Psalm 119:153-160; 1 Kings 2:1-38; John 12:12-19

Psalm 119:153-160: The supplication continues as the psalmist asks for healing, “See my affliction and free me, / for Your teaching I have not forgotten” (153) although the very abstract “affliction could be physical, psychological or emotional–or all three. As always, the supplication seems transactional; the bargain being “I have not forgotten your teaching, so in return I really deserve to be healed.”

The psalmist then moves to the courtroom, where God is his defense attorney. Given the emphasis throughout the psalm on “precepts” and “statutes,” this is an appropriate setting. We could also presume that God is his judge and the prosecution are those wicked ones, who have fallen away from God’s statutes. The psalmists asks, “Argue my cause and redeem me, / through Your utterance give me life.” (154) Once again his desire is for God to speak.

God is the judge here, and He is also the law-giver, as we have read throughout this long psalm. The images here move from God as teacher to God as author the legal system: “Your statutes they have not sought” (155); “Your laws give me life” (156); “from Your decrees I have not swerved.”  (157); “See that I love Your decrees.” (159) This section ends with God clearly as the legislator of justice: “The chief of Your words is truth, / and forever all Your righteous laws.” (160).

It’s easy to see how many Christians have an image of God as judge and jury rather than God as love. Yet, of course we must deal with the paradox that God is both.

1 Kings 2:1-38: It’s important to remember that these histories were written while Israel was in exile in Babylon and the author is looking back over the history of Israel and Judah and the succession of kings who were less successful in their rule than David or Solomon. On his deathbed, David utters the definition of kingship: “Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn.” (3) In short, “Follow God’s law and all will be well.”

And then immediately, David utters the fateful words that retrospectively define everything that went wrong: “Then the Lord will establish his word that he spoke concerning me: ‘If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.’” (4) Of course, with only a few exceptions, Solomon’s successors did not “heed to their way.”

David issues some final instructions about what to do about various loose ends and Israel’s greatest warrior king dies. Solomon then deals with the various conspirators: some are killed; some are banished. David’s general, Joab, has committed many treacherous acts, not least killing Absalom and his time for rough justice has come as well as “two men more righteous and better than himself, Abner son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa son of Jether, commander of the army of Judah.” (32)

Joab hears they are coming for him, and runs to the altar inside the Tabernacle. Solomon’s chief, Benaiah says to Joab, “The king commands, ‘Come out.’” But he said, “No, I will die here.”” (30).  Benaiah goes back to Solomon, who replies, “Do as he has said, strike him down and bury him; and thus take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause.” (31) The blood guilt of Joab is satisfied, reminding us that while Solomon will create one of the most sophisticated reigns the world had ever seen, the roots of tribal blood killing and revenge, albeit done in the name of God, are not far removed.

John 12:12-19: Decamping form Bethany, Jesus  triumphantly enters Jerusalem. John leaves out all the details about the donkey, saying only, “Jesus found a young donkey and sat on it;” (14) in order to make sure we know that Zechariah’s prophecy is fulfilled. The disciples finally begin to “understand these things” and John makes it clear that the crowd is the same one “that had been with him when he called Lazarus out of the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to testify.” (17) John makes it clear that it is the Lazarus event has been the catalyst that allows Jesus to enter Jerusalem safely and triumphantly.

The Pharisees observe, “You see, you can do nothing. Look, the world has gone after him!” (19) At this moment it appears to them, anyway, that this rough-hewn rabbi from the outback of Galilee is taking over. We can only imagine their intellectual despair.

But the Pharisees do not understand crowd psychology and they were not in charge–and to a certain extent, I think John lets them off the hook here with regard to the plot that leads to the cross. There are more powerful men who are not afraid of the crowd that surrounds Jesus–and they will ultimately have their way.

Psalm 119:145-152; 1 Kings 1:28-53; John 12:1-11

Psalm 119:145-152: Our psalmist is now in full supplication mode: “I called out with a whole heart. /Answer me, LORD.” (145) And unlike many other psalms of supplication, he has a reason that God should answer him: “Your statutes I would keep.” This same ‘answer me so I can keep the law” theme is repeated immediately: “I called to You—rescue me, / that I may observe Your precepts.” And then, “I greeted the dawn and cried out, / for Your word did I hope.” (147)

In previous psalms the poet will cry to God and await God’s answer. Psalm 119, though, brings a new level of sophistication. The psalmist cries to God because he craves the voice of God as God speaks to him through the Scriptures, the Law, God’s precepts. Yes, God expresses His word through nature, as witness the many psalms that talk about God’s voice in the thunder and other acts of nature. But now, God speaks through His Law and through that which is written.

Which is how I fundamentally hear God speaking to me.

