and all your possessions, and you yourself will have a severe sickness with a disease of your bowels, until your bowels come out, day after day, because of the disease.” (14) And in the midst of Jehoram’s agony, the Philistine’s and Arabs invade, plunder and kill, leaving only Jehoahaz, Jehoram’s youngest son.”

Jehoram learns too late that actions have consequences, especially where God is concerned. We may not experience the one-to-one correspondence between abandoning God and disease and defeat the way Jehoram did, but it’s worth remembering that even when bad things happen, God is also merciful and keeps his side of the vow. Do we keep our side? Or are we like Jehoram?

Acts 22:3–16: Speaking in Hebrew on the steps of the Roman barracks, Luke gives us a tangible picture of the Jew who went to the Greeks in the Roman Empire. While we know everything Paul is about to say because Luke gave it to us in third person narrative early in this book, now Luke becomes court reporter and we hear Paul’s story in his own words, exactly as he told it.

Paul first gives his Jewish bona fides “brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God,” and then tells the crowd, ” just as all of you are today.” Brilliant. He is identifying with them. He recounts how he persecuted “to the point of death” the new converts to The Way. So far, Paul is saying, “I am exactly like all of you.”

This makes the story of his Damascus Road conversion and how he was blinded even more dramatic. From night to day. He gives credit to “a certain Ananais, who was also a Jew that had converted. Here, we learn that Ananais said much more to Paul than “Regain your sight,” but also, “The God of our ancestors has chosen you to know his will, to see the Righteous One and to hear his own voice;” (14) Paul is brilliantly tightening the link between his (and Ananais’s) Jewishness, making it clear that turning to Jesus Christ is not just a new fad, but that it is a completely logical progression that reaches back to the foundation of Judaism.

Paul, in telling his own story using Ananais’s words, is inviting the Jewish crowd to do exactly the same thing: “And now why do you delay? Get up, be baptized, and have your sins washed away, calling on his name.’” (16).

Paul’s testimony is immensely powerful–not just for what his experience was, but that his experience can be exactly his listener’s experience. The most powerful testimonies are the ones that draw us in close so we can see ourselves: that what happened to Paul can just as well be our story, as well. He has drawn them in as close as he possibly can. What will the crowd do?

Psalm 23; 2 Chronicles 19:1–20:19; Acts 21:31–22:2

Psalm 23: What can be written or said about this psalm that has not already been written or said? God as shepherd must have been an earth-shattering metaphor when this psalm was written. Shepherds were at the bottom rung of society, seen by others as nere-do-wells unsuited for other positions than to spend the nights in the cold and dark with sheep–surely among the stupidest of large mammals.

Yet, Jesus in telling the parable of the shepherd and then proclaiming himself the Good Shepherd elevated this psalm even higher. Like everything else about him, he turned the world upside down, just as this metaphor here turns the understanding of God as majestic, powerful, and awesome upside down. God as shepherd, as companion.

We think of this psalm as gentle, comforting–something to be read at funerals. And it is. We think of the last verse–“And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever”–as heaven, our final resting place. Although, as Alter translates it, what we read as ‘forever’ he translates as “for many long days.” Since the OT has no particular concept of heaven, this could simply be a statement of David longing to be back at the Tabernacle. In short, the end of the verse is not about death, it’s about worship.

Far from being a valedictory, something to be read at funerals, it is the description of the living relationship between God and us. It is about life, not death.

2 Chronicles 19:1–20:19: After the abortive alliance with Ahab and Israel, Jehoshaphat returns to Jerusalem chastened. Even Hanani the seer admits, “Nevertheless, some good is found in you,.” (19:3) Jehoshaphat redoubles his efforts to be a good king, establishing a judicial system and warning the judges, ““Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on the Lord’s behalf; he is with you in giving judgment. Now, let the fear of the Lord be upon you; take care what you do, for there is no perversion of justice with the Lord our God, or partiality, or taking of bribes.” (6, 7)

The Moabites and Ammonites plan to invade from the east. “ Jehoshaphat was afraid; he set himself to seek the Lord, and proclaimed a fast throughout all Judah.Judah assembled to seek help from the Lord;” (20:4) The king prays, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” (20:12) This is true humility: admitting that “we do not know what to do” and turning to God. Jehoshaphat comes to God free of pride. Unlike so many others, he does not already have a plan in mind and comes to God asking for approval of what he’s already figured out. The king has abandoned himself completely to God.

