Psalm 18:25–29; 1 Chronicles 28,29; Acts 17:16–28

Psalm 18:25–29: In David’s universe there are the faithful and the ungodly. God deals differently with each group: “With the faithful You deal faithfully,” and “With the pure one You deal purely.” But “with the perverse man, [You] deal in twists.” (27) Which I take to mean that as the perverse man attempts to weave his web, God unravels it.

And as usual, there is the dialectic between the prideful rich and the faithful poor. And as always, those who would oppress the poor eventually receive their comeuppance from God: “For it is You Who rescues the lowly folk/ and haughty eyes You bring low.” (28).

But for me, the centerpiece of this passage is, “For You light up my lamp, O LORD, / my God illumines my darkness.” (29). I think of this as the “lamp of faith” that shines a light on our internal darkness. In God’s light we see who we really are, and realizing our weakness, our ineffectualness, our inability to live without God in our lives, we realize we that without God we would be shrouded in the darkness of wrongdoing–we would become like those haughty ones. But bathed in God’s light our response is that we wish to honor and serve God.

And that motivates us to do for God what before we would have thought impossible: “For through You I rush at a barrier, through my God I can vault a wall.” (30) The challenge of course is, am I willing to rush at a seemingly impenetrable barrier or leap a high wall for God? Am I up to those kind of challenges?

1 Chronicles 28,29: David gathers all the leadership of Israel together, reminding them that God did not choose him to build a temple: ‘You shall not build a house for my name, for you are a warrior and have shed blood.’ (28: 3) However, the Davidic dynasty will build because “the Lord God of Israel chose me from all my ancestral house to be king over Israel forever;” (4). He then announces his successor, “of all my sons, for the Lord has given me many, he has chosen my son Solomon to sit upon the throne of the kingdom of the Lord over Israel.” (5) who will build God’s house.

Then, a fatherly blessing on his successor, “my son Solomon, know the God of your father, and serve him with single mind and willing heart; for the Lord searches every mind, and understands every plan and thought.” (9) As it tunrs out, David’s architects have been busy because “David gave his son Solomon the plan of the vestibule of the temple, and of its houses, its treasuries, its upper rooms, and its inner chambers, and of the room for the mercy seat; and the plan of all that he had in mind.” (11,12) But David makes it clear that it is all God-inspired: “All this, in writing at the Lord’s direction, he made clear to me—the plan of all the works.” (19) And that all the people and priests are ready, as well.

Fundraising commences as David announces he has provided the initial materials and funding, “I have provided for the house of my God, so far as I was able, the gold for the things of gold, the silver for the things of silver, and the bronze for the things of bronze, the iron for the things of iron, and wood for the things of wood, besides great quantities of onyx and stones for setting, antimony, colored stones, all sorts of precious stones, and marble in abundance.” (29:2) David then proceeds to give the remainder of his personal funds to the project as well.

David is the prototype for a successful capital campaign, demonstrating both his leadership and generosity. As a result, everyone else gives happily: “the people rejoiced because these had given willingly, for with single mind they had offered freely to the Lord; King David also rejoiced greatly.” (9)

David pronounces one of the great blessings in the Bible (29:14-19) on his son as Solomon succeeds him on the throne of Israel as the Chronicler ends the story of David on a high note, with David’s last recorded words, “Bless the Lord your God.” (20) For David truly was the man of God; his greatness unexcelled until his successor, Jesus. The Chronicler’s lesson is clear: when a man turns his life fully over to God, great things will happen. And even though the sins of David (Bathsheba, Uriah) are omitted from this account, we know that no greater man than David ever occupied Israel’s throne. How painful it must have been to write these words from Israel’s exile in Babylon.

Acts 17:16–28: Paul meets the philosophers in Athens and for his troubles he is pronounced a “babbler” and “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” But academicians they are, the Athenians are willing to listen to Paul. He uses the “To an unknown God” inscription to proclaim Jesus Christ (without even mentioning his name!) and frames the story from creation forward, noting that “From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, …so that they would search for God.” (26,27) He ends with the promise that even for these philosophers, who “grope” for him, that God is “indeed not far from each one of us.” 

My takeaway form Paul’s rather indirect and philosophical sermon is that there is a variety of ways of presenting the gospel. Clearly, Paul knows he is talking to Gentiles, not Jews, so he expresses the Good News not from its Jewish roots, but from the point of view that the Gospel encompasses all humankind. This is testimony to Christianity’s remarkable ability to adapt to the cultural context without corrupting its message.

Psalm 18:16–24; 1 Chronicles 27; Acts 17:4–15

Psalm 18:16–24: God has arrived in rather dramatic fashion to save David from drowning figuratively, (we presume): “He reached from on high and took me, / pulled me out of the many waters.” (17) And just in the nick of time before his far stronger enemies captured him. But “the LORD became my support / and brought me out to a wide-open space, /set me free, for His pleasure I was.” (20) From hiding behind a rock on the mountainside, God brings David to a “wide open space” and sets him free. OK, but what’s remarkable here is that final phrase: “for His pleasure I was.” One of the reasons God rescues David is because David brings God pleasure.

