Psalm 143:1-6; 2 Kings 12,13; Acts 4:1-12

Psalm 143:1-6: This psalm of supplication is suffused with urgency, as the first verse comes right to the point: “LORD, hear my prayer, /hearken to my pleas. /In Your faithfulness answer me, in Your bounty.” The image is an out-of-breath David attempting to elude his pursuers, who have probably been sent by Saul–maybe even Saul himself. David stops for a moment, perhaps hidden behind a bush or a big rock.

He knows he is safe for just a short time. He asks God not to judge whatever actions he has just done in order to get away, even though he knows “no living thing is acquitted before You.” (2)  He summarizes his desperate circumstances quickly, “For the enemy pursued me, / thrust my life to the ground, / made me dwell in darkness like those long dead.” Perhaps the “darkness” is the famous cave in which he could have killed the sleeping Saul.

In this moment of respite, David’s first act is to pray as “I recalled the days of old, /I recited all Your deeds,/ of Your handiwork I did speak.” (5) And in a physical act of supplication, “I stretched out my hands to you.” (6)

This psalm and its urgency, it’s sense of being pursued by and then barely escaping from evil is a perfect description so many of us feel in modern life. David could have uttered these words yesterday. Our human condition is exactly the same. Will we take the time–even on the run–to stop and pray?

2 Kings 12,13: Young ing Jeohash, having been rescued form assassination by his grandmother, reigns for forty years. Even though “Jehoash did what was right in the sight of the Lord all his days, because the priest Jehoiada instructed him…the high places were not taken away; the people continued to sacrifice and make offerings on the high places.” (1,2).  During previous reigns while GOd has been ignored, the temple has fallen into disrepair. Jehoash imposes a tax on the people for repairs, where the money is given directly to the preists. There are promises from the priests that they will repair the temple, but nothing happens for 23 years(!) since it’s clear they have taken the money for their own use.  Jehoash then installs a chest at the temple entrance where the money is collected publicly. The workers are paid. Lo and behold, the money starts pouring in and repairs are made.

The lesson is clear: public accountability of church finances is essential.

Meanwhile up in Israel, Jehoahaz reigns and he “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (13:2).  Israel’s descent into false gods and general depredation continues. The people “did not depart from the sins of the house of Jeroboam, which he caused Israel to sin, but walked in them. (13:6). Jehoahaz squanders Israel’s military strength and Aram is at its door.  The king goes to Elisha one last time, who instructs the king to shoot arrows out the window. But the king shoots only 3 arrows. Elisha tells him, ““You should have struck five or six times; then you would have struck down Aram until you had made an end of it, but now you will strike down Aram only three times.” (13:19) Elisha dies, but Jehoahaz is successful. But we suspect seeds of defeat have been sewn.

Acts 4:1-12: As far as the religious officials and power structure in Jerusalem is concerned this pentecost thing with some 5000 of these new Jesus followers has gotten completely out of hand, especially the Sadducees who were offended by the idea of resurrection form the dead. So they arrest Peter and John, who are brought before Annas, Caiaphas and “all who were of the high-priestly family.”

Luke does not miss this opportunity to put forward the key theological point that drives the entire book of Acts. The accusers ask, “by what power or by what name did you do this?” (7). Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, tells them that whatever healings they’ve seen have occurred through “the power of Jesus Christ of Nazareth.”

He then makes what can only be an inflammatory statement, quoting scripture and telling the priests that have rejected the very cornerstone of their faith. And just to make sure they get the point, Peter adds, “There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (12) This is Luke’s version of John 14:6: Christ alone is the way to salvation.

 

 

Psalm 139:17-24; 2 Kings 5:15-6:23; Acts 1:15-26

Psalm 139:17-24: The psalmist reflects on the impossibility of knowing, much less understanding, God’s thoughts: “As for me, how weighty are Your thoughts, /O God, how numerous their sum.” Even if he could understand them, there are so many that comprehension remains impossible: “Should I count them, they would be more than the sand.” (18)

So, what are God’s thoughts, anyway?  I think this is the only place in the Psalms where the idea of perceiving God’s thoughts arises. We know that God is love, so his thoughts must be lovely. We also know that God is justice, so that must occupy much of his thinking as well. We know that God is Creator, so the universe and all that is within it is also very much on his mind.

Perhaps Jesus gives us the best idea of the infinitude of God’s thoughts when he tells us that God knows the number of hairs on our head and when a robin falls from the tree. Even though we think we have great knowledge and that we are learning more each day, it is still infinitesimal compared to God.