Before the men of Judah, including “their little ones, their wives, and their children.” Jahaziel, son of Zechariah comes forward and speaks with the spirit of the Lord on him: “Thus says the Lord to you: ‘Do not fear or be dismayed at this great multitude; for the battle is not yours but God’s.” (20:15) and “Do not fear or be dismayed; tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” (20:17)

There it is: the battle is not ours but God’s. And yet, I hold on to my plan, my ideas, so fiercely. In this time of crisis, Jehoshaphat and Judah turn it all over to God. To be blunt, in this way, Solomon’s grandson was much wiser than Solomon himself.  Can I abandon my plans and my pride the way this king and country did?

Acts 21:31–22:2: In the midst of the riot while the Jews were trying to kill Paul, order is restored by the Roman tribune, who arrests Paul, but have no idea what he’s done wrong. The crowd is no help: “Some in the crowd shouted one thing, some another; and as he could not learn the facts because of the uproar, he ordered him to be brought into the barracks.” The mob–eerily reminiscent of another mob in Jerusalem some years before–wants Paul to be killed.

Paul asks the tribune if he can speak– in Greek. Surprised, the Tribune, who clearly did not understand Hebrew, asks if Paul is the “Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” (38). Paul replies with his bon fides and asks, “I beg you, let me speak to the people.” Paul calms the crowd and begins speaking in Hebrew…

Luke gives us a brilliant picture of the tension between Rome and the Jews. We see the critical importance of language and understanding. The Roman authorities do not understand the language–much less the culture–of the people they are ruling. The lesson here for us: unless there is understanding at the most basic level, there is no hope of understanding at a higher level. It becomes all mobs and riots. Today, we do our shouting and rioting on the Internet… But our misunderstanding of others is just as great.

Psalm 22:29–31; 2 Chronicles 18; Acts 21:17–30

 Psalm 22:29–31: These last three verses are benedictory–and somewhat puzzling. (Alter remarks that the last two verses in particular, “everything in the Hebrew through the end of the next verse (and the psalm) is opaque, bearing the look of a word salad tossed by a bewildered scribe.”)

As we’ve seen before, this psalm applies not just to Jews, but to everyone. And here the psalmist extends God’s inclusivity even farther to everyone who is yet unborn, all who exist and to all who have died. God is ruler over every human being, “For the Lord’s is the kingship–/ and He rules over the nations.”  So far so good. But then, it appears that even the dead will worship God: “Yes, to Him will bow down/ all the netherword’s sleepers.” (30) For those of us who believe in life after death, there’s nothing unusual here. But it is highly unusual to find it in the OT because the Hebrews did not believe in an afterlife. Worship would not be expected in Sheol.

As we’ve seen, though, this psalm ranges far beyond the interests of Jews and prophecies to all people–so too, here in these final verses. In fact, I think we see a tiny glimpse of the worship in heaven: “Before Him will kneel all who go down to dust.” (30b)

And for the living, for those to come, “My seed will serve Him./ It will be told to the Master for generations to come.” (31) And here we are, hundreds of generations later, and we “will proclaim His bounty to a people aborning, for [what] he has done.” And indeed, we should pause and reflect a moment on the clouds of witness that have come before us–and our responsibility to proclaim God to “a people aborning”–yet to come.

2 Chronicles 18: Ahab, Israel’s king asks Jehoshaphat to join him in common war against Ramoth-gilead. Judah’s king says they should inquire first of God as to the wisdom of this adventure. Ahab wheels out his pagan prophets–all 400 of them–but Jehoshaphat asks almost plaintively, “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?” (6). Ahapb sends for Micaiah, noting, “but I hate him, for he never prophesies anything favorable about me, but only disaster.” (7). The 400 prophets have forecasted glorious triumph, but when asked about the coming battle, Micaiah replies, “As the Lord lives, whatever my God says, that I will speak.” (13) Ahab agrees to listen and Micaiah promptly forecasts doom: “I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd” (13)

Ahab is not pleased and whines to the king of Judah, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?” (17) and then promptly locks up the truth-telling prophet.

Ahab goes into battle, disguises himself as a soldier and is killed. Jehoshaphat is standing there, dressed as a king and the captains of the chariots see who they think is Ahab. But “Jehoshaphat cried out, and the Lord helped him. God drew them away from him,” (31) –saved by a hair. I’m sure the king of Judah saw the folly of his ways for having been enticed into battle despite Miciah’s warning.

Many of us are Ahab, or worse, our leaders are Ahab: we hear only what we want to hear, what fits our preconceived plan and are simply looking for the weakest justification. Too often, our leaders hear only the soothing words of the sycophants around them and disaster ensues. As events of the last 12 years have so amply demonstrated. But we who follow God can also be drawn into folly like Jehoshaphat, choosing to ignore the prophetic voice in our ear.

