Psalm 138:6–12, 2 Kings 2:19-3:27; John 21:1-14

Originally published 12/04/2016 and 12/04 2014. Revised and updated 12/04/2018.

Psalm 138:6–8: Even though God is omnipotent and our Creator, he does not forget even the most humble human being: “For high is the Lord yet the lowly he sees.” (6a) Likewise, here with the clear implication that their actions—whether good or bad—the powerful also 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. Nor is God’s companionship merely passive:
You stretch out Your hand,
and Your right hand rescues me.
 (7b)

God’s right hand represents God’s salvific power. We see real assurance here. This is not a psalm that in times of trouble asks plaintively where God is hiding. 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 72years 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 can too easily forget.

2 Kings 2:19-3:27: As much as I would like to hold Elisha in high esteem, I have some 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 apparently 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.” (3:13a). But the king responds that “No, it is the Lord who has summoned us, three kings, only to be handed over to Moab.” (3:13b) Elisha agrees (probably reluctantly) and soothed by music, prophesies that God will fill the local wadi with water, “which is only a trifle in the sight of God.” (3:18) [I like the part about music’s being the catalyst to bring the power of God upon Elisha.]

The Moabites are fooled by the sun reflecting off the water, deceived into thinking that it is the blood of the fallen Israelites and Judeans and that the three kings arrayed against them have killed each other. They attack unwisely with disastrous results, which our authors seem to relish in escribing: “The cities they overturned, and on every good piece of land everyone threw a stone, until it was covered; every spring of water they stopped up, and every good tree they felled.” (3:25)

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% made all the difference. Unlike all the other idols who demand all and give nothing in return, God gives us all even when we have given Him very little.

John 21:1-14: Even though they had seen the resurrected Jesus in Jerusalem, seven disciples, probably figuring there was nothing else they could do at this point, return to Galilee and take up their old fishing jobs. Clearly, 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 preciseness 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.: “That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” (7) 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 but in ways they cannot describe. He’s still the same Jesus but somehow he isn’t. They recognize him, but “none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?”” (12)

Although as far as the disciples were concerned it was a terrific catch of fish, the symbolism of this 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 to Jesus. Their numbers will be beyond imagining. But it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that this happens. Just as 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—and how— to fish.

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.

 

 

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

Originally published 12/01/2016. Revised and updated 12/01/2018.

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. Equally implicit here is that God also knows our sins of omission, especially 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 close 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 72 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 this assurance we can ask, as the psalmist does here, for his continued rescue because we are the creatures and God is our Creator:
Do not let go of Your handiwork. (8b)

The reality of God’s rescue is 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 God’s judgement.

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 eliminates 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 he simply utters the command to go, 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 the 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 spirit-filled.

 

Psalm 138:1–5; 1 Kings 21:17–22:28; John 19:38–20:9

Originally published 11/30/2016. Revised and updated 11/30/2018.

Psalm 138:1–5:  Although this psalm opens conventionally with praise—”I acclaim You with all my heart“—at first glance the second line is puzzling: “before gods I hymn to You.” (1b) Is the psalmist really worshiping God as just one among all these small-g gods? Perhaps he is writing in a place cluttered with idols (Babylon? Israel?) and knows that they are worthless artifacts when compared with worshipping the one true God.

In any event, this psalm quickly returns to its theme of worshipping God, who is of course at the temple in Jerusalem, for his two great qualities, his love and that he is the source of all truth:
I bow toward Your holy temple,
and I acclaim Your name
for Your kindness and Your steadfast truth.
 (2)

Moreover, for this poet, God heard his prayer and has responded:
On the day I called You answered me.
You made strength well up within me. (3)

In this heightened awareness of God having answered, the psalmist engages in prophecy that echoes the ideas expressed in Isaiah. At some point every person on earth will come to know God.
All the kings of the earth will acclaim You Lord.
For they have heard the words of Your mouth.
 (4)

When that happens the psalmist will not be worshipping God alone, but the leaders of all the earth will join in the hymns of praise:
And they will sing of the ways of the Lord,
for great is the Lord’s glory.
 (5)

This is a marvelous picture of a world to come where the lion has indeed laid down with the lamb and there will be no more war. Alas, that time still seems to be far off, although as the Creeds tell us, we wait with expectation.