The obvious question is, do I bring God pleasure? I know he loves me, but love does not necessarily connote pleasure. Or, like Adam, do I hide behind the rock, ashamed of my sins and afraid to let God bring me to the wide open space of forgiveness?

In David’s deuteronomic world, the reason he brings God pleasure is really quite simple: “The LORD dealt with me by my merit, for my cleanness of hands He requited me.” (21) It is David’s personal merit and his freedom from corruption (“clean hands”) that God favors him. David goes on to describe his sterling behavior: “For I kept the ways of the LORD /and did no evil before my God. (22). David keeps God’s law and “from His statutes I did not swerve.”And David is blessed by God’s quid pro quo: “And the LORD requited me for my merit, /for my cleanness of hands in His eyes.” (25)

David may have clean hands and earns God’s favor on his own merit. But a thousand years later Paul points out that “all have sinned.” None of us is David. And we can be grateful for the saving power of Jesus Christ, who–David’s heir–sets all things right for us before God the Father.

1 Chronicles 27: The Chronicler states the purpose of this chapter right up front: “This is the list of the people of Israel, the heads of families, the commanders of the thousands and the hundreds, and their officers who served the king in all matters concerning the divisions that came and went, month after month throughout the year, each division numbering twenty-four thousand.” (1) One division of 24,000 soldiers serves David for a month, and then a new one with a new commander comes into place for the subsequent month, and so forth.

This is really quite brilliant. Since each division is in the king’s service for only one month a year, there is no time for plots against David to thicken, before that division leaves Jerusalem for eleven months.  Too bad many of David’s successors did not follow this organizational process.

A list naming of each of the leaders of the 12 tribes follows, as well as a brief reminder of the abortive census. Only this time our writer makes it sound like Joab, not David, initiated that bad idea: “Joab son of Zeruiah began to count them, but did not finish; yet wrath came upon Israel for this, and the number was not entered into the account of the Annals of King David.” David’s really bad decision to take the census is left out of his official histories, and to a certain extent, Joab’s name is sullied. Which is one more proof that it’s the winners who write history…

Acts 17:4–15: Paul and Silas move on to Thessalonica, and Paul preaches three successive Sabbaths (the first sermon series?) “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, “This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you.” (3). And he wins both Jewish and Gentile converts, and interesting, “not a few of the leading women.” (4). But as usual, Paul’s message (and I daresay, his fairly abrasive personality) creates jealousy among the Jews, who incite a general riot.

Unable to find Paul and Silas, the mob drags one of Paul’s converts, Jason, out of his house accusing him of housing the seditious Paul, saying “They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus.” (7). Compared to Philippi, this is a far more sophisticated–and dangerous–accusation and “the city officials were disturbed when they heard this,” (8) but allow poor Jason to go free on bail. (Alas, we do not learn Jason’s subsequent fate.)

Against this accusation, Paul would not be able to use his trump card of Roman citizenship to get out of trouble, so, wisely “That very night the believers sent Paul and Silas off to Beroea,” (10) where they encounter Jews who are much more receptive to Paul’s message. But alas, the Jews of Thessalonica learn that Paul is there and come and stir up the crowds. The believers there send Paul away, although Silas and Timothy “remained behind.”

The second half of Acts reveals the struggles encountered by the early church through Paul’s missionary efforts and that observant Jews were mighty upset not only at his proclamation of Jesus as Messiah, but that “outsiders”–Gentiles–were contaminating the purity of their religious belief. Not much has changed on that front on the ensuing twenty centuries…

 

 

Psalm 18:7–15; 1 Chronicles 26; Acts 16:30–17:3

Psalm 18:7–15: David has cried to God for help and he knows “my outcry before Him came to His ears.” (8) But unlike the almost passive response of God in other psalms, God arrives for David in seismic terms: “The earth heaved and shuddered, the mountains’ foundations were shaken.” (9a) and we see an image of God that is as far from the avuncular God that Michelangelo painted on the ceiling of the the Sistine Chapel as we can imagine. This image of God is literally fire-breathing: “for smoke rose from His nostrils /and fire from His mouth consumed, /coals blazed up around Him.” (9b).

Adding to this image of fearsome power over all nature, God literally moves the sky (not Heaven) as He arrives: “He tilted the heavens, came down, /dense mist beneath His feet.” (10). And then perhaps the most remarkable image of all: “He mounted a cherub and flew,/ and He soared on the wings of the wind.” (11) Alter tells us this cherub is an image of a “fierce winged beast” borrowed from Canaanite mythology, not “the dimpled darling of Renaissance painting.”

The psalmist’s borrowing from Canaanite mythology continues as he tells us, “Elyon sent forth His voice— / hail and fiery coals.” (14) Elyon being “the designation of a Canaanite deity (“the Most High”)” per Alter. And God/Elyon lets “loose His arrows, and scattered them, / lightning bolts shot, and He panicked them.” (15).

So, the next time someone speaks of an impotent God, who has abandoned the world to its own devices, it may be worth recalling the fearsome imagery of this psalm: the God who not only hears David’s plea, but arrives with powerful drama to strike down David’s enemies in the most fearsome possible way. Perhaps we would do well to think of God in this way rather than a bearded old man.

