Archives for February 2015

Psalm 19:1–6; 2 Chronicles 6:24–7:22; Acts 19:6–20

Psalm 19:1–6: Beginning much the same way as Psalm 8, our poet sees God’s hand in the skies above: “The heavens tell God’s glory / and His handiwork the sky declares.” (2) But then, in keeping with the role of voices in the psalms, he creates a metaphor of the heavens themselves speaking: “Day to day breathes utterance / and night to night pronounces knowledge.”  I’m sure any astronomer can identify with the “night pronouncing knowledge.”

But then, a reversal: “There is no utterance and there are no words,/ their voice is never heard.” (4). It’s not that the heavens stop speaking, it’s just that their language is beyond mere words.  And when I stand outside at night up in the mountains far away from the light pollution of the city, and before the moon comes up, I hear the heavens speaking–as I know they did to our poet so long ago under even darker skies.

The psalmist continues the image of “silent utterance” as he tells us, “Through all the earth their voice goes out,/ to the world’s edge their words.” (5) Then, the image shifts from the skies to the sun itself using the metaphor of a bridegroom coming out from from his tent, and then running exuberantly across the the sky each day: “From ends of the heavens his going out…and nothing can hide from his heat.” (7)

God’s natural creation is beyond words for the psalmist–and for me.

2 Chronicles 6:24–7:22: Solomon continues his dedicatory prayer, which becomes a sermon for Israel and how the nation should respond in a variety of calamities that can (and did) befall the nation such as defeat in war, drought and famine. The formula is simple: “confess your name, pray and plead with you in this house,” (6:24) and then to God, “may you hear from heaven, your dwelling place, forgive, and render to all whose heart you know, according to all their ways, for only you know the human heart.” (30)

While Solomon’s prayer is about the relationship between God and Israel , there is a telling clue of where responsibility rests: the human heart. Later in the prayer, he takes up the theme of the individual’s responsibility before God: ““If they sin against you—for there is no one who does not sin” (36) and “if they repent with all their heart and soul in the land of captivity” then Solomon asks, God to “hear from heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their pleas, maintain their cause and forgive your people who have sinned against you.” (39)

The prayer includes a remarkable passage regarding “foreigners, who are not of your people, Israel.” The Temple is a place that has been built for them, too, “in order that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” (33). And for us Christians, even though Solomon’s temple is long gone, Jesus Christ has indeed become the way in which all “foreigners” have come to know God.

Following what we could call Solomon’s high priestly prayer, he dedicates the temple. God shows his favor with “fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of the Lord filled the temple.” (7:1) Prodigious sacrifices follow, although the logistics of sacrificing “twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred twenty thousand sheep” seems daunting even on the scale of this enormous temple. Rivers of blood…

Following the temple dedication festivities, God comes to Solomon a second time, promising him, “I will establish your royal throne, as I made covenant with your father David saying, ‘You shall never lack a successor to rule over Israel.’” (18), but then if disobedience occurs and “you [Israel] turn aside and forsake my statutes and my commandments that I have set before you, and go and serve other gods and worship them, then I will pluck you up from the land that I have given you; and this house, which I have consecrated for my name, I will cast out of my sight.” (19) Which our author, writing from Babylonian exile knows all too well is exactly what happened. And he will next turn to telling that sad story.

Acts 19:6–20: Paul never gives up. In Ephesus, he argues his case at the synagogue “and for three months spoke out boldly.” (8) But some of his listeners persist in disbelief and speak “evil of the Way before the congregation.” (9) So, Paul goes to the local lecture hall of Tyrannus and continues to preach for two years “so that all the residents of Asia, both Jews and Greeks, heard the word of the Lord.” (10). We see the tragedy of the rejection of Jesus by the Jews unfolding in its inevitability withe their refusal to hear the good news that is so radically different than their expectations. Of course, we, too, are no exception when we hear new things that don’t fit our preconceived notions.

Now that he is primarily in the Gentile world, the miracles of Paul resume. To illustrate the increasing distance between the Good News and the Jews, Luke cites the example of the “itinerant Jewish exorcists tried to use the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, ‘I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.'” (13). But they are playing with fire as they themselves are overwhelmed by an evil spirit and barely escape with their lives.

The question that occurs to me is, is this a metaphor for the Jews themselves who can say only “I adjure you by the name of Jesus whose Paul proclaims,” keeping Jesus safely at arms length, and never accepting him into their own hearts? Or more to the point, am I the one who adjures the Jesus whom Paul proclaims, keeping Jesus at a safe intellectual distance, but failing to accept Jesus into my own heart?