 1 Kings 21:17–22:28: At long last, Ahab will enjoy the just desserts of his self-centered combination of avariciousness and general cluelessness which drive him to commit evil. Elijah is instructed by God to go to Ahab and pronounce his doom: “You shall say to him, “Thus says the Lord: In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth, dogs will also lick up your blood.”  (21:19)

Ahab seems unsurprised at Elijah’s arrival as the prophet hurls the words of God’s judgement at the king—one of the really great prophetic imprecations we find in the Bible: “Because you have sold yourself to do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, I will bring disaster on you; I will consume you, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel,” (21)

Elijah goes on to inform the king that his progeny will enjoy the same fate as the houses of Jeroboam and Ahijah. The same shameful  fate will befall Jezebel as well: “‘The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the bounds of Jezreel.” (23)

At this point, apparently feeling their readers haven’t fully comprehended Ahab’s and Jezebel’s true evil natures, the authors feel compelled to point out parenthetically that of all the crimes committed by his predecessors, Ahab is worse: “ (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.)” (25, 26)

Upon hearing Elijah’s words, Ahab seems to repent, donning sackcloth and going about “dejectedly” (27) In what I view to be a an editorial device to align this account of Ahab’s evil with the more mundane facts of what actually happened in history, our authors assert that because of Ahab’s apparent redemption, God amends the king’s fate, telling Elijah that “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)

A three year peace with Aram ensues. The king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, comes to Ahab, who suggests that they go to war together and reclaim Ramoth-gilead from Aram. Jehoshaphat agrees, but advises that they pray about it first. Four hundred prophets from Israel tell the kings they should go to battle, but Jehoshaphat remains unconvinced and asks, Ahab, “Is there no other prophet of the Lord here of whom we may inquire?” (22:7) Ahab suggests they consult with a certain Micaiah.

Micaiah arrives. A court official advises Micaiah to fall in line with the other prophets: “the words of the prophets with one accord are favorable to the king; let your word be like the word of one of them, and speak favorably.” (13) But Micaiah resists the advice , telling the official that he will speak whatever God tells him to say.

Unsurprisingly, Micaiah is the exception and announces that they will lose the battle. The ever-whiny Ahab tells Jehoshaphat, “Did I not tell you that he would not prophesy anything favorable about me, but only disaster?” (22:18) Following an odd aside that God was seeking a way to “entice” Ahab to foolishly go into battle, Micaiah goes against the popular wisdom and goes on to explain that God is the one who “has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.” (23)

For his troubles, Micaiah is tossed into prison, too often the fate of those who go up against conventional wisdom. But I have a feeling he will have the last prophetic laugh.

If ever we needed an example of how a narcissist see the world, it’s right here: For Ahab, it’s all about him. The other lesson of course is that personalities focused solely on themselves do not “get” how the real world actually works and make foolish decisions, especially when they have rejected God and firmly placed their own personalities as the center of the universe. This behavior remains on full display in today’s world.

John 19:38–20:9: Joseph of Arimathea, a disciple of Jesus, albeit a secret one, asks Pilate for Jesus’ body. Nicodemus joins Joseph, bringing a hundred pounds of emollients with which to wrap Jesus body. John goes to some length here to describe how “the body of Jesus [was] wrapped with the spices in linen cloths, according to the burial custom of the Jews.” (19:40) This is not only custom but reminds us that Jesus was truly dead and could never have escaped the wrapping had he merely been unconscious, as some resurrection scoffers have theorized.

What I hadn’t appreciated before is that they chose the tomb based on its convenient location and that time was running out before sunset, which would prevent further activity: “because it was the Jewish day of Preparation, and the tomb was nearby, they laid Jesus there.” (19:42)

In this gospel account, it is only Mary Magdalene who comes to the tomb the next morning and discovers the “the stone had been removed from the tomb.” (20:1) She runs to get Peter and John (once again that self-referential literary device to avoid giving his name as “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”) In an amusing autobiographical note, “The two were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” (20:4) But John only peers inside the tomb, seeing the linen wrappings. Ever impetuously brave (or foolhardy), Peter hurries inside the tomb first. In keeping with the fundamental theme of this gospel, John then enters the tomb and “and he saw and believed.” (20:8)

John  believed, but he did not fully comprehend the enormity of what had happened. As our author points out, “for as yet they did not understand the scripture, that he must rise from the dead.” (9) I think at a conceptual level John believed that what Jesus had said about himself, but the concept of the resurrection that he heard Jesus talk about in the upper room was a lot different than the physical reality of the Resurrection. He saw evidence of something that was (and remains) unprecedented in history. No wonder he simultaneously believed and remained puzzled.  I think that is how we have to approach the Resurrection as well. In fact I think the intertwining of belief and puzzlement is a pretty good operating definition of faith itself.

 

 

Psalm 137; 1 Kings 20:22–21:16; John 19:25–37

Originally published 11/29/2016. Revised and updated 11/29/2018.