The psalmist does not merely accept the idea that God is infinite and we are not, he asks God to act. “Search me, God, and know my heart,/ probe me and know my mind.” (23) This is a request to become completely aligned with God and His thoughts. For if God knows our innermost being and our motivations and we are willing to listen and to be led by God, then we are indeed led “on the eternal way.” (24)

Of course, as Christians we know there is an even better way that praying to be aligned with God’s thoughts and that is the saving power of Jesus Christ.

2 Kings 5:15-6:23: Namaan attempts to express his gratitude to Elisha for being healed, but the “Man of God,” as he is called, sends him on his way. Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, sees and opportunity for personal gain and runs after Namaan, who gives him two talents of gold. Elisha asks where he’s been; Gehazi lies but Elisha says, “Did I not go with you in spirit when someone left his chariot to meet you?” (5:26) For his greed, Gehazi–and all his descendants–inherit Namaan’s leprosy. Lesson learned.

The Arameans want to invade Israel and surround the city of Dothan. Elisha’s servant sees the vast army and cries, “what shall we do.” Elisha prays to God, “Strike this people, please, with blindness.” (I like the “please.”) God obliges and Elisha leads them back into Samaria, right to the king of Israel, and after Elisha prays, God opens their eyes. The king asks if he should kill them, but Elisha points out tht the king did not capture them. Instead, the king “prepared for them a great feast; after they ate and drank, he sent them on their way,…And the Arameans no longer came raiding into the land of Israel.” (6:23). The lesson here is that sometimes prayer and providing a feast rather than a war how to win the peace. A lesson we could bear remembering on several fronts today.

Acts 1:15-26: Peter assumes the leadership role with the disciples, who Luke tells us, number 120 persons), quoting from the Psalms regarding Judas’ rather gruesome fate of falling headlong on his newly-acquired property such that “he burst open in the middle and his bowels gushed out” (18), saying “the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit through David foretold concerning Judas.” (16). Peter then quotes a different psalm to cause the election of a disciple to replace Judas. There are two candidates: Joseph Barsabbas and Matthias. The lot falls to Matthias.

What’s interesting here is that we see a new side of Peter: he knows his Scripture, and this will be important right after Pentecost. The other thing we learn is that there is really quite a clear organizational structure: the are 120 followers, 12 of whom are the disciples, and there is urgency that the full contingent of 12 be preserved. We often think of the followers of Jesus being a disorganized crowd, but Luke makes it clear here that there is discipline, process and structure. This will also become important as the story of the early church unfolds.

 

Psalm 139:8-16; 2 Kings 4:38-5:14; Acts 1:1-14

Psalm 139:8-16: The psalmist soars through all creation reminding us that God is everywhere in the universe. God is marvelously inescapable: “If I soar to the heavens, You are there, if I bed down in Sheol—there You are.” (8) Whether in the east at the dawn or to the farthest ends of the seas, “there, too, Your hand leads me,/ and Your right hand seizes me.” (10) Notice that God is intertwined with our very being. The psalmist is not just observing God as creator, he is experiencing God as creator.

As we are reminded frequently in the Gospels, God is light, even in the darkest night: “Darkness itself will not darken for You, / and the night will light up like the day, / the dark and the light will be one.” What a promise to remember when we are traveling though dark and difficult times! God will help us not to notice the night.

From the grandeur of the nighttime sky, the psalmist dives down to the molecular, the very DNA of our being in that most famous line: “For You created my innermost parts, / wove me in my mother’s womb.” (13) Again, it’s all about our connectedness with God. How can we escape God if He is so intimately involved with our very creation, “when [we were] made in a secret place,/ knitted in the utmost depths?” (16) These verses are also a reminder that when God seems very far away perhaps we have not looked closely enough into our very being.

2 Kings 4:38-5:14: These chapters catalog Elisha’s miracles. Unlike his predecessor Elijah, who focused on thinks like bringing fire down form heaven to consume the Baal priests, Elisha’s miracles are refreshingly domestic. He provides an endless supply of oil to the widow; he returns the favor of hospitality of the wealthy woman by healing son of the Shunammite woman. He purifies a pot of stew, and in a remarkable precursor of Jesus’ feeding of the 5000, he feeds 100 men.

It’s the healing of Naaman for which he is most famous. “A great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram,” Naaman suffers the most humiliating of all diseases in that time, leprosy, proof that disease is no respecter of status. The king of Aram sends Naaman to the King of Israel, who tears his clothes and complains that the king of Aram is trying to “pick a quarrel with me.”

Here’s a clear message relevant to our time that just because someone has great political power or someone has great wealth, wealth and power are not necessarily where we should look for healing or succor.