Acts 21:17–30: Paul arrives in Jerusalem and meets with James. There’s a problem: Paul is anathema to the Jewish believers because “They have been told about you that you teach all the Jews living among the Gentiles to forsake Moses, and that you tell them not to circumcise their children or observe the customs.” (21) James’s solution is for Paul to join four men in a rite of purification so that “all will know that there is nothing in what they have been told about you, but that you yourself observe and guard the law.” (24b) Happily, the church at Israel has absolved teh Gentiles, having sent a letter to that effect.

But Paul is a Jew, and he agrees and enters “the temple with them, making public the completion of the days of purification when the sacrifice would be made for each of them.” (26)

All is well until a bunch of Asian Jews spot him, seize him and stir up the crowd, saying “This is the man who is teaching everyone everywhere against our people, our law, and this place.” OK, there’s some truth to this from their point of view.  But then an outright lie, as they continue, “more than that, he has actually brought Greeks into the temple and has defiled this holy place.” (28) And the what all Paul’s friends feared, and what I suspect Paul knew would happen, “They seized Paul and dragged him out of the temple, and immediately the doors were shut.” (30).

Is this part of Paul’s plan? We know from what Luke has told us previously, that Paul was hell-bent on getting to Jerusalem, and we suspect he had more than a rite of purification in mind when he got there.

Psalm 22:22–28; 2 Chronicles 16,17; Acts 21:5–16

Psalm 22:22–28: The emphasis of the psalm shifts from the trials of a single person–“Rescue me from the lion’s mouth” (22)–to telling others of God’s greatness: “Let me tell Your name to my brothers, / in the assembly let me praise You.” (23) And from the assembly to the entire nation: “All the seed of Jacob revere Him!” (24)

But remember, the psalmist warns, God is also to be feared: “And be afraid of Him, all Israel’s seed!” This seems a warning to those who have oppressed the downtrodden because God has certainly not forgotten them: “For He has not spurned nor despised/ the affliction of the lowly.” (26) And once again, as we do so frequently, we encounter, albeit briefly here, the underlying economic theme of the OT: God cares for the poor, the widows, and orphans first: “The lowly will eat and be sated.” (27)

Then, the verses expand out from the poor and Israel to all of creation: “All the far ends of the earth will remember/ and return to the Lord./ All the clans of the nations / will bow down before you.” If we consider the prophetic nature of this psalm as speaking earlier of Christ’s death on the cross, then here in this ascent from Israel to all the world we can glimpse the message of the Good News overtaking the world.

2 Chronicles 16,17: But in the 36th year of Asa’s reign over Judah, Israel’s king begins to build fortifications, making it clear he’s going to attack Judah. Asa forms an alliance with King Ben-hadad of Aram, clearly not a Jew, in Damascus. The seer Hanani comes to Asa and says, “Because you relied on the king of Aram, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped you.” (16:7). In a famous example of attacking the messenger, Asa “Asa was angry with the seer, and put him in the stocks, in prison, for he was in a rage with him because of this.” (16:10)

Three years later Asa has a severe foot disease, “yet even in his disease he did not seek the Lord, but sought help from physicians.” (16:13). Would Asa have been healed if he turned to God? Our Chronicler is certainly suggesting that. For me, anyway, I’ll take the lesson as prayer and physicians. Medical science clearly does not know everything and prayer for healing should come alongside science.

Asa’s son, Jehoshaphat, comes to the throne and J “sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the ways of Israel.” (17:4) and God is pleased and “Therefore the Lord established the kingdom in his hand.” (5) And the remainder of this chapter describes the power of Judah and the respect accorded to its king as “Jehoshaphat grew steadily greater.” (17:12).

We learn something about Asa’s son that was never said of his father: “ His heart was courageous in the ways of the Lord.” (6) What an honor! It’s clear that the young American woman,Kayla Jean Mueller, who went to help the poor and afflicted in Syria had a courageous heart in the ways of the Lord. She carried out what God has asked all of us to do: to care for the poor and the afflicted. For her troubles she was murdered by evil. But she is honored both on earth and on heaven for her vision, for he willingness to act on that vision and ultimately, for her courage. Could my heart be as courageous in the ways of the Lord?

Acts 21:5–16: Paul and his companions, including Luke, leave Tyre and journey to Caesarea to the house of Philip the evangelist, whom we have already met–most famous for converting the Ethiopian eunuch. While they are staying there, the prophet Agabus “came down form Judea.” Luke provides us a remarkable–and moving–eyewitness account of what Agabus does: “He came to us and took Paul’s belt, bound his own feet and hands with it, and said, “Thus says the Holy Spirit, ‘This is the way the Jews in Jerusalem will bind the man who owns this belt and will hand him over to the Gentiles.’” (11).