Psalm 137: This saddest psalms was doubtless written shortly after the Babylonian conquest of Judea in 586 BCE and the exiled captivity of much of its population. The wounds are fresh as these singers, who once danced and sung with joy, are in a strange and foreign land:
By Babylon’s streams,
there we sat, oh we wept,
when we recalled Zion.
On the poplars there
we hung up our lyres. (1, 2)

However, the Babylonians, in a festive mood and knowing these captives are musicians, want to hear some of this attractive foreign music:
For there our captors had asked of us
words of song,
and our plunderers—rejoicing:
‘Sing us from Zion’s songs.’ (3)

But for the Jewish musicians, these “songs of Zion” are sacred liturgy and intended to be sung in the temple, not here beside some foreign river. They ask rhetorically,
How can we sing a song of the Lord
on foreign soil?
” (4)

Rather than singing, they yearn only the sweet memories of Jerusalem, their true and longed-for home:
Should I forget you, Jerusalem,
may my right hand wither.
May my tongue cleave to my palate
if I do not recall you. (5,6)

Memory transforms itself to intense bitterness at what their captors have done, which quickly morphs into a desire for revenge:
Daughter of Babylon the despoiler,
happy who pays back in kind
for what you did to us. 
(8)

The psalm ends not only in despair but in unfathomable outrage expressed in a bloodcurdling curse—not only on those who have asked them to sing, but on all of Babylon. If we ever needed the verbal expression of a despair so deep that it results in words so evil, it is right here:
Happy who seizes and smashes
your infants against the rock.
 (9)

As we have observed before, one finds every human feeling in the Psalms, and there is no more intense feeling of hatred mixed with despair than what we find right here.

1 Kings 20:22–21:16: While the Israelites may have won the battle, the war with the Arameans is far from over. The advisors to the king of Aram suggest that the king replace his drunken allies with experienced military men, and that they will have the advantage by fighting on the plain rather than in the hills. However, the advisors’ strategy is based on a theological misunderstanding where they believe the power of Israel’s God is limited: “Their gods are gods of the hills, and so they were stronger than we.” (24)

Israel gathers its troops, but in comparing them to the vastness of the Aramean army, our authors employ a striking simile: “the people of Israel encamped opposite them like two little flocks of goats, while the Arameans filled the country.” (20:27) However, a prophet shows up and informs Ahab that since the Arameans believe God is not present on the plains, “I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (28)

After a week of tense standoff, Israel’s army strikes and kills 100,000 Aramean foot soldiers in a single day. Defeated, Ben-hadad dons sackcloth and appears before victorious Ahab, begging for mercy, which he receives from the weak-minded king.

The authors shift to the weird story of a prophet who has been told by God to have other prophets strike and wound him. One prophet who understandably refuses, is eaten by a lion for his disobedience. The second prophet, seeing what happened to the first, strikes and wounds the prophet as instructed. The wounded prophet disguises himself as a wounded soldier and encounters Ahab. He rips off his disguise; Ahab recognizes him as a prophet, who informs the king that having failed to kill Ben-hadad, “your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people.’” (20:42) The king returns to Samaria, “resentful and sullen.” (43)

Back home, Ahab demands that his neighbor Naboth sell his vineyard that’s adjacent to the palace so he can plant a vegetable garden. Nahoth refuses, telling the king that the land is his ancestral inheritance. Ahab, mature adult that he isn’t, is once again “resentful and sullen.” (21:4)

Jezebel asks Ahab why he’s depressed and the king tells her about Naboth’s refusal. She tells him to cheer up and that she’ll take care of the Naboth problem for him. Jezebel drafts the other nobles to invite Naboth to dinner. Two “scoundrels brought a charge against Naboth, in the presence of the people, saying, “Naboth cursed God and the king.” (21:13) So they take the hapless Naboth out and stone him to death. Jezebel sweetly informs Ahab that Naboth’s land is now available because “Naboth is not alive, but dead.” (21:15)

One can only shake one’s head at the enormous cupidity and evil this vile couple is capable of doing. Ahab, besmitten, is obviously putty in Jezebel’s hands. One also wonders why the authors are spilling so much scribal ink over these two. I have a feeling a lesson is in store for Ahab, Jezebel, and we who are reading this ugly story.

John 19:25–37: Our gospel writer shifts his attention away from the dying Jesus to the women standing nearby. Jesus sees his mother and “the disciple whom he loved“—clearly a reference to John himself—and “said to his mother, ‘Woman, here is your son.’” (26) And likewise “to the disciple, “Here is your mother.” (27) This is another example of the brilliance of this gospel: that Jesus’ concern for others is greater than even his dying agony. Has there ever been a scene in all literature that so beautifully juxtaposes the most hideous of deaths with such sweetness in so few words?