The psalmist then says, “Hear my voice as befits Your kindness. / O LORD, as befits Your law, give me life.” (149) However, I do not need to seek life through God’s law. Instead he has given us His Word directly in the person of Jesus Christ. That is the great difference between the psalmist and me–and I am grateful.

1 Kings 1:28-53: On this day following the elections, this story resonates: the transfer of power from King David to King Solomon. After being reminded by Bathsheba and Nathan, David utters the all-important words, “as I swore to you by the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne in my place,’ so will I do this day.” (30) The author gives us a hint of great things to come as Benaiah says, “As the Lord has been with my lord the king, so may he be with Solomon, and make his throne greater than the throne of my lord King David.” (37), which is repeated by other servants (47). Solomon is crowned and “the city is in a (joyous) uproar,” which the pretender, Adonaijah, hears in the distance. Jonathan, son of the priest Abiathar delivers the bad news: “our lord King David has made Solomon king.”

Adonaijah knows that his attempt to gain the throne has failed because David himself has anointed Solomon his successor. The guests of Adonaijah, knowing they are at great risk for having supported the usurper, “got up trembling and went their own ways.” So much for loyalty. (49). Adonaijah knows that the sure penalty for his rashness is death and he runs to the altar, grabbing its horns, which gives him sanctuary. Solomon has Adonaijah brought to him after Solomon swears not to kill him. We get a preview of how Solomon will rule when he grants mercy to Adonaijah with his first act as king: “If he proves to be a worthy man, not one of his hairs shall fall to the ground; but if wickedness is found in him, he shall die.” (52) And he sends Adonaijah home.

Unlike the blood and battles that characterized David’s succession over Saul, we witness the first peaceful succession of power in Israel.  What’s interesting here is that unlike David, who always consults with God before any major act, Solomon seems to grant mercy solely on the basis of his own wisdom. What will be the relationship between God and Solomon? Will God recede into the background as a speaking character in this history of Israel?

John 12:1-11:  Jesus is at Lazarus’ home in Bethany when Mary anoints his feet with expensive oil. In a breathtaking act of false charity, Judas protests, giving his lengthiest speech in the Gospels: “Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?” (5) Which of course as John points out is a lie to cover the fact he’s been stealing from the common purse.

Never missing the opportunity to make it clear what’s about to happen, Jesus says, “She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial.” (7). That doesn’t faze the disciples, who of course think Jesus’ burial will come years in the future, not in a bit more than a week.

Since he brought Lazarus back to life, Jesus’ popularity is growing by leaps and bounds. So, “the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well” (10) in their increasingly desperate attempts to quash this Jesus movement.

The dramatic story of Lazarus and its aftermath occurs only in John. Yet, it is one of the seminal points in the story, and Jesus’ greatest miracle. So, I have to wonder, why is it not in the Synoptics? As John tells us, “many of the Jews were deserting and were believing in Jesus.” (12) and that will help explain the large and enthusiastic crowds that greet Jesus when he enters Jerusalem. But the silence in Matthew, Mark and Luke is remarkable.

 

Psalm 119:137-144; 1 Kings 1:1-27; John 11:45-57

Psalm 119:137-144: The beauty of this seemingly endless psalm is how the psalmist finds new ways of expressing the same idea about God and His laws/precepts. Here, “Your utterance is most pure, / and Your servant has loved it.” (140) God speaks and “his utterance is pure.” In the context of Israel’s culture where everything fit into one of two categories–pure or impure–it’s not very surprising to read that God’s word is “pure.” “Your servant”–the psalmist–“has loved it.” We really would expect nothing else.

But the question hangs in the air here: Does the psalmist love God or does he love God’s “Word?”  I think it’s really “and.” If we love God then we will love God’s word, even if that word is not communicating good news. It is the communication itself, not necessarily the words, that we love.  All of these verses anticipate the final manifestation of God’s Word: Jesus Christ in whom we gain far more than “insight that I may live.” (144b) It is in Jesus that the real security promised by this psalm.

And those words and the love they communicate become all the more important to the psalmist when he reflects on his lowly position in the world: “Puny am I and despised, / yet Your decrees I have not forgotten.” This is “puny” not only its “small in stature” sense, but in terms of being “nothing” in terms of success, power, or wealth. And now we have the Holy Spirit, in addition to God’s word. Unlike the psalmist, we do not have to worry about remembering God’s word because it has come to us through Jesus Christ.

1 Kings 1:1-27: This first chapter of I Kings opens with David sick and advanced in age. He has not publicly announced who will succeed him. In the absence of word from David, Absalom’s ambitious younger brother, Adonijah, is positioning himself to succeed David’s throne.