We can see Paul’s friends circling him and begging him not to go to Jerusalem. I’m sure that they told Paul how much more valuable he would be to the church if he continued  to preach in places far form Jerusalem. I’m sure they told him, there are so many who have not yet heard the Good News. I’m sure they couldn’t fathom Paul’s obsession with going to Jerusalem where danger and probably death awaits. If I were there, I know I wouldn’t.

Paul is distraught because he does not feel supported by his friends who are “breaking my heart” in what he clearly sees as his mission. But finally, “Since he would not be persuaded, we remained silent except to say, “The Lord’s will be done.” (14).

How often have we tried to dissuade someone from going on what we think is a crazy, even dangerous path? I remember thinking how crazy my friends Larry and Linda were for becoming missionaries and taking their five kids with them to then dangerous Colombia. Yet, God has used Larry and Linda mightily in ways we could never have imagined. What seems so obvious to us is not always the way that God would have someone go. Just as I’m sure the friends of Kayla Mueller, killed by ISIS in Syria, pleaded with her exactly as Paul’s friends did. Yet, it is entirely possible that her death may change the course of history.

Psalm 22:9–21; 2 Chronicles 14,15; Acts 20:32–21:4

Psalm 22:9–21: From despair and the realization that “Who turns to the Lord, He will set him free,” we come to the remarkable–almost startling–metaphor of God’s rescue as childbirth: For You drew me out from the womb./ Upon You I was cast from birth,/ from my mother’s belly You were my God.” (10, 11)  Not only is the transition from despair to salvation as radical as coming from the darkness of the womb into life, but the psalmist also acknowledges that he is God’s form the moment of his birth.

As we all are. This intimate connection–that of mother and child is an unbreakable bond. And it on this bond that he now calls out to God as a lost child crying to its mother: “Do not be far form me,/ for distress is near,/ for there is none to help.” (12).

While the next verses continue to describe the psalmist’s desperate straits, the imagery is exactly that of Jesus on the cross: “Like water I spilled out,/ all my limbs fell apart.” (15) And, “My palate turned dry as a shard/ and my tongue was annealed to my jaw.” (16).  The striking imagery of Jesus continues. We see him looking down from the cross and “a pack of evil surrounded me,” (17) And then perhaps the most remarkable prophecy in the psalm: “They shared out my garments among them/ and cast lots for my clothes.” (19).

It is impossible to ignore the christological elements of this psalm and not come away with the sense that the agony of the cross was seen hundreds of years before its occurrence. This is neither coincidence nor manipulation of reportage by the gospel writers.

2 Chronicles 14,15: Israel enjoys ten years of peace as Asa, Solomon’s grandson, “did what was good and right in the sight of the Lord his God.” (14:2), ridding Judah of “the foreign altars and the high places, broke down the pillars, hewed down the sacred poles.” (3) Some of the might of the former kingdom is restored as they fortify the cities and rebuild the army to 300,000 strong from Judah and another 280,000 from Benjamin.

Just in time, too. Zerah the Ethiopian invades, but is repulsed after Asa, recognizing, that Judah is no longer the world power that Israel was under Solomon, prays to God, “O Lord, there is no difference for you between helping the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you.” (11) As God indeed does, and Judah “defeated all the cities around Gerar, for the fear of the Lord was on them.” (14) It’s interesting that the issue is not that God was “on Judah’s side,” but that Judah’s enemies feared (in the normal sense) the Lord.

And to make the point that God helps those who pray to God, Azariah the prophet comes out and reminds everyone, “Hear me, Asa, and all Judah and Benjamin: The Lord is with you, while you are with him. If you seek him, he will be found by you, but if you abandon him, he will abandon you.” (15:2) Azariah goes on to remind everyone that Israel fell away from God but now, he adjures Asa, “But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.” (7). In addition to destroying the idols, there is an fascinating gathering in of “those from Ephraim, Manasseh, and Simeon who were residing as aliens with them, for great numbers had deserted to him from Israel when they saw that the Lord his God was with him.” (9). Israel, the northern kingdom, had completely abandoned God, but those in the north who trusted God came south to join with Judah and Benjamin, as “They entered into a covenant to seek the Lord, the God of their ancestors, with all their heart and with all their soul.” (12)

There’s the little sidelight to drive Asa’s faith in God home: “King Asa even removed his mother Maacah from being queen mother because she had made an abominable image for Asherah” and just to make sure Mom got the point, “Asa cut down her image, crushed it, and burned it at the Wadi Kidron.” (16) Since Asa and all Judah and the new immigrants form Israel had turned to God, they are rewarded with peace for another 20 years “until the thirty-fifth year of the raeign of Asa.” (19) The connection is crystalline: Fear and worhip God and your kingdom will stand.