Psalm 18:46–50; 2 Chronicles 5:2–6:23; Acts 18:22–19:5

Psalm 18:46–50:  Amidst David’s gratitude to “the God who grants vengeance to me / and crushes peoples beneath me” (48) we glimpse his strong underlying faith: “The Lord lives and blessed is my Rock,/ exalted the God of my rescue.” (47). David rests in a living God, not a mute household idol. God is David’s rock: the firm place from when he ventures forth and to whom he returns. God doesn’t move; God is always right there. God’s immutability and his immobility are a reminder to us that like the old cliche has it, when God seems far away we need to remember who moved.

This psalm that combines thanksgiving with disturbing violence concludes formally as David will “acclaim You among nations, O Lord,/ and to Your name I would hymn.” (50) This single verse reminds us of our two great responsibilities as Christians: that we are to worship God (“Your name I would hymn”) and we are to take the Good News of Jesus Christ out to the world at large (“I acclaim You among nations.”) Like the rock He is, it is God who is faithful–and our model of faithfulness. It is both our duty and joy to be faithful in return. In that regard may be always be like David, the warrior king, but above all else, “the man of God.”

2 Chronicles 5:2–6:23: The completed temple receives its last and greatest furnishing–the Ark of the Covenant. [Along with “the tent of meeting, and all the holy vessels that were in the tent.” (5:5)] where it is placed in the inner sanctuary under the “cherubim [who] spread out their wings over the place of the ark, so that the cherubim made a covering above the ark and its poles.” (8) Interestingly our author points out, “There was nothing in the ark except the two tablets that Moses put there at Horeb, where the Lord made a covenant with the people of Israel after they came out of Egypt.” (10)

What are we to make of the empty ark that contained only the stone tablets? For me, it means that God’s covenant is far greater than just those two stone tablets, but extends to all the world, speaking to the underlying theme that God is not “contained” in the Ark, but as Lord of creation, is everywhere. The Ark may be the symbol of the covenant between God and Israel, but is only that: a symbol. It is not the reality of the covenant that encompasses all creation–and all time as it extends down to us through Jesus Christ.

Once in place, there is worship: singing “with cymbals, harps and lyres.” And then “it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord” to sing the shortest but most profound worship hymn of all: “For he is good,/ for his steadfast love endures forever.” (13) And “the glory of the Lord filled the house of God.” At long last, Israel has built a permanent house for God–and he seems very pleased.

Solomon dedicates the temple, recounting the long journey that brought the Ark from Egypt to its resting place, noting along the way that it was David’s son–himself–“who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name.” (6:9) The king concludes with a prayer of dedication that acknowledges that God is not confined to the Ark. Indeed, “But will God indeed reside with mortals on earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, how much less this house that I have built!” (18).

I believe this prayer makes the temple at Jerusalem different than every other temple built in the ancient world. All the other gods and idols were confined to the place where they were worshipped–and nowhere else. Israel’s God–our God–transcends mere buildings. As creator, God cannot be constrained in creation and Solomon reminds us of this simple but profound fact.

Acts 18:22–19:5: Luke does not seem to be accompanying Paul at this point as he becomes a reporter, noting only  at a high level of abstraction, that Paul “went from place to place through the region of Galatia and Phrygia, strengthening all the disciples.” (18:23).

We meet Apollos, “a native of Alexandria. He was an eloquent man, well-versed in the scriptures.” (24). He “he spoke with burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus, though he knew only the baptism of John.” (25). But when “when Priscilla and Aquila heard him, they took him aside and explained the Way of God to him more accurately.” (26).

This is reminder to us that eloquence and enthusiasm are not sufficient to proclaim the word. There must be training and “accurate” knowledge of the “Way of God.” But when he heads to Corinth,”he greatly helped those who through grace had become believers,…showing by the scripture that the Messiah is Jesus.” (27, 28). In fact, as we know from Paul’s letter to Corinth, Apollos was so effective and compelling that he gained a coterie of followers, who were more enamored of the messenger than the Message.

In the meantime, Paul finally returns to Ephesus, where he encounters “disciples” who are unaware of the Holy Spirit, saying the were baptized “into John’s baptism,” reminding us that John’s message had indeed spread far and wide in the same years that Jesus’ message was being preached. Paul explains that John was telling “the people to believe in the one who was to come after him, that is, in Jesus.” (19:4) and they are baptized. This passage is a reminder that while there may be other small-g gospels out there, there is only one true Gospel–the good news about Jesus. At the same time it also reminds us that hearts are prepared by many means, making them open to the real truth when they hear it. I’m sure many missionaries have encountered this same receptivity and hunger for the actual God News.