Ever-reliable, the prophet Nathan goes to Solomon’s mother, Bathsheba, and advises her “Go in at once to King David, and say to him, ‘Did you not, my lord the king, swear to your servant, saying: Your son Solomon shall succeed me as king, and he shall sit on my throne?'” (13). Then, as he has arranged, Nathan arrives while Bathsheba is talking to David, confirming Bathsheba’s news about Adonijah, noting that as the usurper prepares to take the throne with sacrifices and feasts, “he did not invite me, your servant, and the priest Zadok, and Benaiah son of Jehoiada, and your servant Solomon.” (26) Nathan then points out “this thing been brought about by my lord the king and you have not let your servants know who should sit on the throne of my lord the king after him.” (27)

This ancient story is a reminder that no matter how great our leaders, they will age and eventually fail. Even those of us who are neither kings nor great leaders must remember that we are mortal and recognizing that reality–and preparing for a future that does not include ourselves–is our duty and responsibility.

John 11:45-57: The word about Jesus’ radical miracle gets out because some of the witnesses “went to the Pharisees and told them what he had done.” (46) The Pharisees convene a meeting, stating (quite legitimately, I think) that shortly, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” (48) But Caiaphas, says “it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” (50) John then says something I had never noticed before. First, he points out that Caiaphas “did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation,” (51).

John then doubles down for his community and for us his readers on this surprising angle with serious, revolutionary theology by revealing that what the conspirators were about to do would change the world. This is about much more than Israel; it is about everyone on earth: “Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God.” (52) “Dispersed children of God” seems a clear reference to all of us, not just the Jews.

The evil act that Caiaphas and the others are plotting to accomplish is in fulfillment of something much greater: the salvation of humankind. This is tough for us to accept. In that particular time and space, what they did to Jesus was an evil act, but in the larger picture of salvation history, the evil act was essential to God’s plan.  Of course Caiaphas and his cohorts acted with malice and never realized they were part of God’s “big picture.” For that evil they deserve punishment–just as Judas did. But in a strange way, we must be grateful to them–they are essential to what has to happen, and John makes this larger context clear to us.

 

Psalm 119:129-136 ; 2 Samuel 23:18-24:25; John 11:31-44

Psalm 119:129-136: As the psalmist’s encomium regarding God’s word stretches to new heights, he makes what at first looks like a provocative assertion: “The portal of Your words sends forth light, makes the simple understand.” (130) Really? Sometimes it seems that God’s word is awfully obscure. And even if the sophisticated understand, they tend to fight among themselves regarding the interpretation of God’s word. Never mind the simple.

So what is our psalmist saying here? That we just need to open the Bible and read or pray and listen for God’s response and then we’ll just understand everything in the Bible? Hardly. Rather, I think he’s being a bit more subtle in the metaphor here. We need to think of God’s word present behind a closed door that is our to open. We are holding the doorknob in our hand. And just as an interior light spreads its light into the outside darkness when the door is opened, we must open the door of our heart to feel the light of God’s word. Only after opening that door will God’s light pour over us.

Will we–simple or sophisticated–then understand everything God has to say? Well, we may not get the theological subtleties of God’s word in the normal sense of “understanding,” but even the simplest among us will come to understand via God’s word that God is present with us and that God holds us in His light. Without his word we are in the dark, certainly in terms of knowledge and understanding, but also knowing that it is through God’s word that He speaks to us, if only to reassure us that He is present in our lives–and above all that He loves us. I think this reality is summed up very nicely in the old song, “Jesus loves me; this I know for the Bible tells me so.”

2 Samuel 23:18-24:25: Joab’s nephew Abishai is the commander of Israel’s special forces under David–“the Thirty.” One of the Thirty, “Benaiah son of Jehoiada was a valiant warrior from Kabzeel, a doer of great deeds” (20) “won a name beside the three warriors. He was renowned among the Thirty, but he did not attain to the Three. And David put him in charge of his bodyguard.” (23)  These verses give us insight into the sophisticated organization of the Army under David and his general, Joab. 

For reasons our author doesn’t specify, “the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, count the people of Israel and Judah.”” (24:1). Joab resists this task but David, in his anger, insists and the census reveals that “in Israel there were eight hundred thousand soldiers able to draw the sword, and those of Judah were five hundred thousand.” (24:9)

David suddenly realizes that he did a bad thing by taking the census (Alter tells us that taking a census had negative folkloric connotations and that the people would feel cursed by virtue of being counted.) A suddenly arbitrary God offers David three choices: 3 years of famine, 3 months of warfare or 3 days of pestilence. David chooses pestilence, but God’s anger is averted by David’s purchase of a threshing floor and offering a sacrifice there “and the plague was averted from Israel.” (24:25)

This is a very confusing story. The character of God demanding such severe punishment by virtue of David taking a census seems arbitrary and very much out of character of the God whom David has been following–and speaking with–up to this point. One is left with the impression that this story has been tacked on at the end of 2 Samuel by a different author.

