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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It then recalls that God is Creator of all that exists, “All that the LORD desired /He did in the heavens and on the earth,/ in the seas and all the depths.” (6) and continues His creative activity every day, “He brings up the clouds from the ends of the earth; / lightning for the rain He made; / He brings forth the wind from His stores.” (7).

This psalm reminds us that God did not merely create and then depart the scene, but that God is actively involved in  creation every day–and in our lives every day. Even when bad things happen, we can still come to God a praise Him for we know “that the LORD is great.” (5)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahab calls Elijah “the troubler of Israel,” but Elijah makes it clear the king himself is the problem, telling the king, ““I have not troubled Israel; but you have, and your father’s house, because you have forsaken the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.” (18).

So the famous duel of the gods takes place as Elijah challenges the 400 prophets of Baal. Elijah’s mockery of the Baal prophets is biting: “Cry aloud! Surely he is a god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” (27) Then the false prophets cut themselves  “until blood gushed out over them” (28) But still nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 131; 1 Kings 14:21-15:8; John 17:20-26

Psalm 131: This short little psalm is as personal and as affecting as Psalm 23. A simple acknowledgement of who the psalmist is before God, it is a wonderful meditation to begin the day.

There is humility: “my heart has not been haughty, nor have my eyes looked too high,” (1a) and there is acknowledgement that he is seeking neither great things or personal glory: “nor have I striven for great things, nor for things too wondrous for me.” (1b)

Perhaps most significantly for the age of anxiety in which we live today, there is a happy acceptance of who he is and serene contentment with where he finds himself, metaphorically in the arms of God as if he were a baby: “But I have calmed and contented myself like a weaned babe on its mother.” (2) And behind this serenity lie faith and patience: “Wait, O Israel, for the LORD, now and forevermore.” (3).

The lesson for me is crystalline: be aware of who I am, accept that reality, and be content in the Lord. This is sufficient.

1 Kings 14:21-15:8: Meanwhile in the southern kingdom, Judah, Solomon’s son reigns fairly disastrously for 17 years. He is the son of Naamah the Ammonite and doubtless influenced by his mother, all of Judah “built for themselves high places, pillars, and sacred poles on every high hill and under every green tree; there were also male temple prostitutes in the land.” (23, 24). Here’s an example of failed leadership, for what the king did, the people followed: “Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord; they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their ancestors had done.” (22)

And they paid for their apostasy when “King Shishak of Egypt came up against Jerusalem; he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house; he took everything.” And internecine war, as well as Rehoboam and Jeroboam fought constantly.

Rehoboam dies and his son Abijam takes over and reigns just as disastrously. Yet, God continues to be patient because “Nevertheless for David’s sake the Lord his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him, and establishing Jerusalem; because David did what was right in the sight of the Lord.” Too often we accuse God of acting impetuously and punishing the wrongdoers in Israel. yet, as our author notes, God was patient because Rehoboam and Abijam were Davids grandson and great grandson. But the could only squander God’s mercy.

These three kings described in this passage are a stark reminder of failure at the top to respect God and to lead humbly. And one that seems all too germane in today’s crumbling culture.

John 17:20-26: As Jesus moves to the end of the High Priestly Prayer, it is impossible to miss the fact that there is Someone as important as Jesus in John’s gospel: the Father, and that Jesus is bringing the full weight and glory of the Father Himself to the world.

Up to now, in the OT, God has operated through individuals: Abraham, Moses, David, some prophets. But now, Jesus is explaining the revised terms of the New Covenant: God is coming to all of us through Jesus Christ: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one,” (22). This is happening for a single reason, one which John has already stated back in Chapter 3: God loves the world: “I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (23)

All of this; the reason the Word came from God; everything that Jesus has said and done–and is about to do–is for one single, simple reason: love. A love we have not experienced so directly until Jesus shows up. It is why Jesus shows up. And to make sure we get the point, John writes the word again and again: “I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Jesus Christ is the connecting tissue of God’s love for us; he is the sinews of our faith.

 

Psalm 130; 1 Kings 13:23-14:20; John 17:1-19

Psalm 130: Who among us has not felt the resonance of this psalm’s first line, “From the depths I called You, Lord.” For the Hebrews, “depths” meant the sea, the metaphor for death. But for us now, it is more the “depths of despair” or  the “depths of depression.” Whatever the metaphor, we plead, “Master, hear my voice.” And the psalmist speaks with the assurance that comes with confession, “For forgiveness is Yours, / so that You may feared.” (2) This fear is not terror, but awe and reverence for who God is and what he has done for us–and what He will do for us.