Acts 20:32–21:4: Paul concludes his peroration to the Ephesian elders with a precis of what we read in his epistles: “I commend you to God and to the message of his grace, a message that is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all who are sanctified.” (20:32) and that he has “given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (35) These last lines are a good reminder to us that in community, we are to be holy examples to each other, as we are all to be (as Paul says elsewhere) imitators of Christ.

In one of the more emotional scenes in Acts, the meeting concludes as Paul “knelt down with them all and prayed. There was much weeping among them all; they embraced Paul and kissed him,” (37) knowing they would never see Paul again.

Luke then gives us the fairly complex itinerary from Melitus to Tyre. There, Luke tells us, “We looked up the disciples and stayed there for seven days.” (21:4). The disciples there “told Paul not to go on to Jerusalem.” This is not just their opinion, but as Luke tells us, the spoke “through the Spirit.” Will Paul contradict what the Holy Spirit has told them?

 

Psalm 22:1–8; 2 Chronicles 12:13–13:22; Acts 20:17–31

Psalm 22:1–8: With the possible exception of the psalm that follows, these are the most famous opening lines of any psalm: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” For Christians, there can be no other image than that of the suffering Jesus, hanging on the cross, gasping these words out in the moments before he dies.

Since everyone hearing those words would know their context and the words that follow, they would know that they are the opening line to one of the most desperate poems ever written. Because, God is silent: “My God, I call out by day and You do not answer,/ by night–no stillness in me.” (3)

Others have cried out and been rescued, “To You they cried out, and escaped,/ in You they trusted and were not put to shame.” (6) Of course, to the psalmist these were the sufferer’s Jewish ancestors: “In You did our fathers trust,/ they trusted and You set them free.” (5)

But for us who are here after the cross, these verses read prospectively, not retrospectively: Our trust in Jesus–the God-man–is what has set us free. It is this very suffering that allows us to escape and not be put to shame.

What is so striking about this psalm are the images that we read in the gospel about that dreadful Friday afternoon as the psalmist cries out. We see the mocking crowd: “a disgrace among men, by the people reviled./ All who see me do mock me–/they curl their lips, they shale their head. (7b, 8).

But then, the magnificent promise that out of tragedy, out of Jesus’ death, life emerges from the cross: “Who turns to the Lord, He will set him free./ He will save him,.” (9) These words, written hundred of years before Jesus, are the promise for all of us of the salvific power of the One who died for us. But agony and, yes, momentary abandonment by God are an essential element of our salvation.

2 Chronicles 12:13–13:22: Solomon’s once united kingdom has split in two: Judah under Rehoboam and Israel under Jeroboam. Rehoboam reigns seventeen years, but was constantly at war with his brother Jeroboam. The harsh but clear judgement of the Chronicler is memorialized down through history: “He did evil, for he did not set his heart to seek theLord.” (12:14)

The internecine wars continue under Rehoboam’s son, Abijah. The new king makes a remarkable speech on the slope of Mount Zemaraim, making note of Jerobaom’s bastardy and saying that while Jeroboam drove out the priests and set up altars to false gods, Abijah and his followers continue to worship the true God: “But as for us, the Lord is our God, and we have not abandoned him. We have priests ministering to the Lord who are descendants of Aaron, and Levites for their service.” (13:10).

Abijah calls on those with Jeroboam to remember and literally reminds them that God is on Abijah’s side–and for good reason; Abijah and Judah are following him and Jeroboam is not: “ See, God is with us at our head, and his priests have their battle trumpets to sound the call to battle against you. O Israelites, do not fight against the Lord, the God of your ancestors; for you cannot succeed.” (13:12).

Jeroboam attacks, and is defeated: “Abijah and his army defeated them with great slaughter; five hundred thousand picked men of Israel fell slain.” (13:17) But Abijah does not kill Jeroboam although “Jeroboam did not recover his power in the days of Abijah.” Ultimately, “theLord struck him down, and he died.” (13:20). Abijah’s power grows and he takes 14 wives.

Since this history is written during the Babylonian exile, Israel has already been conquered and disappeared hundreds of years before. As usual, history is written by the victors.

Acts 20:17–31: Paul, at Miletus, asks the elders of the Ephesian church to come meet with him, which they do. (Notice “elders of the church:” it did not take long for the early church to develop hierarchy and structure.)