John 11:31-44: Ever the brilliant author, John reveals a new dimension of Jesus’ character as he arrives at Lazarus’ house and finds Mary weeping. Up to this point Jesus has been pretty much focused on the lesson he wishes to communicate in eventually raising Lazarus. He has an important lesson to teach about his own life and impending death, and not even the protests of his disciples have deterred him. He was willing to let Lazarus die in order to facilitate this lesson.

But when he arrives and Mary falls at his feet and says (I think plaintively, not angrily), “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” (32) Jesus sees the very real anguish that his delay has caused. And then when he actually arrives at Lazarus tomb, Jesus weeps. This is one of those places where we realize that Jesus is indeed fully human. Yes, as he’s been saying for the last chapter, he has followed the will of his Father, but as we will see in Gethsemane, it has come at the price of real human suffering; Jesus’ humanity is fully expressed here.

And not everyone is happy. Since some in the crowd chide Jesus–certainly a disciple or two, one of them probably Thomas–“Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (36)

But then the great surprise. Yes, Jesus could certainly have prevented Lazarus’ death, but now by raising Lazarus he offers his greatest miracle recorded in the Gospels. I think if the disciples had really been paying attention–and it’s even a difficult thing for us to see–is that Jesus is making the final statement about why he’s really here; he’s revealing why his Father has sent him. It’s not to set himself against and overcome the political authorities of the time. It is neither Israel nor Rome that he has come to earth to conquer. He has come to conquer death itself.

Of course for us with the privilege of knowing the outcome of Jesus’ story, the point of the Lazarus story is easy for us to see. But for the crowd there it can only be confusion and wonderment.

Psalm 119:113-120; 2 Samuel 22:1-25; John 11:1-16

Psalm 119:113-120: Our psalmist continues to draw a stark contrast between himself, who rightly desires God’s teaching, and those who do not: “The perverted I hated / and Your teaching I loved.” (113) Even to the point of hating them, Which is apparently OK since God apparently rejects them as well: “You spurned all who stray from Your statutes, / for their deception is but a lie.” (118)

In contrast to all those supplication psalms wherein the psalmist expresses his deep frustration and anguish that the evildoers seem to be winning the day, this poet sounds almost smug in his assurance that God will do away with them: “You spurned all who stray from Your statutes, / for their deception is but a lie. / Like dross You destroy all the earth’s wicked.” (118, 119a)

And in what seems like an odd twist of logic, God’s destruction of evildoers causes our psalmist to respond, “therefore I love Your precepts.” (119b) Really? He loves God’s Law because it eliminates evildoers? But God is God and the psalmist never forgets the immense distance betweenGod and himself: “My flesh shudders from the fear of You, / and of Your laws I am in awe.” (120)

What becomes clear here is that there is a vast gulf between God and humankind. Those who revere and follow the law understand this. God is not a comfortable idea or concept we can fit into a box of our own making. God is completely Other. We cannot tame God; we can only be in awe of God. As for those–the “evildoers”– who don’t ever think about God or consider Him to be relevant in their lives, well, for the psalmist they are merely dross that will eventually burn up.  Happily, Jesus shows up to demonstrate that God love them too.

2 Samuel 22:1-25: David’s song of thanksgiving is surely the highlight of 2 Samuel. The first verses are familiar to us because we sing them frequently albeit with some words left out…

The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer,
   my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation,
    my stronghold and my refuge,
    my savior; you save me from violence.

But we would do well to pay attention to the subsequent verses, as well. First there is supplication: “In my distress I called upon the Lord; / to my God I called.” (7a) And God hears the prayer: “From his temple he heard my voice, / and my cry came to his ears.” (7b)

Then God reacts in apocalyptic rage: “Then the earth reeled and rocked; / the foundations of the heavens trembled / and quaked, because he was angry.” (8) Then God comes: “He bowed the heavens, and came down; /…He rode on a cherub, and flew; / he was seen upon the wings of the wind.” (10, 11). Notice how God employs nature to make Himself known: “He made darkness around him a canopy, / thick clouds, a gathering of water.” (12).  

Then God speaks: “The Lord thundered from heaven; / the Most High uttered his voice. (14)  Appropriately for David, God is also a warrior, again described as the forces of nature: “He sent out arrows, and scattered them / —lightning, and routed them.” (15)  God hears us and responds. Perhaps not as dramatically as David’s song tells us, but God never fails to hear our cries.

As usual, the deuteronomic theme comes through loud and clear: “Therefore the Lord has recompensed me according to my righteousness, / according to my cleanness in his sight.” (25) If we live a life that is aligned to God and God’s will, then in the words of Heschel, “The true goal for man is to be what he does.” David is our resounding example in that regard. He was completely authentic; his being was reflected in his doing before God and man.