Jesus gasps, “I am thirsty,” and is given bitter wine. Which, this being the gospel of many layers, is for me a symbolic reversal of the wine Jesus poured for his disciples at the Last Supper. Just as the miracle of the wine at Cana opened Jesus’ earthly ministry; the bitter wine thrust at him closes it as he utters his last words, “It is finished.” (30)

The Jews ask that the legs of the condemned be broken to insure they are dead and can be taken down and buried before the sun sets. But the soldiers “came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs.” (33) Instead, a soldier famously pierces his side and “at once blood and water came out.” (34) I don’t think it’s a stretch to see this emanation as the symbols of the two great sacraments of the church: the blood of the Eucharist and the water of baptism.

John concludes his account of the crucifixion by telling his readers, “These things occurred so that the scripture might be fulfilled.” (36) He ties the facts that Jesus legs were not broken and that his side was pierced back to Hebrew scripture. Writing from a distance of some 50 to 60 years after the event, John can illuminate the symbolic importance of this last act. And he parenthetically reassures his listeners, “He who saw this has testified so that you also may believe. His testimony is true, and he knows that he tells the truth.” (35)

But for those standing around the cross, including his mother, it is only tragedy piled on tragedy. At this point in the story, all hope is lost and the despair was certainly as great as that of the musicians weeping alongside the river of Babylon.

 

Psalm 136; 1 Kings 20:1–21; John 19:12–24

Originally published 11/28/2016. Revised and updated 11/28/2018.

Psalm 136: This rather odd thanksgiving psalm seems to be a Hebrew “call and repeat” hymn of the kind heard in African-American churches. Every one of its 26 verses ends with the same line, “for His kindness is forever.

Following an introduction wherein the psalmist calls on the singers to “Acclaim the Lord, for He is good;” (1) “Acclaim the greatest God” (2); and “Acclaim the greatest master” (3) the remainder of the hymn recounts a history of how God intervenes for Israel, beginning at the creation story.

First, there is creation. God is the one “Who makes the heavens in wisdom” (5) and “Stamps firm the earth on waters” (6) Then to the Passover. God is the one, “Who strikes Egypt in its firstborn” (10) and “brings Israel from their midst.” (11). Then to the escape into the wilderness, “Who split the Reed Sea into parts,” (13) and “Who led His people in the wilderness.” (16).

The forty years of wandering is not mentioned as the psalm comes directly to the conquest of Canaan: “Who struck down great kings” (17) and “killed mighty kings” (18) including “Sihon the Amorite” (19), and “Og, king of the Bashan.” (20) These victories result in God’s gift of “their land as an estate.” (21)

For me, the most significant aspect of this litany is that the psalmist remembers God’s forgiveness after Israel’s many sins and that God rescues them again and again:
Who recalled us when we were low,
for His kindness is forever.
And delivered us from our foes,
for His kindness is forever. (23, 24)

As God did for Israel, so, too, through Jesus Christ, God does exactly the same for us today. While it is definitely over-reading the psalmist’s intent, there is even a hint of the Eucharist:
Who gives bread to all flesh,
For His kindness is forever. (25)

Indeed, as we know some 2500 years after this psalm was written, “His kindness is forever.”

1 Kings 20:1–21: Ben-hadad, the king of Aram and his 32 allies decide to attack Israel. He sends a message to Ahab demanding his wives, children, and all his worldly treasures as the price of Samaria to avoid being attacked. Ahab consults with his elders about what to do and they advise the king, “Do not listen or consent.” (8) Ben-hadad replies that he has as many soldiers as the number of handfuls of dust in Samaria (an interesting comparison), Ahab shoots back, “Tell him: One who puts on armor should not brag like one who takes it off.” (11)

Ben-hadad, now drunk, instructs his soldiers to take their positions and invade. Meanwhile “a certain prophet” (Obidiah? Elisha?) tells Ahab that God has told him: that Ahab can be victorious, “Look, I will give it into your hand today; and you shall know that I am the Lord.” (13) But this victory will come only if Ahab initiates the battle. Ahab, brilliant army commander that he is not, asks the prophet who should go out and fight. The prophet tells him the “young men who serve the district governors.” (14) Then he asks, who should start the attack. The prophet relies with a single word, “You.”

Ahab musters 232 governors and 7000 Israel soldiers. And they go out. Ben-hadad and his 32 allied kings are drunk. When Ben-hadad’s scouts report that soldiers have emerged from Samaria, he instructs them to take the soldiers alive whether they have come out for peace or for war. Clearly, this king’s head was befuddled by alcohol.

The district governors kill the 32 allied kings, but Ben-hadad escapes. Finally, Ahab himself goes on the attack and Israel enjoys a victory, and they “defeated the Arameans with a great slaughter.” (21) But it appears that Ben-hadad has escaped to fight another day

So, the question hangs in the air: if Ahab is so evil, why does God give him this victory over a drunken enemy? I guess there’s more to the story to follow.