1 Chronicles 26: The Chronicler now turns his attention to the gatekeepers, who “had duties, just as their kindred did, ministering in the house of the Lord” (12) again listing them by name and the fact that they came to their respective positions by lot. As we read these seemingly endless chapters of names and positions we come to appreciate the sophisticated organization that was required to administer the house of God. As well, we see as just how many people were selected and proud to serve in the capacity for which they were chose by lot, no less. Something to reflect on when we feel envious because someone else is chosen over us.

Our author turns his attention to the “back office” of the house of God: the treasurers, officers, and judges, and David’s personnel search(!) for executive leadership: “(In the fortieth year of David’s reign search was made, of whatever genealogy or family, and men of great ability among them were found at Jazer in Gilead.)” (31) David realized what many of his kingly successors (and leaders right down to today) did not: that a leader is dependent on the organizational and management skills of those he leads. It is not all about him, and any king, leader, president, CEO who thinks they can “do it all” would benefit by turning to these chapters in 1 Chronicles. Moreover, these many people are remembered by name. They are not anonymous drones, but men of skill and faith, who deserved to memorialized.

 Acts 16:30–17:3: The Philippian jailer asks the question we all must ask at some point in our lives: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (30). A simple question deserves a simple answer (although over the years theologians and philosophers have certainly made the answer seem a lot more complex that what Luke records here):“Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” (31) Baptism and joy follows immediately: “he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.” (34)

The magistrates of Philippi have come to their senses and send police to release Paul and Silas basically in the dark of night. Luke now gives us real insight into Paul’s personality that will not brook that kind of disrespect as he stands his ground and states in the firmest possible terms, “They have beaten us in public, uncondemned, men who are Roman citizens, and have thrown us into prison; and now are they going to discharge us in secret? Certainly not! Let them come and take us out themselves.” (37) The officials show up, apologize because “they were afraid when they heard that they were Roman citizens,” (38) and politely ask Paul and Silas to leave town, which after “seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters [at Lydia’s house], they departed.” (40)

Paul’s rejoinder is a good reminder that we Christians are too often seen–and behave– as societal wimps, happy to have whatever right of ours, e.g., holding a Bible study in a school, that was taken unfairly and arbitrarily begrudgingly returned to us by officialdom. We are supposed to smile and accept this bureaucratic magnanimity with humble gratitude. Sometimes, we are needlessly afraid and would do well to remember this scene at the house of the Philippian jailer.

Psalm 18:1–6; 1 Chronicles 25; Acts 16:16–29

Psalm 18:1–6: This psalm is essentially identical to David’s song in 2 Samuel 22. Alter suggests that the version in 2 Samuel may be older, but that David in all probability wrote this psalm.

It begins with an extraordinarily lengthy superscription, giving us a detailed picture of the circumstances behind the psalm: “For the lead player, for the LORD’s servant, for David, who spoke to the LORD the words of this song on the day the LORD saved him from the grasp of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul.”

We can picture David running from Saul’s men, finally finding a crag to hide behind for a moment in order to to catch his breath, as he passionately cries out the opening verses with what’s left of his energy: “I am impassioned of You, LORD, my strength! /The LORD is my crag and my bastion, / and my deliverer, my God, my rock where I shelter,” (2,3) But even in desperation, David remembers who God and is beyond grateful for God’s deliverance from the wiles and snares of his enemy: “Praised I called the LORD /and from my enemies I was rescued. /The cords of death wrapped round me,/ and the torrents of perdition dismayed me.”

David doesn’t just come to God in reflective prayer, gently asking God to hear his prayer and hoping God will answer. Rather, he shouts: “In my strait I called to the LORD, / to my God I cried out.” God is David’s rescuer, not just in the abstract, but in the midst of actual pursuit. We tend to deride “foxhole prayers,” thinking they are the act of desperation rather than of faith. Well, they are the act of desperation. And guess what? God answers them: “He heard from His palace my voice, / and my outcry before Him came to His ears.”

No matter how desperate our circumstances, God is listening if we but cry out as David did.

1 Chronicles 25:Ever the master of detail, the Chronicler turns to the musicians, again naming them and describing their duties.

I’m struck by the statement at verse 1, “…who should prophesy with lyres, harps, and cymbals.” I have never thought of music as prophecy, but in the sense of “forthtelling,” music indeed proclaims the word of the Lord. Which is why I believe that while music forms the core of worship, it must also have profound content that proclaims the greatness and power of God–and for us–the Kerygma of Jesus Christ. Which is why I believe repetitive ditties set to boring music are not worthy in worship.

To the text: Heman, the king’s seer, had fourteen sons and three daughters and they “were all under the direction of their father for the music in the house of the Lord with cymbals, harps, and lyres for the service of the house of God.” (Sort of a precursor to the Bach family!) Moreover, there were 288 kindred of Asaph, Jeduthun and Heman, who formed the choir, “They and their kindred, who were trained in singing to the Lord, all of whom were skillful,” (7).

Perhaps most remarkably, each musician was open to whatever duty became his by lot: “And they cast lots for their duties, small and great, teacher and pupil alike.” (8) No musical prima donnas here!