 John 11:1-16: To say that those around Jesus were frustrated at their leader’s Big Two-Day Delay when they heard Lazarus was ill is an understatement. But as usual, John uses this event to expound on a theological theme; this time Jesus as light: “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” (9, 10)

Jesus is speaking at two levels: the physical and himself as Light of the World. And as usual, the disciples don’t really get what Jesus is talking about, so John tells us, “Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep.” (13) Then, for once, “Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead.” (14) And it’s clear that Jesus is going to use Lazarus’ death in some surprising new way “so that you may believe.” (16).  And so, they head back across the Jordan to Lazarus’ house in Bethany and certain trouble with the Jerusalem authorities.

Perhaps what is most intriguing in this passage is Thomas’ cryptic remark, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” (16). Is Thomas talking about the inevitable collapse of Jesus’ ministry and realizes that Jesus is indeed going to die at the hands of the Jewish and Roman authorities? Probably. As the skeptic we later find Thomas really is, this could indeed be a resigned, almost cynical, remark. Or does Thomas have something more profound here? Does he actually understand what Jesus is about to do with regard to Lazarus?

Psalm 119:105-112; 2 Samuel 21; John 10:34-42

Psalm 119:105-112: We encounter the verse I memorized in the 5th grade at Lake Avenue Congregational Church: “Your word is a lamp to my feet / and a light to my path.” In this era of entire Bibles being available on smartphones, there probably isn’t much Bible memorization going on any more. At least there isn’t for me.

But now almost 60 years later, this verse speaks differently. Yes, it’s about God’s word, but it’s the path that resonates. When I was 10 I had no idea of the path that lay before me. Life was potential but it led into the unknown. Now, looking back, I realize what a tremendous role God’s word has played in illuminating the path of my life. Not that I haven’t strayed, especially in my 20’s. But God–and God’s word–have been there as the sure light in my journey.

I can understand why I didn’t memorize verse 109 back in 1956: “My life is at risk at all times, / yet Your teaching I do not forget.” Life turns out not to be the sure thing that a 5th grader thinks it is–in the unlikely event he even thinks about life. Our lives are at risk: not just in terms of danger or disease, but in the temptations that come our way. God’s word is indeed the beacon–the reference point– in the night. Can I say with the psalmist, “I inclined my heart to do Your statutes / forever without fail?” (112) No. Again, the psalmist speaks of something that may be hoped for, but that we cannot make happen on our own. We will indeed fail. But that’s where grace–so absent in this psalm–comes in.

2 Samuel 21: David asks God why there’s been famine for three years. God tells him, “There is bloodguilt on Saul and on his house, because he put the Gibeonites to death.” (1) David asks the Gibeonites (who are the descendants of the Amorites) what he can do to make amends and thereby avenge the bloodguilt and end the famine. The Gibeonites demand the seven sons of Saul and David complies, excluding Mephibosheth, the son of Saul’s son Jonathan, and the “seven of them perished together. They were put to death in the first days of harvest, at the beginning of barley harvest.” (9). David the buries the bones of the seven, along with the bones of Saul and Jonathan.

This is one of those puzzling places where we would think that having established the Law, God would not be seeking the blood of humans in order to end a famine. Israel doesn’t seem very different from its pagan neighbors in this respect and God seems to be the perpetrator. Of course, we could argue that this is a preview of Jesus taking on the bloodguilt of all of us, but for me, that’s not a very satisfying position.

The remainder of the chapter deals with fighting the Philistiines. In an eery replay of David’s encounter with Goliath,we are told, “Then there was another battle with the Philistines at Gob; and Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim, the Bethlehemite, killed Goliath the Gittite, the shaft of whose spear was like a weaver’s beam. (19) Really? Another giant named Goliath? Only here we get several giants including one with 12 fingers and 12 toes. And David himself seems to have been involved again as “they fell by the hands of David and his servants.” (22)

John 10:34-42: As the Jews around him pick up their stones Jesus quotes Psalm 82:6: “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’?” Even though the Psalm is not technically “the Law,” and rest of the verse says, “you shall die like mortals” Jesus makes his point using scripture in an unexpected and very creative way, reminding his listeners that “the scripture cannot be annulled” (35) and neutralizing his foes, although they still tried to arrest him, he eludes capture and escapes “across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing earlier.” (40).

As always, and even in this rather exciting incident, John does not miss an opportunity to make a theological point. Jesus says, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works,” (38, 39).  And then John’s key point ,which clearly has a different significance for John’s readers–and us–than it did for the Jews that day: “so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” Clearly unconvinced and believing he is persisting in blasphemy, they try to arrest him rather than stone him.  

So, Jesus is saying in effect,”OK, rely on the evidence of the miracles I’ve performed if you guys are still skeptical of what I’m telling you.” But as Jesus says elsewhere, evidence of miracles is insufficient; faith is what’s required. And faith does not carry the day here as John shows us the undercurrents that will lead eventually to the cross.

