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

Originally published 12/02/2016. Revised and updated 12/03/2018.

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 his 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 present and knows even the most trivial of my 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)

We again see the preeminence of speech in how we operate in the world—and that God knows everything I utter. Would I were more cognizant of that reality before I open my mouth to say something stupid, sarcastic, 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 our life and our relationship with God. This verse also anticipates the reality of exactly how God shapes us: both through genetics and our life experiences. The point is, God is at the center of it all.

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) W

ould 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) [Note the etymological root of our “Beelzebub.”] Moreover, the angel continues, 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 now done. The old prophet 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 Elisha what one last thing he can do for his protégé before departing for heaven. 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 a scientist. He is 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. He 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 writer concludes the main body of his gospel with a restatement of the purpose of this amazing book that is so different from 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) So, here we are: 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 changed forever—in every sense of that word.

 

 

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