But our pleas notwithstanding, the psalmist knows that often God is silent. But hope never died: “I hoped for the LORD, my being hoped, / and for His word I waited.” (5) The repetition of the first line makes us feel for the intensity of hope. This is not the mere “I hope the flight arrives on time,” but the hope that, as the psalmist says, consumes our entire being.

The question for me of course, is will I wait “more than the dawn-watchers watch for the dawn?” (6) Or will I give up in despair that God will never answer. Patience is the underlying theme of this psalm. Sometimes, despite our fervent hope, God is not saying anything at all to us. Our only response can be patience. For with the psalmist, we know that God is listening and that God will respond. But like the dawn-watchers, we must be ever on the alert.

1 Kings 13:23-14:20: The man of God, who had disobeyed God’s direct instructions is killed by a lion as he returns home because, as the older prophet observes, “It is the man of God who disobeyed the word of the Lord; therefore the Lord has given him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him according to the word that the Lord spoke to him.” (13: 26) The prophet goes and retrieves the younger prophet’s body and buries him in his own grave and asks to be buried in the grave with the younger prophet when he dies.

This incident of being buried in a borrowed grave certainly harks forward to Jesus being buried in a borrowed grave, but I don’t think there’s any greater connection than that.

Even though the young man of God had proclaimed that God would punish Jeroboam for his evil ways, the king persists. Our author observes editorially,  “This matter became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth” (13:34) He then tells how Jeroboam’s wife goes the prophet Ahijah, who gives her the bad news that God has decreed that her ill son will die as soon as she sets foot in Jerusalem. He adds the additional bad news that because Jeroboam has not followed David’s example, but has “done evil above all those who were before you and have gone and made for yourself other gods, and cast images, provoking me to anger, and have thrust me behind your back” (14:9), God will “cut off from Jeroboam every male, both bond and free in Israel, and will consume the house of Jeroboam, just as one burns up dung” (14:10).  And furthermore…”the Lord will raise up for himself a king over Israel, who shall cut off the house of Jeroboam today, even right now!” (14:14)

The wife returns to Jerusalem, whereupon her son dies. One can only imagine the scene where she delivers the prophet’s bad news to the king.

As we know, the northern kingdom is eventually conquered by the Assyrians and disappears forever. Yet, before that happens, it appears that Jeroboam continued to reign and rather than being conquered, dies a natural death and his son Nadab succeeded him. So, did Ahijah’s prophecy come true? Certainly in the long run, but the short run seems more problematic.

John 17:1-19: Jesus prays for his disciples in what we now call the High Priestly prayer. There is so much packed into these 19 verses. The entire prayer achieves an unprecedented level of profundity we have not seen before in the Bible. And the verses that resonate for me are Jesus’ plea to the Father that the disciples be protected: “I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.” (14, 15) Because Jesus prays not just for protection, which we would expect, but that they are Jesus expression of joy “made complete in themselves.”

Protection and joy. And finally, “that they also may be sanctified in truth.” If I have faith in Jesus then I am sanctified. Not just sanctified, but sanctified in truth. So, why do I doubt? The enormity of this gift is too much to even fathom.

Psalm 129; 1 Kings 12:25-13:22; John 16:17-33

 Psalm 129: There is an inescapable immediacy to this psalm, which speaks on behalf of the nation of Israel: “Much they beset me from my youth —let Israel now say— much they beset me from my youth,” (11) More than 2500 years later, this psalm is surely being read in synagogues this week following the brutal murders of five people while they worshipped in Jerusalem.

And even in great tragedy, there is assurance: “much they beset me from my youth, / yet they did not prevail over me.” (2) The striking, almost gruesome image–“My back the harrowers harrowed, / they drew a long furrow.” (3)–that suggests a blade being run figuratively through the very body of the nation remembers that “the Lord is just” (4a). And that justice will ultimately prevail against the enemies of Israel as well: “May they be shamed and fall back, / all the haters of Zion.” (5).

Unlike Israel, these nations are ephemeral: “May they be like the grass on rooftops that the east wind withers.” (6) The psalmist does not wish the worst for these enemies, not in terms of military triumph over them, but merely observes that they will pass away because they have rejected God and “no passers-by say, “The LORD’s blessing upon you! We bless you in the name of the LORD.” To be without God’s blessing because we have rejected Him leads to only one place: they will wither and blow away.

 1 Kings 12:25-13:22: Now that he’s king of the northern tribes, Jeroboam fears that the people will stay loyal to his rival Rehoboam down in Jerusalem because they go there to worship at the Temple. So he sets up two alternative worship sites at Bethel and Dan using the ever-popular golden calves. He even creates a festival so that people will come there.