John 19:12–24: Pilate is desperate to release Jesus because he realizes a gross miscarriage of justice is about to occur on his watch and he will be viewed in Rome as the governor who at best screwed up—or at worst, has committed treason by denying the Roman emperor’s authority. The religious leaders cleverly exploit this reality by reminding Pilate that If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.” (12)

All of Pilate’s efforts to deflect having to condemn Jesus or to placate the chief priests have come down the fact that he has no course but to condemn Jesus to death. Pilate’s honest attempt at avoiding the world’s most famous miscarriage of justice has come to naught. He orders Jesus to be taken away and be crucified.

Of course, Pilate’s fear was exactly correct as his infamy has been remembered down through the —including every time we cite the Apostle’s Creed..

Our gospel writer omits the gory details of the crucifixion, focusing instead on the placard Pilate had placed on the cross, whereby in one sense he gets the last laugh over the Jewish religious authorities. Written in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek, the sign reads, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.” (19) The chief priests are incensed and demand that Pilate have the sign edited to read, “‘This man said, I am King of the Jews.’” (21) But Pilate refuses, saying only “What I have written I have written.” (22) For our gospel writer, of course, this sign has a much deeper meaning because Jesus is indeed the davidic Messiah, the king of the Jews. Alas, in their hatred, the Jewish religious authorities denied what the rest of the world now knows to be reality.

Contrary to all the paintings of the crucifixion, Jesus was naked when crucified. Jesus’ clothes were ripped up into four parts and distributed among the soldiers, except for the seamless tunic. The soldiers cast lots to see who gets the robe.  John tells us that this was to fulfill Ezekiel’s prophecy, They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (24)

Our gospel writer does not tell us who won the tunic, but that incident becomes the launch point of one of the most famous novels of the 19th century, Ben-Hur, written by Lew Wallace, and in 1942, The Robe, by Lloyd Douglas and the eponymous 1953 movie starring a young Richard Burton as the soldier who wins the robe.

 

 

Psalm 135:13–21; 1 Kings 19; John 19:1–11

Originally published 11/26/2016. Revised and updated 11/27/2018.

Psalm 135:13–21: The latter half of this psalm contrasts the power of the living God with the sheer impotence of idols. Our psalmist first acknowledges God’s everlasting power which transcends history:
Lord, Your name is forever,
Lord. Your fame for all generations.
 (13)

God is not only dynamically active among his people, but is the ultimate source of righteousness and justice:
For the Lord champions His people,
and for His servants He shows change of heart.
” (14)

But, alas, much of Israel worships man made idols:
The nations’ idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.
 (15)

Although the idols are fashioned in human form with human features they are merely mute, blind, deaf, and ultimately powerless simulacra:
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)

Our poet loses no time in hurling imprecations at the idol makers:
Like them may their makers be,
all who trust in them
. (18).

While most American homes do not have figurines which people worship, our society is awash in mute, blind, deaf idols of our own making. In America, the relentless trajectory of unbridled “individual rights” obtained at the cost not only of belief in God, but to the detriment of the community at large is perhaps the biggest idol of all.

The psalm concludes with praise to the living God, who brings us life with a benediction that enumerates the power structure of Israel:
House of Israel, bless the LORD,
House of Aaron, bless the LORD.
House of Levi, bless the LORD.
Those who fear the LORD, bless the LORD.” (19, 20)

1 Kings 19: Queen Jezebel is none too pleased with Elijah’s destruction of the Baal priests and sends a threatening message to the prophet: “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” (2) Elijah understandably flees to Beersheba. Resting under a tree, Elijah clearly regrets his murderous action and asks God’s permission to die right there “for I am no better than my ancestors.” (4b). Falling asleep, an angel comes to him and offers Elijah food and drink, which the prophet consumes. This angelic ministering occurs each day for forty days.

Fortified, Elijah moves on. Arriving at a cave on Mount Horeb, God comes and asks Elijah what he’s doing. Elijah replies despondently that he has completed God’s mission as commanded but now faces only death at the hands of Jezebel. God replies with a dramatic display of his power over nature in the form of wind, earthquake, fire and finally, silence. [Our authors are careful to point out that God is not “in” these forces, only that they are initiated by him.] Then God speaks, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (14) [This is a question that I think God asks of each of us. What is our purpose? How are we to serve God?