Psalm 119:97-104; 2 Samuel 19:31-20:26; John 10:22-33

Psalm 119:97-104: Our psalmist comes close to bragging about his wisdom and understanding compared to others, although he makes it clear it is because “I loved Your teaching” (97) and he has stuck to it: “All day long it was my theme.” (97) He outlines the results of that dedication:

98 Your command makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is mine forever.
99 I have understood more than all my teachers
for Your precepts became my theme.
100 I gained insight more than the elders
for Your decrees I kept.

He asserts that he is wiser than his enemies, understands more than his teachers and has greater insight than his elders. Then, he goes on to say that he has not succumbed to temptation, “From all evil paths I held back my feet” (101), and “From Your laws I did not swerve.” (102).

But before we accuse him of lacking humility, he gives all the credit to God’s “precepts and decrees.”  Further, I think we need to view this section less as braggadocio (although there is certainly some of that), but more as a list of his objectives. Our psalmist is human and surely knows he is fully capable of failure and “swerving from Your laws.”

In short, our psalmist may not have achieved this state permanently, but recognizes that each day requires a renewed commitment. Or, at least that’s how I need to read this. Who knows, perhaps our psalmist achieved this exalted state. But for me, it continues to be a daily struggle–and a daily discipline.

2 Samuel 19:31-20:26: David shows great kindness to 80-year old Barzillai, asking him to come to Jerusalem. But Barzillai demurs and asks to meet the king “a little way over the Jordan.” David crosses the river, kisses and blesses Barzillai, who then returns home. Then David “went on to Gilgal, and Chimham went on with him; all the people of Judah, and also half the people of Israel.” (40). But the people of Israel complain, ““Why have our kindred the people of Judah stolen you away,?” (41) Now, there’s an argument between the people of Israel and the people of Judah, “But the words of the people of Judah were fiercer than the words of the people of Israel.” (43).  And here. as early as David’s time we see the first signs of what eventually became the split between Israel, the Northern Kingdom, and Judah, the Southern Kingdom.

The split becomes visible when “a scoundrel named Sheba son of Bichri, a Benjaminite,” exploits the disagreement and “all the people of Israel withdrew from David and followed Sheba son of Bichri; but the people of Judah followed their king steadfastly from the Jordan to Jerusalem.” (20:2)

War breaks out; there is an unpleasant scene between the Army’s commander, Joab, and Amasa, who has dilly-dallied in gathering the troops, causing David to observe, “Now Sheba son of Bichri will do us more harm than Absalom.” (20:5) Joab eviscerates Amasa for his treachery, and the Army goes to war. But before lots of killing happens, “a wise woman called from the city” to Joab, who tells him that they will toss the head of the traitor Sheba over the city wall. She talks the leaders of the city into her plan, they toss Sheba’s head over the wall and a battle is avoided. But only barely.

It’s fascinating that in this story it’s the men who rashly want to go to war, but it is a “wise woman” who avoids needless bloodshed. And once again, we have a Biblical example of female wisdom and leadership.

John 10:22-33: The Jews in Jerusalem have had enough of Jesus’ obscure speeches. “So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”” (24). Jesus responds, “I have told you, but you do not believe.” (25) and then says, “you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep.” (26) He tells them that his sheep follow him “because they know my voice.”  It’s one thing to be accused of not being a “believer” but then he really enrages the crowd with the phrase, “The Father and I are one.” (30)

This is blasphemy and they prepare to stone Jesus. His defense is simply “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?” But the Jews reply they are stoning him for blasphemy rather than his good works. This is a classic case of people holding so closely and firmly to “right theology” that they ignore the good that Jesus has brought into the lives of so many. Law must trump grace.

We are exactly the same today: we hold orthodoxy as the greatest good, too often ignoring the good that has been done in Jesus’ name. For example, when we claim that the Bible condemns homosexuality and then we exclude these folks form fellowship, we are picking up the same stones as those Jews in Jerusalem. It is hewing to entrenched theology rather than showing mercy and grace that has given Christianity so much of its negative reputation today.

Psalm 119:89-96; 2 Samuel 18:31-19:30; John 10:11-21

Psalm 119:89-96: Although the psalmist predates John by hundreds of years, one is reminded of John 1:1: “Your word stands high in the heavens.” (89) There is no way the psalmist meant anything besides God’s Law when he wrote “your word,” but for John, who surely knew this psalm, this verse may have been his inspiration to transform “word” to capital-W “Word.”

Reading the OT through the lens of Jesus Christ is one of the joys of Bible reading. Yes, I know that we believe the entire scriptures point forward to God’s capital-W Word, but it’s fun to discover these small places for ourselves.