Instead, Elisha hears of Naaman and sends a message that the commander should simply wash himself seven times in the Jordan. Naaman is not pleased, noting that there are lots of alternative rivers more preferable to him, saying “Could I not wash in them, and be clean?” He turned and went away in a rage.” His more sensible servants say, “if the prophet had commanded you to do something difficult, would you not have done it?” (5:13). Naaman, accepting their logic, does so and he becomes clean.

There are numerous lessons here. First, God’s healing power is extended beyond the Jews to all people. Second, we tend to look first to money and prestige for healing, when all we have to do is look to God. Third, as Naaman resisted being baptized because it was too easy and direct, so we, too, look for our  own complicated way to salvation when God’s simple act of baptism is all we need.

Acts 1:1-14: Luke opens volume two of his writings–this one about the birth of the Church–with another introduction to our beloved Theophilus, telling him that this book will be about the ministry of the Holy Spirit using jesus’ own words: “for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (5).

Jesus then departs up to heaven. To underscore the transition from the “Acts of Jesus” to the “Acts of the Church” two angels ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” In other words, our focus must be here on earth because our work is here on earth. Jesus will come back, but in the meantime there is much to do right here.

This is the practical side of the church. Sometimes we’d like to stand around looking toward heaven with soaring theology and beautiful music and gorgeous cathedrals. But the nitty gritty work of the Church here on earth, ministering to the lost, the lonely, the prisoners, and the sick is an equally crucial aspect of what the Church is all about.

And before any of that work begins, and even before the Holy Spirit arrives, we can follow the example of the disciples, devoting ourselves to prayer.

Psalm 139:1-6; 2 Kings 2:19-3:27; John 21:1-14

Psalm 139:1-6: The NRSV translators of this justly famous “David psalm” title it “The Inescapable God.”  It is also a beautiful description of the qualities of God’s omniscience. No matter what we are doing or what time of day it is, God knows exactly what is going on inside our heads and hearts: “It is You Who know when I sit and I rise, / You fathom my thoughts from afar.” (2)

When God searches; He finds us even when we try to escape him and He knows our habits as well, “My path and my lair You winnow, / and with all my ways are familiar. (3) Perhaps the idea about God that should give us greatest pause is that he knows what we are going to say before we say it: “For there is no word on my tongue / but that You, O LORD, wholly know it.” (4) Would that I remember this verse before I open my mouth to make a cutting or thoughtless remark…

Of course God knows all about our innermost thoughts an being because we, after all, His creation, “From behind and in front You shaped me, and You set Your palm upon me.” (5).

But as created and not Creator, there are things to great for us to know or understand–or control: “Knowledge is too wondrous for me, /high above—I cannot attain it.” It is this simple reality that we refuse to accept and our overweening pride that we know–and can control–everything leads to the disasters we so ably create. To accept this verse is to accept our lesser status and to be humble before the God who has created us. Why is this so hard to do?

2 Kings 2:19-3:27: As much as I would like to hold Elisha in high esteem, I have trouble because of his response to boys who taunted him because of his bald head, “he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys.” (2:24) Nevertheless, he is a prophet of God and when the king of Moab decides to declare war following the death of Ahab, Elisha is called in to consult with King Jehoram (who is does evil, but not as much evil as his parents, Ahab and Jezebel) of Israel, King Jehoshaphat of Judah and the king of Edom.

Elisha does not exactly welcome them with open arms, as he says mockingly to Jehoram,“What have I to do with you? Go to your father’s prophets or to your mother’s.” (3:13). But the king acknowledges it is “it is the Lord who has summoned us, three kings, only to be handed over to Moab.” Elisha agrees and prophesies that God will fill the local wadi with water, “which is only a trifle in the sight of God.” (3:18)

The three kings defeat the Moabites who have been fooled by the sun reflecting off the water that it is the blood of the fallen Israelites and Judeans. They attack unwisely with disastrous results.

What does this passage of warmongering say to us? That even though King Jehoram continued to worship other idols, he acknowledged God, and God showed incredible mercy via Elisha. It’s God who will respond to even the smallest acknowledgment–as if He wants nothing more than to have a relationship with Jehoram, even though Jehoram is 98% not with God. That 2% makes all the difference. Unlike all the other idols who demand all and give nothing, God gives us all even when we have given Him very little.

John 21:1-14: Even though they had seen the risen Jesus in Jerusalem, seven disciples return to Galilee and take up their old job of fishing. And while it was a miracle, the implications of the Resurrection have not yet sunk in during this period before Pentecost. It’s been a rough and unsuccessful night and some guy on the beach advises them to try the other side of the boat. They do so and haul in 153 fish (gotta love the precision of this detail!), although the net miraculously didn’t break.