Acts 16:16–29: Up to now, given his experience at Lystra, Paul has refrained from performing anything resembling a miracle for fear of riling the crowd and detracting form his message. But after being followed by the fortune-telling girl, who kept crying out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” (17) Paul can take no more and exorcises the demon from the girl, who immediately loses her cash-generating fortune-telling powers.

The slave girl’s owners drag Paul and Silas before the Philippian authorities, accusing them of being Jews (perhaps the first such accusation on European soil that would lead to so much oppression of the Jews over the centuries) and of upsetting good order by “advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” (21) The crowd, ever eager for drama, agrees enthusiastically and “the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.” (22) and tossed into the blackest hole in prison. No trial, no jury, just a sentence as the authorities once again bow to the will of the mob.

In passing, I’m noticing the important role that crowds play in Acts, usually as the device to cause a miscarriage of justice and oppression to those preaching the Good News. It’s not just the mob that turned against Jesus and demanded his death. These crowds which have a mind of their own, appear again and again.

Irrepressible Paul and Silas are singing in prison and Luke tells us “the prisoners were listening to them.” (One wonders what they thought.) The famous earthquake occurs, and Paul saves the jailer from suicide. What strikes me here is a detail I’ve never noticed before, “The jailer called for lights.” Not just for the lights in the prison, but for what turns out to be the light of the Good News and the Holy Spirit.

 

Psalm 17:8–15; 1 Chronicles 24; Acts 16:4–15

Psalm 17:8–15: The psalmist seeks God’s protection from his wicked enemies: “Guard me like the apple of the eye, / in the shadow of Your wings conceal me / from the wicked who have despoiled me,/ my deadly enemies drawn round me.” (8,9)

When we speak of the “apple of your eye” we imagine the person who is most favored, and that is exactly what our psalmist is pleading for: that God will guard him as well as the person God loves most. But of course each of us is the “apple of God’s eye.”

The psalmist’s enemies are particularly grotesque: “Their fat has covered their heart. / With their dewlaps they speak haughty words.” (10) We would imagine this is the fat of their riches and in this striking metaphor, their wealth and power has become an impenetrable fatty layer on top of their heart–the seat of justice and mercy. Whatever kindness or mercy they may have once possessed has been hidden forever beneath the fat of acquisition. We have met these people in our own lives. They care only about themselves and their own advancement, caring not a whit whom they step on in their ascent to the top of the heap.

As always, words are just as important as the condition of the heart–and it is words that reveal the condition of the heart. In this case we see their fatty face “dewlaps”out of which their haughty words emerge. This is perhaps one of the ugliest images of what evil is in all of the Psalms. And yet, it is all too familiar. Does fat cover my heart? Do I speak haughty words trough the metaphorical dewlaps on my face?

1 Chronicles 24: At this point there can be little doubt that our Chronicler was himself a priest, as he lists the “divisions of the descendants of Aaron” (1) which “David organized them according to the appointed duties in their service.” As usual, David–the “apple of the Chronicler’s eye” is given credit, this time for the organizational structure of the priesthood.

There’s an interesting observation, that only a leader like David–himself a leader–would have recognized, and what lends even more authenticity to the Chronicler’s account: “Since more chief men were found among the sons of Eleazar than among the sons of Ithamar, they organized them under sixteen heads of ancestral houses of the sons of Eleazar, and eight of the sons of Ithamar.” (4) In other words, the house of Elezar has more leadership talent than the house of Ithamar. Recognizing this, and wishing to maintain balance and avoid internecine battles, David organizes the structure priesthood by ancestry, not the current personalities. And once that basic structure is established, the actual positions are determined by lot, which our author describes in loving detail from one to twenty-four.

This drawing of lots and the way David has organized the priesthood is an outstanding example of effective organizational management. David establishes a structure that is not based on personality. And then he chooses leaders by lot, showing zero favoritism.  No wonder the structure of the priesthood lasted so much longer than that of the kings, who were determined by primogeniture and conspiracy.

Acts 16:4–15: Paul and Silas are traveling from place to place under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some places they visit and others, they have “been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia.” (6) Notice how Paul and Silas look to the Holy Spirit to provide guidance about where they should and should not go. They accept the negative with the positive, while today so many times we only hear the positive as people say,”The Holy Spirit has led me to…” But we hear “the Holy Spirit has kept me from…” almost never.

Paul receives the “Macedonian vision” and they head to Philippi, “a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony.” (12). With this voyage, Luke has joined them and we are now enjoying his first person account of this revolutionary trip to Europe, where the gospel is preached for the very first time on a different continent: ” We set sail from Troas…” (11).

And unlike the previous chapters, where we hear only about the groups, not individuals–the crowds that Paul and Barnabas preach to and the Jews that pursue them–Luke’s eyewitness account brings us to the personal level, where we meet actual individuals, as Luke expertly limns their personalities.

The first person we meet is Lydia, a wealthy woman and “a worshipper of God.” From a cultural perspective, it’s clear that in Europe, women are not property, nor are they subjugated to their husbands. Lydia is an independent female entrepreneur, a marketer(!), “a dealer in purple cloth,” which today would be the equivalent of a high end sales person selling million dollar capital equipment.

