Archives for December 2016

Psalm 139:1–6; 2 Kings 1:1–2:18; John 20:24–31

Psalm 139:1–6: For me, this is the richest, most introspective psalm of the entire book of Psalms as it describes both the reality and the intimacy of an honest relationship with God. Our psalmist knows that God is the creator and we are the created—his creatures. And as is creation we possess no aspect of our being which he has not been part of, nor that we can hide from him. Our deepest thoughts and fears are on full display before God:
Lord, You searched me and You know,
It is You Who know when I sit and when I rise,
You fathom my thoughts from afar.” (1, 2)

God knows—and is with us—in every action we undertake from rising in the morning to falling abed in the evening: “My path and my lair You winnow,/ and with all my ways are familiar.” (3) Perhaps what is most striking here is that God is there and knows even my most trivial of quotidian activities.

Nor can we utter a word without God knowing it: “For there is no word on my tongue/ but that You, O Lord, wholly know it.” (4) Would I were more cognizant of that reality before I open my mouth to say something stupid or demeaning to another person.

Our psalmist turns to the famous metaphor of God as potter and we as the clay he works, forming us as precious vessels—each one of us a unique creation: “From behind and in front You shaped me,/ and You set Your palm upon me.” (5) Here, God’s hand is not one of punishment, but of one gentle molding as on a potter’s wheel as he forms us to be who we are through the experiences of life and our relationship with God.

And then there is the reality that despite our many efforts to define God or worse, put him in a box of our own creation, all attempts to get our minds around God are futile: “Knowledge is too wondrous for me,/ high above—I cannot attain it.” (6) Would that we humans stop trying to play God and simply acknowledge his superiority on all things. Think how much better the world would be.

2 Kings 1:1–2:18: The second book of Kings does not open a happy note. Ahaziah, Ahab’s son, has fallen through a latticework and lies injured. He sends emissaries to inquire of Baal whether or not he will recover. God (being God!) hears of this and sends an angel to Elijah to intercept the emissaries and say with superb irony, “‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?’” (1:3) Moreover, Elijah is to go to the king and tell him he won’t recover.

When the king hears this message he wonders who this Elijah guy is.  His courtiers answer,“A hairy man, with a leather belt around his waist.” He said, “It is Elijah the Tishbite.” (8) Which is doubtless where we get our image of prophets being unkempt loners in need of a haircut and shave. Azaiah sends fifty men who order Elijah to come back back to the king. The prophet calls on God to consume them with fire, which promptly happens. A second cohort of fifty is sent by Ahaziah and they meet the same fiery fate. The captain of the third cohort of fifty sent to Elijah, doubtless aware of the fate of the first two groups, is wiser. Rather than ordering Elijah to come to the king, he falls on his knees and pleads,“O man of God, please let my life, and the life of these fifty servants of yours, be precious in your sight.” (1:13) The angel advises Elijah to go down to the king with this cohort.

Arriving at king Ahaziah’s bedside, Elijah pronounces the king’s doom for the simple reason that he has prayed to the Baal god, apparently forgetting to inquire of the God of Israel. Ahaziah dies on cue and is succeeded by his brother Jehoram.

Elisha meets up with Elijah, who realizes his earthly work is done, tells the younger prophet that he will go only as far as Bethel, aware he is about to be taken up to heaven by a whirlwind. Elisha promises everlasting fealty. The two (accompanied by another 50 prophets) arrive at the Jordon. In a mini-reenactment of Israel crossing of the sea, Elijah rolls up his coat, dips it in the river and the waters part as they walk across on dry land.

Elijah asks Elijah what one last thing he can do for his protégé. Elisha asks, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (2:9) Elijah replies that is a “hard thing” and may or may not happen. At that point, “a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.” (11)

The 50 other prophets see that Elisha now has Elijah’s spirit but wonder where Elijah himself has gone. The 50 prophets think that “it may be that the spirit of the Lord has caught him up and thrown him down on some mountain or into some valley.” (2:16). They go off and search in vain, returning to Elisha, who says rather testily, “Did I not say to you, Do not go?” (18)

So what to make of Elijah’s earthly departure? Clearly, he was a man of God who never swerved from his mission, even at the risk of being killed when he delivered bad news to the powerful. His unusual departure from earth must have been a reward for that faithfulness.

John 20:24–31: I have always been convinced that Thomas was an engineer or scientist. He all for being faithful, but he demands evidence when the others tell him they’ve seen Jesus: Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” (25)

So, a week later, Jesus shows up when Thomas is present and tells Thomas to test the evidence. Thomas is convinced: “My Lord and my God!” (28) At this point we hear Jesus’ utter what I think is the overarching theme of this gospel. It’s all about believing Jesus is who he said he is: “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” (29) These words ring clear to John’s community and to us two millennia later. We do not have the advantage that Thomas did, but we can still believe.

Our gospel write concludes the main ody of his gospel with a restatement of the purpose of this amazing book that is so unlike the other gospels, but yet tells exactly the same story: “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.” (31) In the end we believe or we don’t. We cannot escape that life-altering decision no matter how hard we try. Jesus cannot be ignored. But when we believe our lives are cahnged forever—in every sense of that word.

