Psalm 135:1–12; 1 Kings 18; John 18:25–40

Originally published 11/25/2016. Revised and updated 11/26/2018.

Psalm 135:1–12: There’s no question about the thrust of this psalm of praise as it opens with “Hallelujah.” Clearly, it was part of the temple liturgy, but would be just as appropriate as an opening praise song in worship this coming Sunday:
Praise the name of the Lord,
O praise, you servants of the Lord,
who stand in the house of our God. (2)

And then an adjective that we don’t often associate with God: “hymn His name, for it is sweet.” (3b) This is surely  a reference to sweet incense, which was used in the temple, and is still used in high masses in the Catholic church and some very traditional Episcopalian churches.

The psalmist interjects a personal statement:
I know that the Lord is great,
and our Master more than all the gods.

This is certainly an acknowledgement of Israel’s penchant for worshipping small-g gods. But it’s equally applicable to us today who so often place our own small-g gods ahead of the true God.

The psalm goes on to recall God as Creator, with the idea that he created everything that was needed but never excessively:
All that the Lord desired He did
in the heavens and on the earth,
in the seas and all the depths.

God knows just the right amounts that are good for us. God is the source of the weather so essential in that agrarian society:
He brings up the clouds from the ends of the earth;
lightning for the rain He made
He brings forth the wind from His stores.(7)

This psalm has it all, as it switches to historical mode. First, there’s a quick sketch of the Passover that brought Israel out of Egypt:
Who struck down the first born of Egypt
from humankind to beast
. (8)

Our poet then leaps over the wilderness years to Joshua’s initial victories in Canaan which happened because he followed God,
Who struck down many nations
and killed mighty kings.
” (10)

It is God who chose them and gave the land to Israel:
And gave their land as an estate,
an estate to Israel, His people.
” (12)

Creation. Weather. Historic victories. These are the blessings of God. And we too, when we pray—especially at this time of thanksgiving—are called to include the specifics that take us down a level of abstraction and enumerate the blessings that God has brought to us in our abundance. Without recalling the details of the blessings we’ve received, it’s all too easy to forget the source of all good things and events.

1 Kings 18: Following three years of drought, God directs Elijah back to Israel to confront king Ahab. Along the way we meet Obadiah (author of the eponymous book found later in the OT), who “revered the Lord greatly,” and saved 150 prophets from Jezebel’s deadly wrath. Ahab has sent Obadiah to search for water and grass. Along the way he meets Elijah, the most senior prophet alive at that time. Elijah prevails on a fearful Obadiah to bring him to Ahab. Ahab and Elijah meet up, who immediately (and courageously) reminds Ahab, “I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.” (17) Elijah tells Ahab to meet at Mount Carmel “with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” (19)

Atop Mount Carmel, Elijah challenges the priests of Baal, taunting them,“How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him.” (20) The challenges is god mano a mano: God vs. Baal. Both sides sacrifice a bull and place it on their respective altars, and Elijah challenges the Baal priests,  “call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” (24)

Well, we know how this turns out because it’s a classic Sunday School story. Elijah mocks the Baal priests,“Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (27) The part they don’t tell kids in Sunday School is that the Baal priests in order to induce their god to respond, “cut themselves with swords and lances until the blood gushed out over them.” (29) Our authors gleefully state, “they raved on until the time of the offering of the oblation, but there was no voice, no answer, and no response.” (29)

Elijah ups the stakes by pouring water on his altar, and then he prays, “Answer me, O Lord, answer me, so that this people may know that you.” (37) God sends fire which consumes the sacrifice. The other part they don’t tell in Sunday School is that the people seize the Baal priests and Elijah kills them all.

Rain ensues and the drought ends. The lesson here is crystalline: There is only one God and the rest of the small-g gods are lifeless and powerless. Would that we remember that when we try to depend on our own small-g gods—wealth, possessions, physical fitness, technology, power—to save us. In the end, the creations of man are just as powerless as the Baal gods.

John 18:25–40: Unlike the synoptics, our gospel writer stretches out Peter’s denial and here we get the second and third denials. But John is much more cryptic than the others, writing only, “Again Peter denied it, and at that moment the cock crowed.” (27). He does not describe Peter’s reaction, preferring perhaps that we draw our own conclusion, causing us to reflect that were we in Peter’s place we’d likely deny Jesus, too.

The scene shifts to Pilate’s headquarters. John adds a detail I hadn’t noticed before: The Jews would not enter the Gentile’s headquarters because of ritual defilement, so Pilate comes out to them—doubtless in an impatient mood because of the Jewish rituals that seemed simply too weird to him. Pilate asks what this Jesus fellow is accused of and the Jews respond, “If this man were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you.” (30) The Jews state that they re not allowed to execute anyone, but John does not record the exact charges they were bringing. Rather, these are implied as the charge of conspiracy to overthrow Roman rule becomes apparent in Pilate’s first question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” (33) Once again, unlike in the other gospels, John’s Jesus is not silent. In fact, he’s not even reticent, but retorts rather cheekily, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” (34) Pilate fires back that he is no Jew and asks, “What have you done?” (35)

This being the gospel of John, a philosophical dialog inevitably sues. Jesus says, “My kingdom is not from this world,” (36) going on to rather logically observe that if he were attempting to overthrow the Romans, he would have arrived in Jerusalem with an angry mob of his followers. Pilate, sensing he’s on thin legal ice, shifts from a direct question to a rhetorical one,“So you are a king?” (37) To which Jesus deflects the question and answers only that “I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (37b) Pilate replies with another question, doubtless with world-weary resignation, “What is truth?” (38)  And of course this is the theme underlying this entire gospel because we already know the singular answer because Jesus told us: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” (14:6)

With no little frustration, Pilate tells the Jews that he finds no substantive case against Jesus. Attempting to change the subject and distract the Jews from their deadly mission, he offers, as per custom, to release a criminal, doubtless thinking that they’ll give up and let Jesus go. But the answer is not what he hoped: “Not this man, but Barabbas!” (40) So much for Roman logic, bad assumptions, and attempts to placate the Jews

What John makes clear here is that the case against Jesus—judged by Gentile law and philosophy—is specious. This passage also makes clear that ultimately, from the point of view of both Jewish and Gentile law, Jesus’ crucifixion was completely illegal.

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