Lydia is baptized and invites them into her home as “she prevailed on us.” (15). Interestingly, we hear nothing of Lydia’s husband. Lydia is her own person. I fail to understand why some Christians emphasize Paul’s screed in Corinthians about how women are second class citizens, who should not speak, much less teach, in church. Yet these same folks fail to draw any wisdom from Lydia’s example of the independent woman, who thinks and acts for herself.

 

Psalm 17:1–7; 1 Chronicles 23; Acts 15:19–16:3

Psalm 17:1–7: In this psalm of supplication, the psalmist begins by asking God to listen: “Hear, O LORD, a just thing./ Listen well to my song.” (1). He also assures God that he is praying without a hidden agenda: “Hearken to my guileless prayer.,” knowing that it is God who is the ultimate judge of all things: “From before You my judgment will come,/ Your eyes behold rightness.” (2)

This raises an interesting point. I tend to assume that God is always listening, so if I just open my mouth and start praying. God will hear me. And I’m sure he does. But in the same way that we would ask someone close to us if they have a moment to talk about something significant, so too, with God. Besides, asking God to listen is a reminder to us that prayer is a conversation and that we know in our heart that God will indeed listen to us. As usual, we need more reminding than God does.

Our psalmist seems to be in some distress, which he does not describe. But it has been significant enough that he has felt God test him during a dark night of the soul: “You have probed my heart, come upon me by night,” and he has been found worthy as a God-follower: “You have tried me, and found no wrong in me.” Moreover, he has remained faithful, “I barred my mouth to let nothing pass.”(3)

The question is, can I say to God that I have not betrayed my faith and not cursed God for allowing bad things to happen to me? In the end, will I have the faith of the psalmist, who writes, “I called You, for You will answer me, God?” (6)

1 Chronicles 22, 23: David has called upon his son Solomon to undertake the building of the Temple (22:6 and forward). This is something I don’t recall reading in the other histories, but above all others, for our Chronicler, David is at the center of the Israel story because it is David who is the Man of God, and wh constantly reminds everyone around him, ““Is not the Lord your God with you? Has he not given you peace on every side?” (22:18) as he sets Solomon and indeed, the nation, on this solemn task: “Go and build the sanctuary of the Lord God so that the ark of the covenant of the Lord and the holy vessels of God may be brought into a house built for the name of the Lord.” (22:19).

At the beginning of the 23rd chapter, there is a peaceful transition of power: “When David was old and full of days, he made his son Solomon king over Israel.” (23:1) But not without some final organizational activities “David assembled all the leaders of Israel and the priests and the Levites.” (2) as he organizes 38,000 Levites and defines their roles in who will “do the work for the service of the house of the Lord.” (24)

Our Chronicler is an inveterate list maker, who desires above all to make sure that every person who has played a role in the great story of Israel is accounted for–and now we read the name of each of the Levitical families, who will become the Temple priests and other workers–and what their duties will be, down to the smallest detail, including the baking of the bread. But there is one duty that is common to all of them: “they shall stand every morning, thanking and praising the Lord, and likewise at evening,” (30).

Which is a reminder to us: that while each of us engages in different work, as a Christian community, we have one thing in common: to worship God with all our hearts.

Acts 15:19–16:3: The Council after hearing Peter, Paul Barnabas, and James comes to a grace-filled conclusion for the Gentile who have heard and received the Good News: “we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood. (15:19, 20). They communicate this decision in a letter, not only telling the Gentiles that some unauthorized persons have “have unsettled your minds,” raising the spectre of adult circumcision and adherence to Jewish dietary laws, but that “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials.”

The church at Jerusalem appoints Judas Barsabbas and Silas to accompany John and Barnabas back to Antioch to make the official announcement. We see now that the church is taking on needed organizational structure, especially in terms of those authorized to speak on behalf of the Apostles. This of course eventually leads to the ordained priesthood, which despite its various problems, and which together with the Holy Spirit has been essential in creating what is now the world’s oldest continuous organization. Witness to the wisdom of these early Apostles and to the power of the Holy Spirit.

But amidst this comity are also signs of the disputes and splits that have tortured the church through the ages. Barnabas wants John Mark to accompany Paul and him on their next journey, but Paul is still angry over John Mark’s apparent desertion in Pamphylia. Alas, “The disagreement became so sharp that they parted company.” (39) Barnabas takes John Mark an sails to Cyprus, but Luke keeps his focus on Paul as he now partners with Silas.

Timothy, a Gentile, joins them. Paul has Timothy circumcised because “of the Jews who were in those places, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” (16:3).  I suppose this was a wise act in terms of Paul’s desire for the Jews not to be distracted by Timothy, but it certainly seems to fly in the face of the great wisdom displayed by the Council in Jerusalem.

Psalm 16:1–6; 1 Chronicles 21:1–26; Acts 15:6–18

Psalm 16:1–6: This psalm begins conventionally enough, “Guard me, O God,/ for I shelter in You.” (1) and the psalmist speaks to God, “My Master You are. /My good is only through You.” (2). OK. But then, we read that the psalmist is repenting and has come back to God after worshiping false gods, speaking regretfully of being misled by them: “As to holy ones in the land /and the mighty who were all my desire, / let their sorrows abound—” (3,4a) The speaker promise to no longer offer false worship, “I will not pour their libations of blood, /I will not bear their names on my lips.” (4b).