Elijah answers exactly as he did before: “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” (15)

God chooses to ignore Elijah’s depressed state and instructs him to anoint Hazael as king of Aram; Jehu as king of Israel; and Elisha as his prophetic successor. God has a rather grim plan in mind: “Whoever escapes from the sword of Hazael, Jehu shall kill; and whoever escapes from the sword of Jehu, Elisha shall kill.” (17) But as always, there is God’s promise that the few faithful in Israel—a mere 7000 in number—who have not worshipped the Baals, will be spared.

Many can identify with Elijah’s deep depression. They desire to go no further but only to lay down and die. But God sends ministering angels in the form of caregivers to restore life. And sometimes, as with Elijah, there is a display of God’s power, and one’s life heads off in a new and completely unexpected direction.

Elijah finds Elisha at the plow behind 12(!) oxen. Elijah, in a sign that Elisha is to become his successor throws his cloak over Elisha. The young man then asks Elijah for permission to “Let me kiss my father and my mother, and then I will follow you.” (20) after which he kills the oxen and the family has a giant going-away barbecue comprised of the meat of the same 12 oxen. If we ever needed a symbol of a radical career change, this is certainly it. Elisha then “followed Elijah, and became his servant.” (24)

John 19:1–11: Pilate, in another desperate move to appease the Jewish authorities who are really annoying him, sends Jesus off to be flogged and humiliated by the soldiers. Our gospel writer writes ironically that the soldiers “kept coming up to him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” and striking him on the face.” (3) John’s readers understand the irony here: Jesus is in fact king of the Jews—and of the Gentiles.

Pilate brings Jesus back out, and announces “Here is the man,” which is the second of our gospel writer’s ironies: Jesus is indeed “the man” of all men. Unappeased, the mob shouts, “Crucify him! Crucify him!” (6) In a final attempt at quieting the unruly mob, Pilate tells them they can go ahead and do so, clearly implying that the responsibility for his death rests on their shoulders, not his. But the angry Jews shout back, “We have a law, and according to that law he ought to die because he has claimed to be the Son of God.” (7)

Now that theology has entered the debate, things are truly starting to get out of hand and “when Pilate heard this, he was more afraid than ever.” (8) This single sentence gives us deep insight into Pilate’s true character: at heart he is a coward. He questions Jesus again, asking “Where are you from?” (9) Jesus remains silent. Pilate’s question is John’s third irony, since we know that as we read in the first chapter, Jesus is from God.

Jesus refuses to answer and Pilate shouts at him, “Do you refuse to speak to me? Do you not know that I have power to release you, and power to crucify you?” (10) Now Jesus answers, but to Pilate it must have sounded like religious gibberish: “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” (11a) This is John’s fourth irony: Pilate thinks Jesus is referring to the Roman emperor, but Jesus is referring to God who controls all things, whether Jewish or Gentile.

It is Jesus’ final statement that Pilate thinks gets him off the hook: “therefore the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin.” (11b)  So, who is “the one?” Pilate and history conclude it is the Jews who are guilty. And out of this statement has arisen two millennia of blaming the Jews for Jesus’ death—and worse,  two millennia of persecution of the Jews. At one level, of course, Jesus’ answer is factually correct: the Jews present in Jerusalem that day demanding his death were certainly guilty. But the sins of the father were indeed visited on the sons down through history. But is it not sinful for Christians to have sought revenge on the Jews over and over down through history? If we believe that God is a God of justice, righteousness, and yes, love, then I think Christians have committed the greater sin against the Jews.

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.
 (5)

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.
 (6)

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.

Psalm 134; 1 Kings 16:15–17:24; John 18:12–24

Originally published 11/24/2016. Revised and updated 11/24/2018.

Psalm 134: This brief psalm is a blessing on those who stand the watch, especially at night:
Look, bless the Lord,
all you servants of the Lord,
who stand in the Lord’s house through the nights. (1)

While this is intended for the temple guards who had nighttime duty, we can extend this psalm to all of those, especially first responders, who are on duty through the night, willingly wrecking their circadian rhythm: Nurses, doctors, police, firemen—and all who serve while the rest of us sleep.Thank you.

And this goes for those who must work this Thanksgiving—particularly those poor souls forced to leave their families midday and go to work in retail due to the unquenchable greediness of corporate America.

The blessing is simple and reminds us of who our creator is:
May the Lord bless you from Zion,
He who makes heaven and earth. (3)

No more need be said other than this is something we should all say, whether we work during the day or all through the night.

1 Kings 16:15–17:24: The successor kings of Israel somehow manage always to be more evil than their predecessors as that benighted nation continues its downward spiral toward depravity. Zimri has assassinated Elah and ascends the throne of Israel. A mere week later, Omri, the army’s commander, tells his troops, “Zimri has conspired, and he has killed the king” (16:16) and executes a coup d’etat. But before Omri can get to the king, Zimri (rather stupidly, IMHO) burns down the palace and manages to die in the process.