Psalm 18:37–45; 2 Chronicles 3:1–5:1; Acts 18:8–21

 Psalm 18:37–45: These verses are among the most violent that we read in the psalms as David describes how God has assisted him in annihilating his enemies: “I pursued my enemies, caught them / turned not back until I wiped them out.” (38) Phrases such as “smashed them,” (39); and “I demolished them” (41) lead to a stark image of total conquest: “I crushed them like dust in the wind,/ like mud in the streets I ground them.”

It’s one thing for David the warrior to boast of his mighty victory, but these verses include a description of a merciless God, as David’s enemies as in their defeat they appeal to the very same God David trusts: “They cried out–there was none to rescue,/to the Lord–He answered not.” (42) paint a picture of merciless conquest.

This is one of those descriptions of God and God’s intentions that makes us extremely uncomfortable. But we need to remember that this psalm is David’s narrative, spoken in the flush of victory. It is neither theology nor a reasoned picture of who God really is. It is the heat of passion, shouted in victory as we can even see David raising his fist to the sky and praising God in his loudest voice.

So, I choose to believe that while David may think that God has granted him total victory, God has not actually participated actively in David’s conquest. Instead we have a picture of David’s all encompassing trust and faith that while it may be theologically wrong-headed, gives us a terrific picture of the depths of David’s trust in God–and his willingness to give God total credit, even when God may not deserve it. This is what makes the psalms so wonderful: they include every human emotion–and here it is the excited passion of the warrior’s victory.

2 Chronicles 3:1–5:1:  Our Chronicler, who revels in every detail, in measurements and lists, is clearly ecstatic as he describes the dimensions of and materials used in Solomon’s glorious temple. We can imagine him writing from his cramped room in the slums of Babylon as he wistfully writes sentences such as “he overlaid it with six hundred talents of fine gold. The weight of the nails was fifty shekels of gold. He overlaid the upper chambers with gold.” (3:8,9) He includes a detail I must have missed in the description of the temple written in 1 Kings: the pillars in its front entrance have names(!): “He set up the pillars in front of the temple, one on the right, the other on the left; the one on the right he called Jachin, and the one on the left, Boaz.” (3:17).

Our author then moves inside the temple as he describes the dimensions and materials of the temple furnishings in the same loving detail as the temple structure itself, especially the bronze altar, the bronze sea so large that “it held three thousand baths,” the basins, the lampstands, the tables, and the golden bowls. Huram, on loan from the king of Tyre, is given due credit as the artisan who crafted all these things. (4:11).

And once the temple was finished, “Solomon brought in the things that his father David had dedicated, and stored the silver, the gold, and all the vessels in the treasuries of the house of God.” (5:1). Could there have been more wealth in a single place in all the surrounding kingdoms? I don’t see how. All the treasures of the earth have been fashioned into the most suitable, wonderful place for God to reside that human minds could ever imagine and human hands could ever craft.

Acts 18:8–21: Finally, at Corinth Paul finds respite and listeners who are not inclined to run him out of town. We can imagine Paul’s nervousness given his fairly ignominious departures from Lystra, Philippi, Thessalonica, even Athens. One night, God comes to Paul in a vision saying “Do not be afraid, but speak and do not be silent; for I am with you, and no one will lay a hand on you to harm you, for there are many in this city who are my people.” (9,10) Pauls resides in Corinth longer than any other place so far: 18 months

Even so, “the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal.” (12), but Gallio, the Roman proconsul, is indifferent to the obscure theological disputes between the Jews and Christians and dismisses the case out of hand. That doesn’t means tempers aren’t flaring on both sides and poor Sosthenes, the official of the synagogue is beaten up. Was he attacked by Christian followers of Paul? Luke doesn’t tell us. But we need to remember that Christians were human, too, and given to the same passions and often irrational actions–exactly as we have seen down through history to our own time.

Paul, along with Pricilla and Aquilla, finally leaves Corinth, and we read the tiny but fascinating detail of Paul’s haircut. (I need to check out what sort of vow Paul was fulfilling.) They arrive in Ephesus, and as usual, heads to the synagogue “and had a discussion with the Jews.” They want to engage him further, but Paul declines the invitation, saying, “I will return to you if God wills” (21) and he sets sail for home.

This is one of those passages where I think we see Paul at his most human. He has been beaten, taken to court, despised, harassed and by the time he reaches Ephesus, he is at the point of human exhaustion. It’s time for a furlough.