Paul gives a moving benedictory speech, reviewing his missionary efforts noting that he endured “the trials that came to me through the plots of the Jews. I did not shrink from doing anything helpful, proclaiming the message to you…as I testified to both Jews and Greeks about repentance toward God and faith toward our Lord Jesus.” (21)  He tells them he is on his way to Jerusalem–certainly headquarters of his ferocious Jewish opposition–not knowing his fate, but based on his experience, “that imprisonment and persecutions are waiting for me.” (23) 

Nevertheless, Paul will soldier on, “if only I may finish my course and the ministry that I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify to the good news of God’s grace.” (24). And then the words his visitors knew were coming but did not want to hear: “I know that none of you, among whom I have gone about proclaiming the kingdom, will ever see my face again.” (25)  We have to believe there was not a dry eye among the Ephesians at this point.

But Paul has not called the Ephesians to Miletus to just say goodbye. He offers is a serious warning that as elders they have responsibility to the flock (notice the shepherd/sheep imagery): “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son.” (29) The church will be attacked from both without and within: “Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.” (30) Paul tells them to be alert and we are reminded of Jesus warning to remain always alert.

Luke uses the device of this meeting to put forward crucial truths about Paul, about testimony, but above all the responsibility that rests on the shoulder of church leaders. Right down to today. I have to believe that Pope Francis knows this passage in Acts well.

 

Psalm 21; 2 Chronicles 11:1–12:12; Acts 20:4–16

Psalm 21: In this royal psalm, the psalmist addresses God in the second person, while referring to the king in the third person. One has the impression of the poet standing before the throne of David, or perhaps the psalm is part of a worship liturgy–as it is in many liturgical churches today. (Unfortunately, at my church we never hear a psalm at worship.)

The psalmist is reviewing how God has blessed the king, whom we presume is David, first speaking about how much the king loves and worships God: “Lord, in your strength the king rejoices,/ and in your rescue how much he exults.” (2) And God has blessed him mightily–to the extent that God has given David whatever he has desired: “His heart’s desire You gave to him,/ and his lips’ entreaty You did not withhold.” (3)  This verse seems pretty hyperbolic, but again, we are talking poetry, not history, here.

Clearly, there has been a recent military victory, “Great is his glory through Your rescue./ Glory and grandeur You bestowed on him.” (6) And the poet elucidates the reason for this: “For the King puts his trust in the Lord,/ through Elyon’s kindness he will not fail.” (8) [Elyon is another name for Go meaning “God most high.”]

As always seems to happen in these royal psalms, the defeat and grim fate of the enemy takes center stage toward the end: “The Lord will devour them in His anger,/ and fire will consume them.” (10). I have to confess this seems an abrupt change of tone, and Alter suggests that this psalm may be two shorter psalms tacked together. Or perhaps, it is simply like the second verse of a hymn that takes up a different subject. In any event, this psalm must have surely pleased the David’s ears and doubtless was sung before his less worthy successors.

2 Chronicles 11:1–12:12: Speaking of less worthy successors…Solomon’s son, Rehoboam wishes to crush his brother Jeroboam, and assembles the army. But a prophet, Shemiah, whom we meet only here says, ““Thus says the Lord: You shall not go up or fight against your kindred.” (11:4) and “they heeded the word of the Lord and turned back from the expedition against Jeroboam.” (4b) Nevertheless, we sense Rehoboam’s wariness as he fortifies towns in Judah and Benjamin.

The Levite priests, who had been prevented from performing their priestly duties by Jeroboam, pledge their loyalty to Rehoboam, coming to Jerusalem to “sacrifice to the Lord, God of their ancestors. They strengthened the kingdom of Judah, and for three years they made Rehoboam son of Solomon secure” (17). And the reason is stated clearly: “for they walked for three years in the way of David and Solomon.” (17b). Rehoboam follows the footsteps of his father and grandfather, and as our Chronicler informs is, “he dealt wisely.” (23).

But Rehoboam begins to believe his own press releases, believing all these good things were due to his wisdom and strength, not God’s: “When the rule of Rehoboam was established and he grew strong, he abandoned the law of the Lord, he and all Israel with him.” (12:1) And the predictable awful consequences begin to occur. Egypt invades Jerusalem. The prophet “Shemiah returns, telling the king, “Thus says the Lord: You abandoned me, so I have abandoned you to the hand of Shishak.” (5). And, lo and behold, “the officers of Israel and the king humbled themselves and said, “TheLord is in the right.”” (6) But Rehoboam’s arrogance has caused  damage to be done and much of the temple’s wealth is lost to the Egyptian king. Repentance is what God desires but repentance does not erase consequences. But all in all, even though Israel has been humbled, “conditions were good in Judah.” (12:12)

Acts 20:4–16: Luke and some others catch up with Paul in Troas, “where we stayed for seven days.” Since Paul is leaving the next morning, there is a final evening meeting where Paul holds forth at some length (perhaps setting the standard for some of the stemwinder sermons heard today in many evangelical churches…) This poor guy, Eutychus falls asleep. Unfortunately he was sitting in the window and when he falls asleep he falls three stories to the ground below. Paul rushes out, takes the boy in his arms, saying “Do not be alarmed, for his life is in him.” (10) Notice that this is not a miracle. Eutychus has been extremely lucky.