The coup splits the kingdom of Israel: half the people are loyal to Omri; the other half to a certain Tibni son of Ginath. Omri puts down the rebellion and reigns for 12 years over a seemingly united Israel, which is just as fissiparous as ever below the surface. He establishes Samaria as the new capital of Israel, and follows the usual downward path: “Omri did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; he did more evil than all who were before him.” (16:25)

Omri’s son, Ahab, succeeds him and exceeds even his father’s evil by marrying Jezebel and overtly serving the god Baal, and, yes, unsurprisingly, “did more to provoke the anger of the Lord, the God of Israel, than had all the kings of Israel who were before him.” (16:33) Wow. I guess the lesson here is that there are no limits to the urge to commit evil; it only descends ever deeper into malevolence. It’s no wonder the Jews of Judah in Jesus’ time had nothing but contempt for their fallen brothers of Samaria.

The prophet Elijah comes to Ahab and pronounces doom: “As the Lord the God of Israel lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” (17: 1) Elijah is directed by God to leave Israel forthwith and he arrives at the “Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan.” (17:5), where he is fed bread and meat by ravens. But then the wadi dries up and Elijah is led by God to Zarephath.

Elijah encounters a widow gathering sticks and asks for a little water and a “morsel of bread.” The widow, who is not Jewish, replies that she has only a little and is about to head home to die along with her son of starvation. ELijah tells her not to be afraid and promises her that “the jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” (17:14) And it was so as Elijah continued to live with the widow.

The widow’s son falls ill and is about to die. The distraught woman asks Elijah what he has against her to cause the death of her son. Elijah is equally distressed and prays aloud to God, asking the same question: “O Lord my God, have you brought calamity even upon the widow with whom I am staying, by killing her son?” (17:20) He throws stretches himself over the child and pleads three times, “O Lord my God, let this child’s life come into him again.” (17:21) And the child revives and is healed.

What is so wonderful about this story is that right here in the middle of the history of the deplorable succession of kings of Israel is a beacon of faith in God and of healing. More importantly, it dramatically demonstrates that God is the God of all people, here represented by the Gentile widow, not just the God of Israel. Israel may have a special place before God, but it is not an exclusive place.

Finally, this story is a clear demonstration of God’s special concern for widows and the poor—one of the overarching themes of the OT. Elijah found respite from the famine in the home of a poor widow, not in the king’s palace. Just as centuries later, Jesus would be born into similar humble circumstances.

John 18:12–24: Jesus is brought first to Annas, who is the father-in-law of Caiaphas, the high priest. John adds a note we have not seen in the synoptics: “Caiaphas was the one who had advised the Jews that it was better to have one person die for the people.” (14) This suggests that Caiaphas was acting out of some kind of concern for political well-being of Israel under Roman oppression. Today, we are surrounded by politicians in the government like Caiaphas who claim to know what is best for us.

John also gives us a much more detailed picture of how Peter wound up standing around the fire where he would shortly deny Jesus. In another self-referential detail by our gospel writer: “Since that disciple was known to the high priest, he went with Jesus into the courtyard of the high priest,” (15) Apparently, unlike Peter, John was not afraid to be identified as a disciple of Jesus.

Meanwhile, Jesus is questioned by Annas, and contra the silent Jesus we encounter in the synoptics, John’s Jesus is, as he always is in this gospel, quite clear about who he is, although he doe omit some details about who he really is: “I have spoken openly to the world; I have always taught in synagogues and in the temple, where all the Jews come together. I have said nothing in secret.” (20) John’s Jesus adds rather courageously, “Why do you ask me? Ask those who heard what I said to them; they know what I said.” (21) Even though Jesus’ response is certainly the correct one, he is rewarded by being struck in the face by one of the temple policemen. Again, Jesus is not cowed, but says, “If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong. But if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me?” (23)

But there is no reply to Jesus in this kangaroo court. And there is no reply throughout history. Jesus is either a madman, or he is who he says he is. Once again we encounter the theme of belief that so permeates this gospel. The question to all of us: How would we answer Jesus?

I believe our gospel writer leaves Jesus’ question unanswered because the question is for all of us. Do we believe or do we not believe? But one thing is clear: Annas clearly wants to wash his hands of this troublemaker and sends him to Caiaphas.

 

Psalm 133; 1 Kings 15:9–16:14; John 18:1–11

Originally published 11/23/2016. Revised and updated 11/23/2018.