The other verse that resonates for me is the psalmist’s reference to God’s creation: “You made the earth firm and it stood. By Your laws they stand this day,” (91) For me, anyway, “Your laws” does not refer to the written laws for Israel, but to the laws of physics, which indeed hold the earth–and everything else–“firm.” As physicists delve ever deeper into creation and astronomers look ever farther into the heavens there is just no question for me that this magnificence is far, far greater than a random series of quantum events. There is evidence of God’s creative power everywhere we look.

2 Samuel 18:31-19:30: David learns that Absalom is dead, and we read the most famous words of mourning in all the Bible: “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” (18:33). The troops, who had expected David to be glad that the rebellion had been put down and David would be overjoyed, instead find that “the victory that day was turned into mourning for all the troops;”  They are ashamed in victory and “the troops stole into the city that day as soldiers steal in who are ashamed when they flee in battle.” (19:3)

But ever practical Joab–who has not admitted he is the one who struck down Absalom–comes to David and basically says, “Buck up, David.” pointing out that “ you have covered with shame the faces of all your officers who have saved your life today, and the lives of your sons and your daughters, and the lives of your wives and your concubines, for love of those who hate you and for hatred of those who love you.” (19:6) and even boldly asserts to David “You have made it clear today that commanders and officers are nothing to you; for I perceive that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased.” (19:6), asserting that unless David makes an appearance before the troops they will desert him. David takes Joab’s advice.

There is a powerful lesson for leaders here. David was so absorbed in his own sorrow that he forgot his role as king; that he had a responsibility to those he led to encourage and build up, not drag them down. Too often, we witness leaders whose own ego needs trump their responsibility to those they lead. Like David, they feel sorry for themselves at the price of abandoning the needs of those whom they lead. This happens in politics for sure; but it also happens in churches.

John 10:11-21: Unlike the synoptics where Jesus’ parables may seem obscure, but are eventually clarified, John’s Jesus speaks in soaring metaphors of high theology. Jesus says, “ I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,” (14). OK, I get that: you’re my savior and protector and I know who you are and you know who I am. We are in relationship.

But then Jesus says immediately, “just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” (15) Huh? How did “my Father” get in here? Then there’s a veiled reference to his coming death and resurrection: “I lay down my life in order to take it up again.” And what follows is equally obscure: “I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again.”  Once again, John is casting Jesus in his divine role as the Word who has come down form the father.

Well, John’s readers and we know what Jesus was talking about, but the people actually listening to Jesus, who have no idea what he’s talking about, seem somewhat justified to think he’s crazy and demon-possessed. But others say, “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?” (21) And they have a point.

In the end, John is telling us, Jesus is not crazy; Jesus is so completely unexpected, so surprising, so beyond us, that we can perceive his true nature only dimly. This is what comes of Jesus being fully human and fully God. John tells us: Jesus is Word; Light; Bread of life, and now Shepherd. We simply cannot wrap our minds around this. Which is why our hearts and our faith must also be involved.

 

Psalm 119:81-88; 2 Samuel 18:1-30; John 10:1-10

 Psalm 119:81-88: One begins to notice that in this long psalm dedicated to God’s teaching and precepts that even prayers of supplication are written and asked in a didactic framework. What begins as a fairly typical supplication–“My eyes pine for Your utterance, saying, “When will You console me?”” (82) is followed immediately by the implication that he deserves rescue because \ he has not forgotten God’s law: “Though I was like a skin-flask in smoke,/ Your statutes I did not forget.” (83)

His enemies are defined not by their intrinsic evil as we find at other psalms, but that they are not following God’s law: “The arrogant have dug pitfalls for me, / which are not according to Your teaching.” (85) And our psalmist seems to be relying more on what God says or dictates than on God Himself: “All Your commands are trustworthy,” (85b). And then the central supplication, “yet I forsook not Your decrees. / As befits Your kindness give me life,” (88a) in order “that I may observe Your mouth’s precept.” (88b)

This prayer for God’s rescue so that the psalmist will be able to continue obeying God’s Law seems strange to us (well, to me anyway) who live under the terms of grace. Yet, we need to remember that following God’s law was the sworn duty, the highest calling, of every person in Israel. Of course, it is prayers like this that led to the Pharisaical outlook that life consisted of observing every jot and tittle of the Law. No wonder Jesus angered them so.

2 Samuel 18:1-30:  Absalom has gone to war against his father in order to usurp the throne. David finally responds but tells his commanders, ““Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” (5). The army goes to battle and kills 20,000 of Absalom’s men. But the battle has been fought in a forest of trees with presumably low-hanging branches, “the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.”  Absalom is still alive, but as he rides through the forest on a mule(?) his neck is caught in the branches as the mule rides on. Absalom is left hanging. Joab, to whom the soldier has reported this asks why the soldier did not kill Absalom. The soldier reminds Joab that “in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying: For my sake protect the young man Absalom!” So Joab kills Absalom himself.