Suddenly, it is John himself who recognizes that it’s Jesus, who has miraculously appeared up here in Galilee. In a very humorous detail, Peter, who has been working naked, modestly puts on some clothes and then jumps into the water. All the disciples drag in the fish and they go have breakfast with Jesus, whose appearance must be oddly changed. They recognize him, but “none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?””

Although as far as the disciples were concerned it was a terrific catch of fish, the symbolism of the incident is clear to us, who know how the story turns out. These disciples will go on to found the Church at Pentecost and will haul in people, whose numbers are beyond imagining. But it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that this happens. They could not find those fish on their own; they got the fish only after Jesus told them where to look. So too for us: we cannot grow the church on our own; it is only through the Holy Spirit’s power that we know where to fish.

Psalm 138:6-8; 2 Kings 1:1-2:18; John 20:24-31

 Psalm 138:6-8: The superscription, “For David,” suggests that the psalm is written to in dedication to him and to reflect David’s voice. As the histories point out, David was never confused about his position before God, even though he was king.  That is why he can “bow toward Your holy temple, and I [can] acclaim Your name for Your kindness and Your steadfast truth,” (2)

David has prayed to God and “On the day I called You answered me, / You made strength well up within me.”  But it is not until we reach verse 7 that we know the reason behind this psalm of thanksgiving: “You give me life in spite of my enemies’ wrath./ You stretch out Your hand, / and Your right hand rescues me.”

The image of God stretching out his hand is most notable in the Sistine Chapel where Michelangelo in the iconic image where God’s right hand stretched out to the to infuse the spark of life in Adam. We probably do not realize ourselves how often the right hand of God has rescued us. And it is a marvelous image when I reflect on how I have been rescued from cancer.

The image of God’s outstretched hand becomes an embrace in the final verse: “O LORD, Your kindness is forever. Do not let go of Your handiwork.” And we have the assurance, as David did, that God’s embrace is forever and He will never let go of his handiwork: us.

2 Kings 1:1-2:18: Even though Elijah’s nemesis, Ahab, is dead the woes of Israel continue under the rule of King Ahaziah, who has fallen through a latticework and injured himself. He sends a captain with 50 men to “inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury.” (2). [‘Baal-zebub’ is, I presume, the etymologic origin of “Beelzebub,” one of the chief demons of the underworld.] The captain is intercepted by Elijah, who has been commanded by God to say, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?’ (4). And then God’s fire comes down and consumes the captain and his men. This happens three times. Elijah goes to the king and says that because he has sent messengers to inquire of the false God that the king will die. Which he promptly does.

Such is the price of apostasy. There is no opportunity for the recalcitrant king to repent; nor in his advanced state of disbelief is there reason to think he would have repented. He simply dies as Elijah says he would and his story ends.

Elisha is Elijah’s faithful protege and the company of prophets who accompany the pair come to Elisha and say “Do you know that today the Lord will take your master away from you?” (2:3) Elisha responds, “Yes, but stay quiet.” Elisha sticks by his master as they cross the Jordan in an echo of the Red Sea, as Elijah has struck the river’s water with his rolled-up mantle; it parts and they cross over. Elisha refuses to leave Elijah’s side and the old prophet asks, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha replies “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” (2:10)

Elijah ascends into heaven on the fiery chariot and Elisha “picked up the mantle of Elijah” (Aha! That’s where the saying comes from!), uses the rolled-up mantle exactly as his master had to strike the water of the Jordan; it parts and he crosses back over–a clear sign that Elisha is taking Elijah’s place. That this is so is readily apparent to the other prophets.

This is a story of succession. As kings succeeded each other by birth, the younger succeeds the older by the power of the Holy Spirit. We see that succession again at Pentecost. The power of the Holy Spirit is passed from Jesus on to those who believe him.

John 20:24-31: Jesus appears before my favorite disciple, Thomas, who I believe was an engineer and represents all of us who are data-driven. Of course, as Jesus notes, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” Yes, it is all about faith, but I think Jesus is also allowing that we are free seek evidence–and many after Thomas certainly have. I think Thomas is an essential character in showing us again what separates the story of Jesus from myth lost in the mists of time. Jesus came in a specific historical time and place and verifiable things happened. Yes, we need faith, but it is faith based on evidence based in concrete reality.

John leaves us with the tantalizing observation, “Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.” We all certainly wish we knew what they were. But then he states the entire purpose of writing his gospel: “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.”