Instead, he now realizes that “The LORD is my portion and lot,/ it is You Who sustain my fate.” 95) this is certainly a psalm that is highly relevant to he right here in the 21st century. It is so easy to become of enamored of false gods–money, power, status–that too easily supplant God in our lives. While we may not pour “libations of blood” to these false gods, we can give them the top priority in our lives.

May I always bear in my mind in heart that it is God through Jesus Christ who animates me–and to whom I owe my being (especially on today, the 6th anniversary of being told I have cancer). And my gratitude to God (and my doctors) that I am still here to praise my Savior.

1 Chronicles 21:1–26: David, doubtless felling pretty good about all that he has accomplished in building the kingdom is “incited” by Satan to conduct a census of Israel. (Is this the first reference to Satan that we encounter in the Histories? When this incident is recounted in 2 Samuel, I don’t recall Satan being the cause of David’s desire.)  David’s second-in-command, Joab, resists, saying, “Why then should my lord require this? Why should he bring guilt on Israel?” (3). But David insists and Joab obeys.

The numbers are impressive indeed, “In all Israel there were one million one hundred thousand men who drew the sword, and in Judah four hundred seventy thousand who drew the sword.”(5) But Joab excludes the tribes of Levi and Benjamin “for the king’s command was abhorrent to Joab.

As it was also to God: “God was displeased with this thing, and he struck Israel.” (7). David repents immediately, saying ““I have sinned greatly in that I have done this thing.” (8) and asks for absolution. God gives David three awful choices (3 years of famine, 3 months of “devastation by your foes,” or 3 days of God’s own pestilence), and demands David choose one. In a bizarre echo to the passover, “the Lord sent a pestilence on Israel; and seventy thousand persons fell in Israel.” (14). Just as an angel was about to detroy Jerusalem, God relents, as David begs that he and his house receive the punishment, saying, “Was it not I who gave the command to count the people? It is I who have sinned and done very wickedly,” (17) asking God to spare these “sheep,” the people.

David buys a threshing floor from Ornan the Jebusite, builds an altar and God is appeased.

Why this bizarre event of the census? Perhaps it was abhorrent because to count the people was to make David feel good about all he had accomplished, while it was God who had in fact accomplished these great things through David and his warriors. But David’s pleas to God to take him but spare the people resonates straight through to Calvary, when God did in fact cause his Son to take on him the sins of all us sheep.

Acts 15:6–18: Paul and Barnabas have a very important ally in Jerusalem: Peter, who tells the council that “God made a choice among you, that I should be the one through whom the Gentiles would hear the message of the good news and become believers.” (7b). Thus, Peter is the one with the authority in the church to speak to the issue, not just that missionary-come-lately, Paul. And Peter asks the assembled group, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (10)

But even more crucially Peter reminds everyone of the basis of their fauth, “On the contrary, we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (11) Here is the Kerygma stated clearly by a founder of the church–and it is this grace articulated here by Peter on which Paul builds his theological edifice in his letter to Romans and elsewhere regarding Jews and Gentiles.

Luke tells us that “the whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles.” (12). At which point James is convinced and stands up, quoting a passage from the prophet Amos (9:11, 12), “so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.”

So, we have Peter stating he was  the progenitor of taking the message to the Gentiles (Cornelius et al), reminding everyone that the grace of Jesus is what matters; Paul’s and Barnabas’s testimony about how God has worked marvelously in bringing the good news to the Gentiles; and James’s quotation from authoritative scripture. This is a pretty effective combination: a reminder of Jesus’ grace, testimony, and Scripture in order to decide a crucially important question. Something we would do well to remember when considering important questions in the church.

Psalm 15; 1 Chronicles 19,20; Acts 14:21–15:5

Psalm 15: This psalm is a refreshing contrast to the previous psalm that focused on those who said there is no God. Here, by contrast, it is about “Lord-fearers” (4) who come to the pre-Temple tabernacle atop  Mount Zion in Jerusalem by asking rhetorically, “LORD, who will sojourn in Your tent, /who will dwell on Your holy mountain?” (1)

The answer follows quickly, outlining the qualities of the good man: “He who walks blameless / and does justice/ and speaks the truth in his heart.” (2).  And unlike those who use their tongues to do great harm by denying God and demeaning others, the Lord-fearer is one “Who slanders not with his tongue /nor does to his fellow man evil /nor bears reproach for his kin.” (3) Notice that as usual, the tongue is mentioned ahead of other sins, reminding us that it is what we say that can be the greatest sin of all.

The good man’s actions also speak to his righteousness, “When he vows to his fellow man, /he does not revoke it.” (4) and then, “His money he does not give at interest /and no bribe for the innocent takes.” (5a) The beneficial outcome of this man’s good words and deeds is summarized succinctly in the last verse, “He who does these /will never stumble.” (5b)

The problem of course is that we are incapable of leading the holy and righteous life described here–especially in matters of the tongue. That is why we have confession and forgiveness through Jesus Christ who forgives our sins. But this psalm stands as a stark reminder of what God’s standards of righteous behavior are.