Unaware of what Joab has done, “Ahimaaz son of Zadok said, “Let me run, and carry tidings to the king that the Lord has delivered him from the power of his enemies.”” But Joab denies permission and sends a Cushite to tell David about Absalom. However, Ahimazz arrives first and says he has good news, i.e., that the rebellion has been put down. David asks ““Is it well with the young man Absalom?” (29) but Ahimazz replies only that he saw a “great tumult” around Joab. David asks Ahimazz to stand and wait.

The author is brilliantly adept at building suspense here. Two messengers: the first arriving with very good news; the second has not yet arrived with very bad news. What will David’s reaction be when he finds out about Absalom? How often have we heard what seemed to be good news only to be followed shortly by bad news?

John 10:1-10: Jesus continues to use puzzling metaphors. John doesn’t tell us, but we have to believe Jesus and his disciples were standing around a sheep fold. Jesus talks about thieves climbing over the wall, but that “The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep.”  And that the sheep know their master’s voice and follow the shepherd, But the disciples (understandably, I think) “did not understand what he was saying to them.” (6)

So, Jesus becomes more direct: “I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep.” And “Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” And here we have it: Jesus is the single path to salvation. All who would desire life must come through him.

But then immediately that great promise: “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (10) Here is Jesus’ real purpose for coming to earth: to bring life in every sense of that word. Unlike the psalmist who cries for rescue so he can continue to obey God’s Law, Jesus has come to bring abundant life through faith in him, the Good Shepherd.

I think “life” here has far deeper and greater meaning than just “eternal life” or “if we follow Jesus then we get to go to heaven.” Instead, Jesus is talking about the here and now. We find protection in Jesus–not from the vicissitudes of life itself, but in both the knowledge and reality that by passing through the “gate” that is Jesus we have something far greater than those who believe we are born, live a meaningless life and then just die. For even in difficulties and disease we are protected and will still experience a rich and meaningful life through faith in Jesus Christ.

 

 

Psalm 119:57-64: 2 Samuel 15:1-29; John 9:1-12

Psalm 119:57-64: Although the theme of this long psalm is about learning and then adhering to God’s law, there are occasional glimpses of topics that speak more to the heart than to the mind. One of those instances is here at verse 58: “I entreated You with a whole heart, grant me grace as befits Your utterance.”

The psalmist has recognized the error of his ways and realizing that, he turns back to God and asks for grace “with a whole heart.” We talk a lot about “heart” and even “whole heart.” But do reflect on its true meaning? A “whole heart” implies the totality of one’s being. There are no small, unlit corners of ourselves that we have hidden and reserved for our own purposes.

The psalmist asks for grace, raising the question that of grace is “unmerited favor” should we ask for it? The answer clearly is ‘yes,” because when we come to God with our entire being, God, whose language is grace, replies. We must remember that even with our whole heart turned toward God, we do not merit grace on our own. We cannot claim grace; it comes only in response. But I think it’s important to remember that as the psalmist reminds us here; grace comes from conversation–prayer–with God. We entreat; He replies.

 2 Samuel 15:1-29: David’s son, Absalom, mounts an outstanding PR campaign, traveling among the people of Israel, rendering judgements and he eventually “stole the hearts of the people of Israel.” (6) He then goes to Hebron and declares himself king. When David hears of his son’s treachery, he flees Jerusalem, knowing that Absalom will return to murder him.  All the court officials go with him, as well as a visitor, Ittai, who is “a foreigner, and also an exile from your home.” (16) David says Ittai should remain in Jerusalem and await the new king, but the visitor replies, ““As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether for death or for life, there also your servant will be.” (19).

Ittai remains loyal even as the king is usurped by his son. As Jesus is led off to be tried and crucified, there is no Ittai among the disciples. The question is the same for us today: when Christ-followers are in harms way or facing trials in hostile societies, are we like Ittai and stand by their side? Or do we abandon our king?

John 9:1-12: John’s theme of light surfaces again in this story of the blind man healed. First, Jesus makes it clear that neither the man nor his parents are to blame for his condition. This is radical thinking in this deuteronomic cause=effect society.

It’s interesting that Jesus gives his disquisition before he heals the man: “ As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (5) So, if Jesus is all about light and making sure we understand that, why does he prepare mud and put it in the blind man’s eyes when he could have just said something like, “I am the light, now see the light: you’re healed?” I believe that John never misses an opportunity to make a symbolic point. Mud is of the earth; he covers the man’s eyes as if to say, in earth you are blind, but by baptism, i.e., washing in the pool, you–all of us–who once were blind not only see the light, but live in the light.