It is no accident that this statement immediately follows the story of Thomas. Like Thomas, we want demand evidence, and that is exactly what John has provided us. But we have to be satisfied with what John has told us. Actual belief comes only with that final leap of faith.

Psalm 137; 1 Kings 21:17-22:28; John 19:38-20:9

Psalm 137: There is a beautiful song, “Rivers of Babylon” whose lyrics are drawn from this psalm (and Psalm 19 according to Wikipedia). The opening verses are among the saddest in all the Psalms, for they evoke what was–and what might have been: “By Babylon’s streams, / there we sat, oh we wept,/ when we recalled Zion. /On the poplars there / we hung up our lyres.”

This psalm was doubtless written shortly after the exile of the Judeans to Babylon. The wounds are fresh and some Babylonians–“our plunderers rejoicing”–ask “Sing us from Zion’s songs.” The psalmist’s reply, “How can we sing a song of the Lord/ on foreign soil?” only deepens the psalmist’s longing. But the request also leads to reminiscence and a vow, which are sung in Hebrew sung to the Babylonians who do not understand:

“Should I forget you, Jerusalem,/ may my right hand wither. / May my tongue cleave to my palate/ if I do not recall you,/ if I do not set Jerusalem /above my chief joy.”

The psalm concludes with the notorious last line, “Happy who seizes and smashes / your infants against the rock.” Which their listeners surely did not understand but allows us to see and comprehend the deep bitterness and outrage of what has happened to Israel in captivity–what Robert Alter notes is surely a bloodcurdling curse. This psalm is proof of how the Psalms cover the entire gamut of human emotion.

1 Kings 21:1-22:28: King Ahab wants Naboth’s vineyard so he can plant a vegetable garden, but Naboth will not sell to the king because it is ancestral land. Ahab whines about this to Jezebel, who arranges to have a false charge–‘You have cursed God and the king.’ (21:10)– brought against Naboth, who is denied a defense and promptly stoned. Ahab takes possession of the vineyard.

The “word of the Lord” comes to Elijah and he pronounces a curse on Ahab in God’s name:“Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.” (21:19) because Ahab has “sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord,” (20). Elijah also pronounces a curse on Jezebel, and AHab repents, putting on sackcloth and “going about dejectedly.” Because of this repentance, Elijah reduces the sentence, “Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster on his house.” (21:29)

The author editorializes about Ahab, “(Indeed, there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord, urged on by his wife Jezebel. He acted most abominably in going after idols, as the Amorites had done, whom the Lord drove out before the Israelites.)” (21:25, 26). Ahab has sinned personally, but as king he has committed a greater sin against God, “because you have provoked me to anger and have caused Israel to sin.” (21:23) Once again, Israel’s downfall stems in great part from the failure of its leadership. People will follow the example of their leaders, which is why they have a greater responsibility. Unfortunately, Ahab is only one in a long line of failed leaders down through history.

John 19:38-20:9:  Jesus is removed from the cross and buried by his”secret disciples,” Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, his public disciples having fled the scene. Why these two men? And why does John name them? Practically, of course, Jesus’ public disciples have fled, so there was no one else to do the job. But I think there’s a deeper message here. John is saying that Jesus has influenced men of standing; he’s not just a rabble-rouser from the countryside. Although they have no idea of what is about to happen, these two Jews knew that Jesus was extraordinary. I think they represent those who know in their hearts that jesus is who he says he is, but for one reason or another are not prepared to admit it–perhaps even to themselves, much less to others. 

It is at the Resurrection that we get the most intimate glimpse of John himself. He is “the one Jesus loved” and he’s a faster runner than Peter. Even though John arrives first at the tomb, it is Peter, arriving later, doubtless out of breath, who goes into the tomb first. Only then does John enter the tomb, “and he saw and believed for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (20:8,9) No matter how many times Jesus had told them that he would rise in accordance with scripture, it was not until the evidence of the empty tomb that “they believed.”

I think John is speaking of head and heart here. They had heard Jesus again and again, but had never “gotten it.” It is only when they see the simple yet astounding fact of the empty tomb that they believe. So too, for us: We can read Scripture until we are blue in the face. But it is only when we confront in one way or the other the reality of the empty tomb that we can truly believe who Jesus is–and realize that faith is a matter of the heart, not just the head.