A prophet, who is identified only as “a man of God” comes to the altars and prophecies that “son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name” (13:2) who will tear down the altar. Jeroboam is more than unhappy, stretches out his hand saying, “Seize him!” and his hand withers. Realizing the error of his ways, Jeroboam pleads, ““Entreat now the favor of the Lord your God, and pray for me, so that my hand may be restored to me.” (13:6) God, through the prophet, obliges and the king’s hand is healed–proving that God is more powerful than the golden calves.

Jeroboam invites the prophet to dinner but the prophet declines saying, ““If you give me half your kingdom, I will not go in with you; nor will I eat food or drink water in this place. For thus I was commanded by the word of the Lord.” (13:8,9a) And the prophet departs. Another, older prophet in Bethel hears of the man of God and invites the traveling prophet to dinner. The man of God replies as he did to the king. But then the older prophet lies and says an angel said it was OK. Hearing this, the younger prophet agrees and goes to dinner. But the older prophet is suddenly seized by the word of God and tells the man of God, “you have disobeyed the word of the Lord, and have not kept the commandment that the Lord your God commanded you,” and therefore, “your body shall not come to your ancestral tomb.” 

So what’s the point of this story besides suggesting there was rivalry among prophets? I think it teaches that if one has the gift of prophecy, one must be careful when discerning the word of God and that absolute obedience is mandatory. The younger prophet was fooled by the older one. The lesson for all of us is practice careful discernment through the power of the Holy Spirit. It is too easy to be led astray!

John 16:17-33: Jesus announcements, “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me” and “Because I am going to the Father” lead to sidebar discussion among some of the disciples, wondering what on earth Jesus means. Jesus overhears and “knew that they wanted to ask him,” so he compares what is about to happen to a woman in labor: there is pain now, but joy later. And he tells them, “So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you.”  (22)

Speaking, I believe, of his post-resurrection appearance, Jesus says, “The hour is coming when I will no longer speak to you in figures, but will tell you plainly of the Father.” (25) And that they will truly believe Jesus is who he says he is, reminding them, “for the Father himself loves you, because you have loved me and have believed that I came from God.” (26)

And then Jesus plainly states what John says in the opening words of his Gospel: “ I came from the Father and have come into the world; again,” But then he appends the core of his message: “I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.” (28) At last, the disciples get it: “Now we know that you know all things, and do not need to have anyone question you; by this we believe that you came from God.” (30). Jesus reminds them that they will abandon him, but “Yet I am not alone because the Father is with me.” (31) Then Jesus speaks the words of encouragement that the disciples will remember in the darkest hours and that will come to change their lives forever: “I have said this to you, so that in me you may have peace. In the world you face persecution. But take courage; I have conquered the world!” (33)

And words for us to remember in this world that is increasingly post-Christian. We must never forget Jesus’ words to take courage for he has indeed conquered the world!

Psalm 128; 1 Kings 11:26-12:24; John 16:5-16

Psalm 128: This psalm of happy domesticity celebrates the joys of a man and his family, who “walk in His ways” (1) The family eats because of “of the toil of your hands” and is happy. (2)  This simple life–and the food they eat–“is good for you.” (Perhaps the only line in the psalms that could be construed as giving nutritional advice as well.)

Two simple metaphors, both symbolizing fecundity, describe the the man’s family: His wife is like a fruitful vine because of course the occupation of the wife in society of that time was to bear children, hidden from public view “in the recesses of your house.” (3)

And the blessing of God was to sit with children around the dinner table–perhaps one of the most peaceful images since Psalm 23.  And all this comes back to one simple requirement: “Look, for it is thus / that the man is blessed who fears the LORD.” (4)

The psalm ends with a benediction “May the LORD bless you from Zion, /and may you see Jerusalem’s good all the days of your life,” (5) and a final blessing that gladdens my heart, perhaps the greatest blessing of domesticity in one’s old age, grandchildren: “And may you see children of your children.”

And in the final line, something we so fervently hope for even today: “Peace upon Israel!”

1 Kings 11:26-12:24: Jeroboam has had charge of forced laborers under Solomon and “was very able.” (11:27). He encounters the prophet The prophet Ahijah the Shilonite on the road who tells him that God is punishing the sins of Solomon by dividing the kingdom of Israel after Solomon dies. The prophet tells Jeroboam, “I will take the kingdom away from his son and give it to you—that is, the ten tribes.” (11:35).  As always, there is the covenantal command: “ If you will listen to all that I command you, walk in my ways, and do what is right in my sight by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you, and will build you an enduring house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you.” (38).

Solomon hears and tries to kill Jeroboam in order to protect the dynasty for his son, Rehoboam. Solomon then dies after reigning for 40 years.