But the Paul goes upstairs, has a meal and then “he continued to converse with them until dawn.” (11) Happily “they had taken the boy away alive and were not a little comforted.” (12) But if we needed proof that Paul could hold forth at indefatigable length, we certainly have it here. As is always the case when Luke is with him, we get a more intimate glimpse of Paul’s human side.

Luke describes their complex itinerary, noting that “Paul had decided to sail past Ephesus,” (16) which given the brouhaha there, is not terribly surprising. Luke tells us Paul “was eager to be in Jerusalem, if possible, on the day of Pentecost.” Many things are about to happen there…

 

Psalm 20; 2 Chronicles 9:13–10:19; Acts 19:32–20:3

Psalm 20:  Alter suggests this “royal psalm” is addressed to King David since all the references to “you” are in the masculine singular tense. To our modern ears, though, it has a very benedictory flavor: “May the Lord answer you on the day of distress…May He send help to you…and from Zion sustain you.” (2,3)

The wishes for good things to happen to the king continue to include everything the king could possibly desire—almost to the point of hyperbole: “May He grant you what your heart would want,/ and all your consoles may He fulfill.” (5)  This thought is repeated in the next verse: “May the Lord fill all your desires.” (6b) But I suppose when you’re invoking a blessing on a king, you naturally take it all the way…

From wishing the king well, the psalmist turns to to the confidence that God has already done all these things: “Now do I know / that the Lord has rescued His anointed./ He has inserted him form His holy heavens.” (7)

At first we may wonder why the psalmist wishes all these good things to happen to the king and then basically says they have already happened. But this is not contradictory. We ask God for blessing, knowing in our hearts that he has already blessed us, and as the psalmist notes, we have already been rescued “in the might of His right hand’s rescue.” (7b) For us, of course, we have been rescued by the salvific power of Jesus Christ himself.

And that is why unlike our enemies who “have tumbled and fallen / we arose and took heart.” (9)

2 Chronicles 9:13–10:19: The accountant side of our Chronicler reveals itself in his almost loving inventory of Solomon’s death, focusing on the 200 shields of beaten gold, noting that 600 shekels of gold went into each shield. Then to the ivory throne overlaid with gold.

One source of Solomon’s wealth was the constant stream of admiring visitors: “All the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind.” (9:23). And it’s good that we’re reminded that Solomon’s wisdom comes from God  Each visitor “ brought a present, objects of silver and gold, garments, weaponry, spices, horses, and mules, so much year by year. “ (24) —all leading to the king’s unimaginable wealth.

But wisdom and wealth do not create immortality. Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam takes over as king. We know things are not going to turn out well almost immediately when Rehoboam, asked to lighten the load of the workers, rejects the wise counsel of the older advisors and instead, listening to his younger friends states the infamous line,  “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to it; my father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (10:14).

Here we see the root cause of the failed leadership of so many kings and leaders to come. They listened neither to God nor to their people. Rehoboam’s pride and hubris replace Solomon’s wisdom. Only David seems to have gotten it right and his son, albeit to a lesser extent—despite his wisdom and worldly wealth. And Israel, the northern kingdom, “has been in rebellion against the house of David to this day.” (10:19) The inevitable collapse begins.

Acts 19:32–20:3: Talk about a reality that still applies today, albeit in social media rather than the Ephesian town square: “some were shouting one thing, some another; for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.” (19:32) Why gather facts when we can shout (and post our shouting)?

Only the town clerk of Ephesus seems to keep his head in the midst of the chaos. In his brief talk we find out that the statue of Artemis “fell from heaven,” and “Since these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash.” (36). He points out that “these men here who are neither temple robbers nor blasphemers of our[b] goddess. “ and tells the complainers to take it up in the courts,which are open. Then, to the point at hand, “we are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” (40)

In this passage, Luke makes it clear that the message about Jesus that Paul and the others are communicating is neither blasphemous nor seditious. Of course, later not everyone will see it that way. But the intervention of the town clerk makes it clear that even at its very earliest years of the church not every Roman official felt threatened and even that The Way sought peace, not confrontation. Of course, that too would change. Rather, it was the Jews who saw Paul as blasphemous.

