Psalm 127; Daniel 4:19–5:16; 1 John 5:6–21

Psalm 127: The first half of this psalm beautifully describes how God must be deeply integrated into our projects and our labor–or our efforts will be useless:
If the Lord does not build a house,
in vain do its builders labor on it.
If the Lord does not watch over a town,
in vain does the watchman look out. (1)

One of the aspects of Lutheran theology, which has not been discussed at Saint Matthew for many years, is the theology of vocation: the idea that no matter what our work is or what we do for a career, it is the Lord’s work. This psalm speaks directly to that idea. When I was a high school senior at another church there was a clear divide between “secular” work (and college) and “sacred” work (and college). The judgement was clear: if you went into “full time Christian work,” your life had greater purpose and was more pleasing to God. But this psalm makes it wonderfully clear that all out work is sacred if we hew to God.

It also speaks to the dangers of overwork: “In vain you who rise early, sit late,/ eaters of misery’s bread.” (2a) I remember one guy early in my career who came in early and always made a point of staying until after his boss went home. Yet, he was disorganized and never able to get very much done. There is true wisdom in the line, “So much He gives to His loved ones in sleep.” (2b) In our hurry-up society that thinks we must be productive at all time, we forget one of God’s greatest gifts, indeed a command: rest from labor. It is sleep that brings us the energy and clear-headedness essential to the well-lived life.

The second half of the psalm seems tacked on to the first half as it changes the subject, reflecting on the wonders of having sons. (Sorry, ladies.): “Look, the estate of the Lord is sons,/ reward is the fruit of the womb. It’s a reflection of that long-ago society that valued sons above daughters, primarily for their martial abilities: “Like arrows in the warrior’s hand,/ thus are sons born in youth./ Happy the man/ who fill his quiver with them.” (3,4). True, I suppose. My son is a wonderful, talented man and I am immensely proud of him. But there is little sweeter in life than being the father of a daughter.

Daniel 4:19–5:16: Daniel interprets Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, but not without some trepidation: “Then Daniel, who was called Belteshazzar, was severely distressed for a while. His thoughts terrified him.” (4:19) for he knew its grim meaning. But encouraged by the king, Daniel reveals that the dream means the king will become mentally ill: “You shall be driven away from human society, and your dwelling shall be with the wild animals. You shall be made to eat grass like oxen, you shall be bathed with the dew of heaven,” (25a) for seven years. But this is not a random disease, Daniel tells him, it is God’s lesson in humility. He did not become king out of his own brilliance and effort. Nebuchadnezzar will be ill until “you have learned that the Most High has sovereignty over the kingdom of mortals, and gives it to whom he will.” (25b) Sometimes we must be forced to learn humility through disease as well. I remember thinking I was doing pretty well on my own accomplishments. Then came cancer.

The king eventually recovers and speaks in the first person, praising God: “Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven,

for all his works are truth,
    and his ways are justice;
and he is able to bring low
    those who walk in pride.” (37)

Even kings and leaders must always remember that they, too, have been created a little lower than the angels–as we all must remember. But now in a society that feels God to be superfluous, we are awash in little Nebuchadnezzars. And some day they, too, will learn humility.

Learning humility is at the core of the famous story that follows. A drunken Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar’s son, defiles the holy “vessels of gold and silver that had been taken out of the temple, the house of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his lords, his wives, and his concubines drank from them.” (5:3). Like many people today, they think the God of Israel is meaningless and irrelevant to them. But “ Immediately the fingers of a human hand appeared and began writing on the plaster of the wall of the royal palace,” (5) Understandably, “the king’s face turned pale, and his thoughts terrified him. His limbs gave way, and his knees knocked together.” (6). As usual, the official magicians and seers cannot interpret the writing. Court officials remember Daniel and call him out of retirement. Daniel is called and is promised “a chain of gold around your neck, and rank third in the kingdom.” (16). What will Daniel say?

1 John 5:6–21: John makes it clear that water and blood are the essential qualities of Jesus Christ: “This is the one who came by water and blood, Jesus Christ, not with the water only but with the water and the blood.” (6) For me this speaks directly to the two sacraments of the Lutheran church: the water of baptism and the blood that was shed, which we celebrate in communion.

We also encounter the Trinity here: “And the Spirit is the one that testifies, for the Spirit is the truth. There are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood, and these three agree.” (7,8) Although God’s name is not mentioned, there can be no confusion about who “the three” are.  John makes it clear that true belief in God requires true belief in who Jesus is and in Jesus’ divinity: “Those who believe in the Son of God have the testimony in their hearts. Those who do not believe in God have made him a liar by not believing in the testimony that God has given concerning his Son.” (10)

And like the famous passage in his Gospel, “I am the way, the truth, the life,” we encounter another “hard passage” here: “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (12) It’s hard to theologize around this rather clear statement. And this is effectively where the core theology of this epistle ends.

However, to make sure we get his key points, John attaches an epilogue, which contains one of the most famous verses in the epistle of famous verses: “And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.” (14). Unlike the psalmist who often wonders if God is hearing him, we are assured that through the power of Jesu Christ we are indeed heard: “And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him.” (15)

We live in the clear assurance that even when we are convinced God is absent and not listening to our cries, that is not the case. We are indeed heard. What’s difficult is accepting that even though we have been heard, God’s response may be far off or not be the one we wished for. But as Paul promises, “all things work together for God to those who love God.”

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