Rehoboam becomes king and Israel comes to him, promising loyalty if he will lighten their workload, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke that he placed on us, and we will serve you.” (12:4) Rehoboam consults with Solomon’s older, wiser counselors, who advise him to do so. But then “he disregarded the advice the older men gave him” and consults with his younger buddies, “who had grown up with him and now attended him.” (11:8). They tell him to turn the screws harder in the scary but memorable phrase, “My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” (12:11)

Whereupon Israel rebels and Rehoboam is forced to flee to the safety of Jerusalem. And thus the ten northern tribes, which becomes “Israel,” break away. The united kingdom ruled over by Saul, David and Solomon is no more. Such is the price of Solomon’s sin and Rehoboam’s arrogance. Interesting how God carries out His plans through the actions of unwise men.  And of course, even today, the young are too often unwilling to listen to the counsel of older, more experienced men–the ugly fruits of which we see today in the highest reaches of political power.

John 16:5-16: Jesus promises the arrival of the Advocate (the ‘Helper’), who cannot come unless Jesus goes away. Upon the Holy Spirit’s arrival, Jesus promises, “he will prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment.” (8) He then explains what he means by each of those three realities, their upshot being that there will be an entire new order in the world with brand new definitions of sin, righteousness, and judgement. I think Jesus is talking about the seismic shift from the Old Covenant to the New Covenant here.

In the next verses we encounter the Trinity, which although it has always existed is being revealed for the first time to human beings: “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine.” (14,15). For me, Jesus’ words are complex and puzzling here. Perhaps it is because the concept and interrelationship of the Trinity is complex and puzzling. 

But at the end of this section, there is Jesus’ clearest promise yet of his resurrection:  “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” All of the promises Jesus has made to his disciples and to us cannot be fulfilled until this seminal event occurs.

 

Psalm 127; 1 Kings 11:1-25; John 15:18-16:4

Psalm 127: The psalm is dedicated to Solomon probably because of the reference in the first verse: “If the LORD does not build a house, / in vain do its builders labor on it.” We have seen how much effort and materials were expended on the Temple. (Alter tells us that the Hebrew word for “house” also means “temple.”) But the lesson is clear: if God is not involved, our labors are in vain. So, too, watching over a town or even those of us who are dedicated and get up early and work hard: “In vain you who rise early, sit late, / eaters of misery’s bread.”

All of us who worked long hours, attempting to build our careers and putting aside other things that interfere with our job, become “misery’s bread.” Just ask any father who has skipped his children’s school plays and sports events because he was not there–and suddenly they have grown and left home. But when we undertake life’s activities with God at the center, we build, we watch, we work in a balanced way and God restores our energy: “So much He gives to His loved ones in sleep.” (2)

The second half of this psalm is the joys of progeny that arise when God is at the center of our lives: “Look, the estate of the LORD is sons,/ reward is the fruit of the womb.” (3) In that patriarchal society, sons were the best, but I think it is completely fair to believe that God rewards us with sons and daughters. And now, as I am older and looking back, it is clear that the psalmist os absolutely right: “Happy is the man who fills his quiver” with children. In the end, it is relationships that matter most.

1 Kings 11:1-25: But not all was glory and honor and wealth for Solomon for he strays from God. Israel has reached its political apogee under this king, and allows sexual love to trump God’s command not to intermarry. Because as soon as that happens, Solomon starts to follow other gods. One of the saddest verses is this book is, “So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done.” (6)

God appears to Solomon, not once but twice, but Solomon pays no heed. Finally the punishment is meted out: “I will surely tear the kingdom from you and give it to your servant. Yet for the sake of your father David I will not do it in your lifetime.” (11,12) Notice that God is granting Solomon grace “for the sake of your father David.” The sins of the father will be visited on his son. But troubles begin and Hadad and others become Solomon’s adversary. The glorious kingdom that Solomon built begins its long descent.

As the psalmist above told us, when we do not follow God, we become eater’s of misery’s bread. And Like Solomon we reap misery not just because of bad things that happen to us, but that we have failed to keep God at the center of our lives. And some 3000 years later, we continue to fail to learn that simple lesson. Pride and false love lay at the bottom of all of it.

John 15:18-16:4: Jesus has hard words for his disciples–and for us. We have a choice: we place Jesus at the center of our lives or the world. But when we place Jesus at the center we have excluded the world. And the world will hate us for it. And by extension, the world that hates Jesus hates the Father as well.

These must have been incredibly hard words for the disciples to hear. As they are hard words for us to hear. We’d really like to have it both ways: Love Jesus. Love the world. And that’s pretty much how I behave most of the time.