Psalm 133: This brief psalm reminds me of an idyllic landscape painting by someone like the French painter Millet, as our psalmist looks down on this peaceful scene occupied by farmers resting after a hard days work, admiring the fruits of their labor. It celebrates the harmony of a group that has toiled together on a common task:
Look, how good and how pleasant
is the dwelling of brothers together.
 (1)

A striking simile of gentle anointing follows:
Like goodly oil on the head
coming down over the beard.
 (2a)

And it’s a certainly a full, bushy beard:
Aaron’s beard that comes down
over the opening of his robe.
 (2b)

While I personally am not ready to have my head and (non-existent) beard drenched in oil, there’s no question that this is a calming, peaceful practice of cleansing at the end of a hard day’s work, reminding us that Sabbath rest is just as important as daily work.

The oil simile in turn receives its own simile amplifying the image of verdant peace and quiet rest:

Like Hermon’s dew that comes down
on the parched mountains, (3)

And behind it all is God:
For there the Lord ordained the blessing—
life forevermore. (4)

This peace and harmony is a wonderful description of the worry-free life that awaits us “forevermore” because we trust and have rested in the arms of a loving God.

1 Kings 15:9–16:14: At long last, Judah enjoys the benefit of 41 years of being ruled by a righteous king: “Asa did what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his father David had done.” (15:11) He even demotes his own mother from being queen mother “because she had made an abominable image for Asherah.” (13) While the “high places” were not removed, and thus we presume that idol worship continued, “Nevertheless, Asa was true to the Lord all his days.” (14)

But the battles between Judah and Israel continue. Asa establishes an alliance with king Ben-hadad of Syria at Damascus, and both armies take on the northern kingdom of  Israel. Attacking from the north, they subdue Israel’s king Baasha, who gives up his plans for building strong fortifications at Ramah.

Stepping back in time a bit, our authors reveal that Jeroboam has (finally) died and his son Nadab  continues Israel’s evil practices. Nadab is quickly overthrown by Baasha,  who promptly eliminates the Jeroboamic dynasty, apparently instructed to do so by God through the prophet Ahijah:  “He [Baasha] left to the house of Jeroboam not one that breathed,…according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by his servant Ahijah the Shilonite—because of the sins of Jeroboam that he committed and that he caused Israel to commit, and because of the anger to which he provoked the Lord, the God of Israel.” (15:29, 30) This is a stark reminder that the leader has a higher responsibility to those whom he leads. The house of Jeroboam is destroyed not only for its own sins, but for having led an entire nation astray.

The reason is simple: Baasha and the nation of Israel have continued to sin mightily. The prophet Jehu brings Baasha the bad news directly from God: “I exalted you out of the dust and made you leader over my people Israel, and you have walked in the way of Jeroboam, and have caused my people Israel to sin, provoking me to anger with their sins.” (16:2) Baasha dies and his son Elah takes the throne, reigning for a mere two years before a palace coup headed by a certain Zimri assassinates 27-year old Elah. As God had promised, the house of Baasha is wiped out.

As far as our authors are concerned, kings who fail to set an example of following God in the same way that David did are the root cause of defeat and death—not only of themselves, but their families and above all, the nation itself. With the exception of Asa, self-centered, egotistical leaders seem to be genetically incapable of following God.

John 18:1–11: Jesus is betrayed by Judas in the Kidron valley at an unnamed garden—which from the Synoptics we know to be Gethsemane. Our gospel writer omits Jesus’ agonizing Gethsemane prayer—probably because Jesus has just prayed a much more upbeat and philosophically richer prayer with the disciples in the upper room. Unlike the Synoptics, John’s Jesus is far more spiritual and seemingly exempt—up to this point anyway—from the pain and agony of the flesh.

In John’s account, Jesus confronts Judas and simply asks (obviously knowing the answer already), “Whom are you looking for?” (4), They reply “Jesus of Nazareth” and Jesus calmly responds, “I am he.” (5) Of course for this gospel writer, these three words are fraught with far greater meaning than simply identifying himself to a bunch of soldiers. Judas must sense that the completion of the sentence would be “whom the Father has sent,” because he faints and falls to the ground, doubtless realizing the enormity of his sin.

The same dialog between Jesus and the soldiers is repeated again, word for word. This time though, Jesus adds, “if you are looking for me, let these men [the disciples] go.” But Peter cannot leave without a fight on behalf of his master and promptly cuts off the right ear of the high priest’s slave. Jesus tells Peter to sheath his sword. As I read this Jesus’ instructions to Jesus are not because he necessarily disapproves of Peter’s impulsive act but because it might foil the sequence of events that are about to follow: “Am I not to drink the cup that the Father has given me?” (11)

For our gospel writer, Jesus never questions his fate but is fully cognizant of the purpose for which he was sent to earth by God. John’s Jesus has never doubted what he is to do and approaches his fate with otherworldly equanimity.