So, once again Paul leaves town and heads to Greece. But word has clearly spread everywhere among the Jewish communities throughout the eastern Roman Empire that Paul is a blasphemous Jew and anathema to Judaism. Once again, Paul barely avoids another plot and returns to Macedonia. This is a good reminder that our tendency to translate Paul into our own culture and view his missionary efforts as anodyne was not at all the case. He was hated and despised by the Jews, who sought to kill him and the blasphemous message he promulgated.

Psalm 19:7–14; 2 Chronicles 8:1–9:12; Acts 19:21–31

Psalm 19:7–14: The psalmist turns from the glories of the heavens to the perfection of God’s quality in an almost list-like fashion. Each of God’s perfect qualities impact humans in the most positive way imaginable. God’s teaching is perfect and life-restoring. God’s steadfastness brings wisdom. God’s precepts delight the heart (the theme of Psalm 119!), God’s commands are life-giving. God’s judgements are true and just.

Then, just as suddenly the psalmist turns from this rather dry list to how God’s qualities taken together are pure sensuousness in we mere humans, “More desired than gold…and sweeter than honey, / the quintessence of bees.” (11).

And then, yet another poetic twist as the psalmist reflects on the fact that even though he keeps all God’s commandments, perhaps there are those sins he has committed without even being aware of them: “Unwitting sins who can grasp?/ Of unknown actions clear me.” (13). Can we sin without even knowing it? Of course we can: a harsh word, a hasty turning away from someone in need. I commit these sins far too often. But at least I have the assurance that if I confess all my sins, and as the psalmist says here, I am forgiven: “Then I shall be blameless/ and clear of great crime.” (14)

2 Chronicles 8:1–9:12: The Temple completed and dedicated to God, Solomon turns to the task of ruling Israel. However, it is not all a pretty picture of a benign and wise ruler: “All the people who were left of the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of Israel, from their descendants who were still left in the land, whom the people of Israel had not destroyed—these Solomon conscripted for forced labor, as is still the case today.” (8: 8,9)

Like his father, Solomon did a lot of appointing and administrative organizing, and still more riches redound to Israel: “They went to Ophir, together with the servants of Solomon, and imported from there four hundred fifty talents of gold and brought it to King Solomon.” (18).

Then the famous visit of the queen of Sheba, who comes to see the glories of Israel and to see for herself if this Solomon was as wise as people said he was. He was: “Solomon answered all her questions; there was nothing hidden from Solomon that he could not explain to her.” (9:2). But it seems that the queen may have come with a darker purpose in mind when she came, or perhaps she simply came to see if he was wealthier than she–a matter of neighbor envy. But having “observed the wisdom of Solomon” and his immense wealth, “there was no more spirit left in her.” (4).

Instead of envy, she becomes an admirer, saying she “I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes saw it.” (6a) But she’s now convinced: “Not even half of the greatness of your wisdom had been told to me; you far surpass the report that I had heard” (6b). And then she showers Solomon with still more wealth (120 talents of gold) and exotic spices. (Sort of like Hollywood celebrities who receive extravagant gifts they really don’t need.).

Solomon reciprocates, “Meanwhile King Solomon granted the queen of Sheba every desire that she expressed, well beyond what she had brought to the king.” (12) But I confess to being curious if some of those gifts were not material or intellectual, but more sensual in nature…

Acts 19:21–31: From the very earliest days of the church, there has always been an economic impact. Silver artisans in Ephesus, who made their living selling “silver shrines of Artemis” figure out that too many Ephesisans are turning to The Way, and sales are plummeting. As is always the case, the wrap their economic interest into the cloth of supposed reverence, “there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be scorned, and she will be deprived of her majesty” (27) and worst of all, negatively affecting the tourist trade: “that brought all Asia and the world to worship her.”

Another riot ensues. (Riots seem to be a popular pastime in this pre-entertainment age.) Two of Paul’s traveling companions, the hapless Gaius and Aristarchus, are dragged into the theatre. We do not learn their fate, only that the disciples would not allow Paul to go in after them. Luke even notes that “some officials of the province of Asia, who were friendly to him, sent him a message urging him not to venture into the theater.” (31)

Here’s the problem with the early church: it does exactly what Jesus kept talking about. The Kingdom of God will upset political and economic apple carts. What a contrast to today, where the church–us–and especially those who buy into (verb intended) the prosperity gospel–have pretty much been subsumed into the economic and political order to the point where we are indistinguishable from the rest of society. Have we become those Ephesian silversmiths?

On the other hand, we also shouldn’t forget that the church continues to minister in very real ways, bringing help and changing lives as it lifts people out of desperation and ill-health all over the world.