Psalm 135:13-21; 1 Kings 20:1-21; John 19:12-24

Psalm 135:13-21: The central theme of this psalm is the crucial difference between the living God and all the inanimate idols that people, including us, prefer to worship. The living God can bring up clouds, create lightning and rain, (7) strike down the first born of Egypt (8), and demolish entire nations (10). But most important of all, “the LORD champions His people, /and for His servants He shows change of heart.” (14)

Our psalmist describes these household idols wrought “by human hands” of silver and gold by what they have, but cannot do: “A mouth they have and they do not speak, /eyes they have and they do not see. /Ears they have and they do not hear, / nor is there breath in their mouth.” (16, 17)

Although our psalmist phrases it as an imprecation, “Like them may their makers be, / all who trust in them.” (18), I think the reality is that all who believe these idols to be their gods are already like their idols: lifeless. Because they neither believe nor accept the life-giving power of God.

I think these verses are a beautiful description of us: we are lifeless because we would rather craft our lives and invest our time and energy in the pursuit of the idols of our own time: fame, celebrity, fortune, power–the list is endless–because these idols are fashioned in our own image to remind us that we are the center of the universe, not God. But these lifeless goals that become our lifeless idols consume us and we ourselves become lifeless.

1 Kings 20:1-21: “King Ben-hadad of Aram gathered all his army together” (1) along with 32 other kings and prepares to attack Ahab and all of Israel. Ahab announces he will invade unless Ahab “Delivers to me your silver and gold, your wives and children.” (5)  Ahab complies, but sends the message back to Ben-hadad that he cannot abide braggadocio, and says, “One who puts on armor should not brag like one who takes it off.” (11). Ben-Hadad is drunk when he receives the message and says to his men, “Take your positions!”

Meantime, “a certain prophet” (Elisha?) tells Ahab, “Look, I will give it [the battle] into your hand today; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (13) Ahab asks how he will know and the “certain prophet” replies, that he should send “young men who served the district governors,” saying, “If they have come out for peace, take them alive; if they have come out for war, take them alive.” (18) But it was too late for peace negotiations, and the battle is won by Ahab anyway who, “attacked the horses and chariots, and defeated the Arameans with a great slaughter.” (21)

So, what to make of this–and why is it recorded in such detail here? Perhaps the lesson is as simple as if you’re going to go to war, don’t do so while drunk.

John 19:12-24:  Pilate is still trying to get off the hook by releasing Jesus, but the Jews will have none of it, trumping up the false charge that Jesus has claimed to be a king and that is sedition against not just Pilate, but the Emperor of Rome himself, “If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” (15) Pilate relents, and John makes it clear that as a legal nicety, Pilate has “an inscription written and put on the cross. It read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” ” (19). Of course no one–Pilate, the Jewish leaders or anyone in the crowd–realizes the magnificent irony of this sign. Because Jesus in not only King of the Jews, he is King of all.

I have never quite understood Pilate’s statement, which must be the response to a question about the sign that John does not record: “What I have written I have written.” But there’s no question that those fateful words, “King of the Jews” have echoed through history ever since. Jesus is indeed King.

Psalm 135:1-12; 1 Kings 19; John 19:1-11

Psalm 135:1-12: This psalm opens with a chorus of praise and gratitude with one line in particular, “hymn His name, for it is sweet” that reminds us that God impacts all our senses. This psalm knows that Israel is unique among all the nations, “For Yah has chosen for Himself Jacob, / Israel as His treasure.” (4)

It then recalls that God is Creator of all that exists, “All that the LORD desired /He did in the heavens and on the earth,/ in the seas and all the depths.” (6) and continues His creative activity every day, “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 reminds us that God did not merely create and then depart the scene, but that God is actively involved in  creation every day–and in our lives every day. Even when bad things happen, we can still come to God a praise Him for we know “that the LORD is great.” (5)

1 Kings 19: The adventures of Elijah continue as Jezebel, upon hearing he has slain her Baal prophets, vows to kill the prophet. He flees and is beyond discouragement that even the great works God has performed have come to naught. He falls asleep and angel comes and minsters to him twice, saying, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” (7).

He finds himself in a cave when the word of God comes to him, instructing him to “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” (11) And as many of the psalms describe, God creates wind, an earthquake, a fire and then a “sound of sheer silence.” But God is not in any of these natural events. Instead, God comes to Elijah as a voice that asks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (13) Elijah answers in discouragement, “I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (14)

God instructs Elijah to anoint “Jehu son of Nimshi as king over Israel;” a”Elisha as prophet in your place.” And Elisha follows Elijah, “and became his servant.”

What strikes me here is that God speaks to Elijah at the moment of his deepest despair and He speaks out of the silence. But God does not tell Elijah how sorry He feels for Elijah, or even says, ‘Good job, Elijah.” God merely issues instructions for what Elijah is to do next. And Elijah obeys. This reminds me that God is not a therapist, but by merely telling us what to do next and where to go next, we know we are loved by God–even in our deepest moments of despair and discouragement.