Jesus promises the gift of “the Advocate,” which in that pre-Pentecost time must have been especially puzzling. But I’m particularly struck by verse 27: “You also are to testify because you have been with me from the beginning.” Jesus gives a very specific command to the disciples in that room: they are to testify.

John was in the room and he knew at that moment that he was to testify about Jesus and writes the most theologically profound book ever written. Yes, Paul expounds, but John testifies. And he writes the most profound section of his gospel–the Upper Room discourse–which forms the core, the essential basis of our understanding of the relationship among Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit.

And not just the Trinity, but the essentials of our own relationship with Jesus and through Jesus, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us. Human imagination could not have made this up. And that is why I know it has come from Jesus himself.

Psalm 126; 1 Kings 9:20-10:29; John 15:9-17

Psalm 126: Probably written from Babylonian captivity, this psalm reveals the longing of Israel for God to return them to times and places that have been lost:

“When the LORD restores Zion’s fortunes,
we should be like dreamers.
Then will our mouth fill with laughter
and our tongue with glad song.” (1,2)

For me this speaks of loss that only God can restore. Rather than the loss of a kingdom and of a land, it is the loss of faith. That God is not who He says he is or that the universe really is empty of Anyone greater than what we can see physically. That I have been abandoned to my fate in an empty universe where humans believe they know it all.

But then, a person says something kind to me or I witness the grandeur of the stars at night from a dark place (as I just have at Mono Lake), and I realize  that “Great things the Lord has done with [me].” (3) Faith is dynamic and many days it can wane. The day may begin like the farmer who “walks along and weeps, the bearer of the seed-bag.” But then, God makes Himself known, usually in small, unexpected ways, and I “surely come in with glad song bearing his sheaves.” (6) We may sew in doubt but we reap in assurance.

1 Kings 9:20-10:29: Solomon has conscripted the “all the people who were left of the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, who were not of the people of Israel” (20) as slave labor to build the Temple and the city of Jerusalem. This will come back to haunt Israel in later years as the Israelites intermarry and adopt the customs and religions of these other tribes and races.

As noted before, the author if I Kings seems to be an accountant and certainly an admirer of Solomon’s business acumen; now he describes Solomon’s commercial activity and trade with other nations down through the Red Sea that results in accumulation of vast wealth for Israel that ends up mostly in the king’s hands.

Our author lovingly describes the shields of gold, the ivory throne and the “fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks.” (10:22) Peacocks? We also learn the price of chariots imported from Egypt: 600 shekels each (10:29)

Solomon’s fame spreads far and wide and the admiration in which is best represented by the visit of the Queen of Sheba, who surely speaks for all the other nations when she says, “I did not believe the reports until I came and my own eyes had seen it. Not even half had been told me; your wisdom and prosperity far surpass the report that I had heard.” (10:7) Interestingly, it is the queen, not Solomon who gives credit where it is due: “Blessed be the Lord your God, who has delighted in you and set you on the throne of Israel! Because the Lord loved Israel forever, he has made you king to execute justice and righteousness.” (10:8)

Trade with other nations is what built Solomon’s and Israel’s–wealth. It’s worth noting that Israel today seems to be following Solomon’s example as it exports everything from produce to technology. Written from the deprivation of captivity, these passages must have created intense longing among the Jews for what had been and what had been lost.

John 15:9-17: The segue from Solomon and worldly wealth with Jesus’ disquisition on love–“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” (9)– makes us realize that there is something far greater than the acquisition of material things and of power. It is the power of love.

Perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Jesus’ statement here is the juxtaposition of love and commandment: “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love,” (10a). Our society pushes its idea of “love” about as far away as it can from the idea of “commandment.” After all, “love” is supposed to be all about “freedom.” But as anyone who has been married for a long time, love is about commitment and “commitment” is pretty close to “commandment.”

True love is not airy-fairy flitting of sweetness and light. True love is the hard work of faithfulness and commitment.  Because, as Jesus says, out of this commitment comes joy. Not just joy, but “complete joy.” Which I take to be a joy that is not temporary, a response to the moment, but a permanent joy that suffuses our entire being.

Then Jesus tells us what the commandment is: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.  No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (12).  This is perhaps one of the most famous verses in the New Testament, but one whose context is essential. Jesus makes it clear that his disciples are not servants, but friends. And we are his willing disciples because we love Jesus.

The question then obtains: if Jesus is my friend and I am his disciple am I willing to lay down my life for him? Certainly the martyrs of the early church and those still dying today because they proclaim Jesus Christ in a hostile place know better than I exactly what the cost of discipleship actually entails. And yet they do it willingly.