1 Chronicles 19,20: David continues to build his kingdom by still more military victories. The Chronicler gives us the backstories such as the humiliation of David’s emissaries by the Ammonite king. The Ammonites and Arameans decide to go to war with David, who sends his greatest general, Joab, to fight. He splits the Army in two, one side against the Ammonites, the other against the Areamean. This strategy pays off as each army sees the other fleeing. The Arameans retreat but then bring in fresh troops “from beyond the Euphrates,” but they, too, are defeated, this time by David himself.

As always, the Chronicler includes God’s role in this as Joab says, “Be strong, and let us be courageous for our people and for the cities of our God; and may the Lord do what seems good to him.” (19:13) Which I find a far more satisfying and honest attitude than the usual “God is on our side.”

Warrior kings like David and those who surrounded Israel saw their primary duty as warmaking. The Chronicler reminds us of this with the famous opening line of chapter 20: “In the spring of the year, the time when kings go out to battle.” This time, David achieves final victory over the Ammonites and captures their capital of Rabbah, collecting, among other booty, the Ammonite king’s crown “that weighed a talent of gold, and in it was a precious stone; and it was placed on David’s head.”

Then on to a final defeat of the ever-warring Philistines, including (who knew!) the slaying of Lahmi, Goliath’s (apparently younger) brother. Still more giants “descended form the giants in Gath,” including a guy with 12 fingers and 12 toes, “fell by the hand of David and his servants.” Given the detail with which the Chronicler recounts these battles, we have to accept that these giants did in fact exist in David’s time.

Acts 14:21–15:5: Paul and Barnabas, having learned their lesson about performing miracles at Lystra, now focus on preaching and encouragement as they “strengthened the souls of the disciples and encouraged them to continue in the faith, saying, ‘It is through many persecutions that we must enter the kingdom of God.'” (14:22) Luke describes their itinerary in great detail: they went back to Lystra and Iconium, then returned to Antioch. Then back out again to Pisidia, Pamphylia, Perga, Attalia and returning to Antioch, which was what we would now call the “sending church.” Paul and Barnabas have indeed “opened a door of faith for the Gentiles.” (14:28)

But some of the Jewish Christians in Judea, while accepting that Gentiles can join the church, but insist that like other Gentiles who convert to Judiasm, must be circumcised first. “Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them,” (15:2) in Antioch, and agree to go to Jerusalem to discuss the matter further. But no trip is wasted and they continue to convert Gentiles, this time in Phoenicia and Samaria as the travel south to Jerusalem.

The Jerusalem church welcomes them, and Paul and Barnabas “reported all that God had done with them.” (15:4). But then it’s down to business as “some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, “It is necessary for them to be circumcised and ordered to keep the law of Moses.” (15:5). Thus, the Council at Jerusalem commences over the first great disagreement within the church.

Psalm 14; 1 Chronicles 18; Acts 14:8–20

Psalm 14: This psalm opens with an assertion, “The scoundrel has said in his heart, /“There is no God.” Followed by a bold accusation, “They corrupt, they make loathsome their acts. /There is none who does good.” (1)

This disturbing chorus, “There is none who does good,”  is repeated at verse 3. This is a clear statement that those who say “There is no God” are incapable of doing good because their priorities are not God’s. For this psalmist, humankind is binary: those who follow God and those who deny God. And the consequence is equally binary.

This separation is underscored by the equally provocative image of “The LORD from the heavens looked down on the sons of humankind to see, is there someone discerning, someone seeking out God.” We are reminded of the Noah story, where God finds only one man who follows him. Instead, “All turn astray,/ altogether befouled.” (3)

We can identify with this psalm because we see this denial of God all around us today. Pope Francis has rightly castigated the world for making money its god. And as a result, like the subjects of this psalm, we become “Devourers of my people devoured them like bread.” (4) Even our ostensibly good deeds are worthless if we deny God.

Only at the end is there a glimmer of hope as the psalmist pleads, “Oh, may from Zion come Israel’s rescue /when the LORD restores His people’s condition.” (7) And we know Who came to rescue us. May we be willing to be rescued by Jesus.

1 Chronicles 18: The Chronicler gives us a brief summary of David’s accomplishments (which consume several chapters in 1 Kings). He attacks and subdues the Philistines, Moabites, as well as the king of Hadazer, as our author lovingly inventories the booty that David takes–and which increases his military strength. The Chronicler aims his spotlight on David as mighty warrior. Nevertheless, David is a man of God and “The Lord gave victory to David wherever he went.” (6)

Contrary to our image that it was Solomon who gathered all the wealth that was used to build the temple, the Chronicler makes it clear that David is the one built the massive store of treasure, which Solomon used, such as “a vast quantity of bronze; with it Solomon made the bronze sea and the pillars and the vessels of bronze.” (8)

Word of David’s and Israel’s might spreads throughout the region and King Tou willingly becomes a vassal seeking David’s protection at the cost of “all sorts of articles of gold, of silver, and of bronze.” But these things are not to build wealth and we are told that “King David dedicated to the Lord, together with the silver and gold that he had carried off from all the nations, from Edom, Moab, the Ammonites, the Philistines, and Amalek.” (11)

And again, the author again reminds us that while David is is the instrument of these unceasing victories, it is “the Lord gave victory to David wherever he went.” (12) But David is not just a mighty warrior; his intimate connection with God undergirds his talents as king, “and he administered justice and equity to all his people.” For our author David is the exemplar that set the standard for Israel. As we will see this becomes a sad irony as Israel descends into sin and corruption.