But it requires one thing of us: we must be listening for God to speak in the silence, not in the wind or earthquake or fire.

John 19:1-11: Pilate orders Jesus to be flogged and mocked, believing the Jews will be satisfied that this is sufficient punishment. But alas for him, their anger is more intense than ever as they shout “Crucify him!” Pilate then attempts to turn Jesus back over to the Jews, but the Jews reply that because Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God, he must die.

John’s next sentence speaks volumes: “when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.” (8). The roots of this fear are certainly for his own position when Rome hears of this gross miscarriage of justice that he has allowed to happen under his jurisdiction. Whatever Rome was at that time, it was a civilization of laws.

Pilate is also very much afraid of the Jews because he was at the tipping point of having a full-scale rebellion on his hands. In desperation he asks Jesus one more time, perhaps hoping that Jesus will just volunteer to leave town. But Jesus won’t. But he does let Pilate off the hook somewhat, telling him that Pilate’s power comes ultimately from God but that “the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (11) Jesus is basically saying to Pilate, “you’re an merely the intermediary here, not the cause of this.”

I think it is those words that give Pilate the guts to go forward, for there can be no other outcome. This is one more instance of how John makes it clear to us the characters in this drama–Judas, Ciaiphas, the mob, Pilate– that lead to Jesus’ crucifixion are merely players on a much larger, almost invisible stage: the battle between good and evil.

Psalm 134; 1 Kings 18; John 18:25-40

Psalm 134: This short psalm is a perfect benediction at the end of worship. We stand and “Lift up [our] hands toward the holy place and bless the LORD” as we remember the the manifest ways in which God has blessed and enriched our lives. No matter the the trials that come our way, God’s blessings are always far greater. Our natural response therefore is utter those words consciously and prayerfully:  bless the Lord.

And then there is a beautiful symmetry as the worship leader asks God to continue to be at the center of our lives and to continue to bless us: “May the LORD bless you from Zion” as we recall that as Creator, “He Who makes heaven and earth,” is the source of all life, and all that we are able to enjoy in our lives. Even in the difficult times, we bless the Lord.

1 Kings 18: After Elijah has gone to Zarepath during the famine that God has brought upon the earth because of Ahab’s wickedness, lived with the widow and her son and the never-ending source of meal and oil, and then raised her son–a remarkable foretaste of Lazarus and even Jesus’ resurrection, God calls Elijah to return and confront Ahab. The prophet Obiadiah (who is faithful to God and has already successfully hidden a hundred prophets from Jezebel, who is “killing off the prophets of the Lord.”) and Ahab have headed out in search of water and grass. Obidiah encounters Elijah who asks Obidiah to bring Ahab to him. Obidiah is understandably wary, afraid that Elijah will disappear again and that Ahab would take out his anger on him. Elijah promises to not disappear, Obdiah does as Elijah asks, and Ahab comes to him.

Ahab calls Elijah “the troubler of Israel,” but Elijah makes it clear the king himself is the problem, telling the king, ““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.” (18).

So the famous duel of the gods takes place as Elijah challenges the 400 prophets of Baal. Elijah’s mockery of the Baal prophets is biting: “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) Then the false prophets cut themselves  “until blood gushed out over them” (28) But still nothing.

To prove his point and the power of God, Elijah commands that his altar be drenched with water three times in a kind of baptism. Elijah prays and “the fire of the Lord fell and consumed the burnt offering, the wood, the stones, and the dust, and even licked up the water that was in the trench.” (38)

So, what do we learn in this standoff between the God and Baal? Yes, God is powerful, but I think the real lesson is the bold, unquenchable faith of Elijah. Would I be willing to stand in front of 450 men who hold the power and assert that my God is more powerful than theirs? This is a reminder of how we are to carry God’s word courageously and forthrightly into the darkest, most hostile place and be a witness to His saving power. But am I as courageous as Elijah? Unfortunately, I know my own history here.

John 18:25-40: Standing around the charcoal fire, Peter denies Jesus as John gives us the interesting information that the third questioner is “a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off” (26) As Peter denies it, the cock crows. But unlike in the synoptics, John does not tell us Peter’s reaction. He trusts us, his listeners and readers, to figure that out for ourselves.

Questioning Jesus, Pilate asks the question of the ages, “What is truth?” Obviously, he’s asking in a philosophical vein, but I think John puts this question here to remind us that Truth is standing in front of him. We cannot read Pilate’s three words without remembering that earlier that same night, Jesus has said I am the way, the truth and the life. In the events to follow, Pilate’s question will be answered for all time.