 

 

Psalm 138:6–8; 1 Kings 22:29–53; John 20:10–23

Psalm 138:6–8: Even though God is God, he does not forget even the most humble person: “For high is the Lord yet the lowly he sees.” (6a) Likewise the powerful, here with the clear implication that their actions—whether good or bad—will not escape God’s notice: “and the lofty, from a distance, He knows.” (6b) No human action can be hidden from God’s view, something the psalmist is asking us to remember when we face a decision or temptation, as well as sins of omission when we ignore the poor and the widows.

In an echo of Psalm 23, our poet knows that God will accompany him and protect him from the wiles of his foes: “Though I walk through the midst of straits,/ You give me life in spite of my enemies’ wrath.” (7a) In other words, even when we are oppressed, God is beside us.

God’s companionship is not merely passive: “You stretch out Your hand,/ and Your right hand rescues me.” (7b) God’s right hand represents God’s saving power. We see real assurance here; this is not a psalm that asks where God is in times of trouble. Our psalmist knows that God is beside him and is active in his life.

That’s both a challenge and a comfort for me. Too often I tend to think of God as a passive abstraction, but this psalm reminds me that God will reach down and rescue me if I but ask. Of course God’s rescue may not be exactly what I have in mind, but the fact that I am still here 70 years after my birth tells me that God is indeed who the psalmist says he is in the last verse: “The Lord will requite me./ O Lord, Your kindness is forever.” (8a) And even in assurance we can ask, as the psalmist does here, for his continued rescue because we are the creatures who he has created: “Do not let go of Your handiwork.” (8b) Something we too easily forget.

1 Kings 22:29–53: Even though he is well aware of Micaiah’s prophecy, Ahab decides to enter into battle with Aram. Devious coward that he is, tells Jehoshaphat that “I will disguise myself and go into battle, but you wear your robes.” (30). He does this because he knows that the king of Aram has instructed his soldiers to fight only “the king of Israel” and assumes they will mistake Jehoshaphat for him and kill Judah’s king instead. Indeed, when they see only Jehoshaphat wearing kingly robes on the battlefield, the Aram soldiers think he is Ahab. But Jehoshaphat cries out that he’s not the king of Israel, and is able to get the Aramites to stop pursuing him. I think this is a good example of what the psalmist above meant when he asks God, “Do not let go of Your handiwork.

Ahab doubtless thinks that by wearing a disguise he has cleverly escaped his prophesied fate. However, in proof that one cannot escape God, “a certain man drew his bow and unknowingly struck the king of Israel between the scale armor and the breastplate.” (34). His men prop the mortally wounded Ahab up in his chariot so he can observe the battle. He dies as the sun sets and as his blood drains from his body into the bottom of the chariot.

Later, while soldiers clean the blood-soaked chariot by the “pool of Samaria,”Ahab’s blood drains to the ground where “the dogs licked up his blood, and the prostitutes washed themselves in it, according to the word of the Lord that he had spoken.” (38) Even kings, try as they might, cannot escape what God has ordained.

Our authors shift focus away from Ahab and now provide us with details about Jehoshaphat’s reign, noting that “He walked in all the way of his father Asa; he did not turn aside from it, doing what was right in the sight of the Lord.” (43a). Nevertheless, he was no David and “the high places were not taken away, and the people still sacrificed and offered incense on the high places.” (43b) However, he made peace with the king of Israel and of the “remnant of the male temple prostitutes who were still in the land in the days of his father Asa.” (46)

Things were not quite so peachy up north in Israel where Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, is now king: “He did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and walked in the way of his father and mother, and in the way of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who caused Israel to sin.” (52) We can be confident that Ahaziah will meet a fate similar to his father’s.

John 20:10–23: John and Peter have run off to tell the others about the empty tomb. The area around the tomb is deserted when Mary Magdalene arrives. She sees two angels, which she mistakes for mere mortals, one of whom asks why she is weeping. She replied that Jesus’ body is missing and “I do not know where they have laid him.” (13) In one of the great dramatic moments of the New Testament, Mary turns around and sees Jesus. “But she did not know that it was Jesus.” (14) Jesus asks her the same question the angels did, and assuming he’s the gardener, Mary pleads, “tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” (15)

It takes only a single word, her name, for Mary to recognize Jesus at last. Just as Jesus knows our names. She starts to hug him, but Jesus tells her not to. But the reason—“Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father” (17)—has always puzzled me. Was Jesus somehow non-corporeal? What does the imminence of his ascension have to do with his physical state? He repeats the ascension business when he tells Mary to go tell “my brothers.” Mary does as instructed, but alas, we do not hear the disciples’ reply. We can probably assume that John and Peter are already back and have given the same news, and that Mary provides confirmation.

Hiding out in a locked room for fear of Jewish reprisals, the disciples see Jesus somehow just appear before them. Jesus show his hands and side to eliminate doubt about who he is. By this time they believe he really is Jesus and “the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord.” (20)

Now Jesus gives his disciples the Great Commission, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (21). Unlike the gospel of Matthew, where simply utters the words, here, Jesus adds, Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (23) The Comforter whom Jesus promised to them in the upper room discourse has indeed arrived. I think it’s important to note that the Holy Spirit did not just come so the disciples could hide out. Rather, Jesus has given them a substantial assignment to forgive sins. The message is clear: Having the Holy Spirit means we are to go out into the world and act on Jesus’ behalf—even when we’d rather just sit around and feel all warm and spiritual.