Acts 14:8–20: Luke gives us a good example of why miracles can backfire. After healing the crippled man, the crowd at Lystra goes wild, proclaiming Paul and Barnabas to be Hermes and Zeus in the flesh. Weaker men (and we’ve seen them in our time) would have basked in the glory as they take credit for what is accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit.  Instead, they tear their clothes and plead with them, “We are mortals just like you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. ” (15) But “Even with these words, they scarcely restrained the crowds from offering sacrifice to them.” (18).

I think this is why we no longer see dramatic miracles such as these. Crowds are fickle and easily swayed one way or the other by dramatic presentations. The Jews from Antioch and Iconium show up and now they “won the crowds.” Paul is stoned so badly that his followers drag him out of the city, fearing he is dead. Paul gets up and he and Barnabas head to Derbe. Has he learned his lesson about the effect of dramatic miracles? Let’s hope so.

 

Psalm 13; 1 Chronicles 16:37–17:27; Acts 13:48–14:7

Psalm 13:There is real desperation that underlies the first five verses of this psalm. A desperation that arises because it seems that God has been silent for a very long time. So, long, in fact that it seems God has abandoned him: “How long, O LORD, will You forget me always?/ How long hide Your face from me?” (2) This is not just a question of “missing God,” It is because God is the psalmist’s guide and absent that guide there is only sorrow: “How long shall I cast about for counsel,/sorrow in my heart all day?” (3)

The psalmist feels close to dying and needs God’s response forthwith: “Regard, answer me, LORD, my God./ Light up my eyes, lest I sleep death,” (4). Not just death, but God’s silence will mean that his enemies will enjoy the schadenfreude of his demise and “exult when I stumble.”

Suddenly, even though God has not yet answered, the psalmist’s mood is lifted because he remembers God’s love for him and that although God may be silent at the moment, he will indeed eventually answer: “But I in Your kindness do trust, / my heart exults in Your rescue.” And in that assurance that God will rescue there is great joy: “Let me sing to the LORD, / for He requited me.” (6)

It is worth pondering on the reality that like the psalmist if we ask God to come to us in our darkest hour, we can rest in the assurance that he will indeed answer. God may be silent right now, but he is also kind and faithful–and we can take refuge in that simple fact. And that changes everything: from desperation to the joy of assurance.

1 Chronicles 16:37–17:27: David has reestablished regular worship at the Tabernacle, leaving “Zadok and his kindred the priests” (16:39) in charge “to offer burnt offerings to the Lord on the altar of burnt offering regularly, morning and evening, according to all that is written in the law of the Lord that he commanded Israel.” (16:40). Our Chronicler also mentions Heman and Jeduthun, who are in charge of the music. Which makes me realize just how long music has been an essential element of worship. No wonder we have such strong feelings about it!

The Chronicler recounts almost word for word the Book of King’s account of the story of David wanting to build a permanent structure for God, Nathan’s dream where God tells the prophet “not yet,” and God’s covenant with David: “I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.” (17:13,14). Nathan tells all this to David, as David responds to God in prayer, “Thus your name will be established and magnified forever in the saying, ‘The Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, is Israel’s God’; and the house of your servant David will be established in your presence.” (17:24)

Both the author of Kings and Chronicles are telling us that this covenant between David and God is the reason behind David’s greatness. This is another hinge point of Israel’s history. God has spoken and David obeys, and the house of David will endure forever.  But this covenant has even greater implications as we are reminded us why the connection between David and Jesus is so crucial, for it is through Jesus that the house of David lives on even today.  It is through Jesus that God fulfilled his covenant with David to the benefit of all humankind.

Acts 13:48–14:7: Although the Jews are rejecting Paul’s message as heresy, “When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and praised the word of the Lord; and as many as had been destined for eternal life became believers.” (48) And it is through these new believers that “the word of the Lord spread throughout the region.” (49) The Jews take their case to the prominent women and men to “stir up persecution against Paul and Barnabas.” (Notice how Luke mentions women and men–it’s clear that women had influential roles in this society.)  Paul and Barnabas leave town, but the left behind “disciples [who] were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.”

With the power of the Holy Spirit, the missionaries had sewn their seed and the church grew even after they left. This is what the authorities and the opponents never understand: the Holy Spirit is unquenchable and cannot be legislated out of existence.

The same thing happens in Iconium as “they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who testified to the word of his grace by granting signs and wonders to be done through them.” (14:3). Once again Paul and Barnabas have to flee to the countryside “and there they continued proclaiming the good news.” I think Luke is telling us that had there not been the persecution that forces the missionaries to flee each place where they preach and convert people, the good news would not have been spread as effectively as it was. The leaders and authorities are playing whack-a-mole with Paul and Barnabas–and inadvertently spreading the good news.

So, today, perhaps rather than whining about how the church is being persecuted by the secular state, we should look to persecution as an opportunity to spread the good news–just as Paul and Barnabas did.