Pilate, the very picture of the rational, philosophical man, points out that he can release someone “for you at Passover,” and logically thinks Jesus will be this guy. But the crowd does not reply rationally and philosophically. As John tells us, the “shouted in reply, Barabbas!” The events surrounding Jesus and his impending crucifixion are far from rational and philosophical. Larger forces have now taken over events from mere men–be they cooly rational or angrily bent on protecting the status quo.

Psalm 132; 1 Kings 15:9-16:14; John 18:1-11

Psalm 132: This psalm recalls the sufferings and tribulations that David, the warrior-king, underwent when he brought the Ark up to Jerusalem. The psalmist ascribes words of relentless dedication to David until that task is completed, “I will not give sleep to my eyes  nor slumber to my lids until I find a place for the LORD,” (4,5).

And the task was accomplished, for now all come to worship: “Let us come to His dwelling, / let us bow to His footstool.” (7).  But this psalm appears to have been written at a time of trouble, as it shifts from remembrance to supplication: “For the sake of David Your servant, / do not turn away Your anointed.” (10) as in an echo of Psalm 119, the poet recalls, God’s Covenantal promise: “If your sons keep My pact /and My precept that I shall teach them, /their sons, too, evermore /shall sit on the throne that is yours.” (12)

If God keeps His promise, then victory and blessing for Israel will ensue: “I will surely bless its provisions, / its needy I will sate with bread. /And its priests I will clothe with triumph, / and its faithful will surely sing gladly.” (15, 16)

But the unstated question in this psalm is, will Israel keep its promise of faithfulness to God? Or more personally, will I keep my promises–even though as a creature of the New Covenant, I am assured that God through Jesus Christ will always be faithful to me.

1 Kings 15:9-16:14: Our historian-author traces the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in parallel.  At last, a faithful king, Asa, reigns over Judah, and “the heart of Asa was true to the Lord all his days.” (15:14) Nor does Asa’s faithfulness to God deter him from warring with Israel to the north: “There was war between Asa and King Baasha of Israel all their days.” (15:16) And he sets up an alliance with the King of Damascus, basically bribing that king to break his alliance with Israel. Which reminds us that there is nothing new under the political sun.

Asa dies of a mysterious foot disease and is succeeded by his son Jehoshaphat. Of whom more later.

Meanwhile up in Israel, Ahijah’s son Baasha comes to the throne. But God speaks to a prophet named Jehu, to tell Baasha, “have caused my people Israel to sin, provoking me to anger with their sins, therefore, I will consume Baasha and his house, (16:2). Baasha’s son Elah begins to reign, but only for two years before a coup d’etat led by his servant Zimri, who assassinates Elah while he was drunk. Zimri takes over as king and “destroyed all the house of Baasha, according to the word of the Lord, which he spoke against Baasha by the prophet Jehu.” (16:12)

What’s becoming apparent here is that Israel’s slide downhill seems to be happening more quickly that Judah’s–which of course is what happened. There’s no question that the author of this history had no particular affinity for Israel–and after all, it’s the victors who write the histories.

John 18:1-11: Speaking of betrayals and coups, John’s description of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus is as dramatic as the descriptions in the Synoptics. But as usual, there’s a theological emphasis. Here, Jesus initiates the conversation, asking the leader of the group, which includes Judas, “Whom are you looking for?” They reply, “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus says, “I am he,” whereupon “they stepped back and fell to the ground.” What does this detail tell us? That they fall down in worship because Jesus spoke with such authority? Are we seeing Jesus both as human and as divine? I think John is showing us that even those who came to capture Jesus saw his divinity, knew in their hearts who he really was, and fell down in awe, if not in worship.

So Jesus asks a second time, “Whom are you looking for?” And they reply, “Jesus of Nazareth” Jesus says rather sternly, “I told you that I am he. So if you are looking for me, let these men go.” (8). “These men” would be his disciples. John, ever helpful in his explanations, writes, “This was to fulfill the word that he had spoken, “I did not lose a single one of those whom you gave me.” (9) Which is what Jesus said at 17:12 in his prayer to the Father. John reminds us once again, that Jesus never went back on his word, nor did he ever utter any words he did not fully intend to carry out. Would that we would be faithful.

Ever impetuous, Peter cuts of the ear of the priest’s slave, who John rather mysteriously identifies as Malchus. We are left to speculate if that slave came to play a role in John’s community and was known to them? Whatever, there can be little question that at this moment of high drama the lives of everyone involved were changed forever. As ours are about to be in what follows.