Psalm 121; 1 Kings 6; John 13:18-30

Psalm 121: This magnificent psalm, stunning in its simplicity, and verses often used in benediction, opens with one of the most famous questions in the Old Testament: “I lift up my eyes to the mountains: / from where will my help come?” This line resonates for so many reasons, not least of which that I can see Mount Diablo out my office window, behind which the sun rises every morning.

Which as it rises, is my daily reminder of the psalmist’s question: “My help is from the LORD, / maker of heaven and earth.” This short line brings out the marvelous breadth and depth of God: Our unfathomably great God, who is creator of heaven and earth. And the God who knows the number of hairs on my head (decreasing daily), but more importantly is there to help me. No issue that I face, even if it is a single stumbling step, is too small, too inconsequential for God.

God, of course is everything we are not–and in this verse he is God who is ever-alert: “Your guard does not slumber.” The remainder of this psalm focuses on God as our guard–the word is repeated eight times–ever on the lookout for us, our protector form natural harm and the from wiles of those who would harm us.

“By day the sun does not strike you, nor the moon by night.” (6) The image of God as shade is particularly appropriate in that desert climate, and when the psalm was written, the belief was that standing out in the full moon would lead to mental disorder (whence ‘lunacy’). Above all though, is God’s constancy, guarding us humans who are so inconstant: “The LORD guards your going and your coming, now and forevermore.” (8)

1 Kings 6: Solomon builds his eponymous temple in seven years. Compared to descriptions we will read later in Ezekiel and elsewhere, this chapter, describing its size, construction, material and furnishings is blessedly brief. I’m grateful to the author, who in the middle of the description, reminds us of its real reason for being built:

Now the word of the Lord came to Solomon, 12 “Concerning this house that you are building, if you will walk in my statutes, obey my ordinances, and keep all my commandments by walking in them, then I will establish my promise with you, which I made to your father David. 13 I will dwell among the children of Israel, and will not forsake my people Israel.” 

Notice again, that unlike his father, who appeared to have had actual conversations with God, for Solomon, it is “the word of the Lord” that comes to him as a pronouncement. These verses are God’s restatement of the Covenant that is the foundation of the relationship between God and Israel. I think by inserting it here amidst all the description of the Temple’s construction details and description of its furnishings, he is reminding us that it is the Covenant that is the single most important furnishing in the Temple. And we can imagine the pain that was evoked when the Jews, exiled in Babylon, read these words that recalled the  beauty and magnificence of what Solomon had wrought, but above all, of the Covenant that they had broken.

As we should reflect on the magnificence of the New Covenant that Jesus forged out of his death and resurrection–and that we so casually forget or worse, ignore.

 John 13:18-30: John gives us a detailed description of the dynamic and the conversation that transpired when he identifies who will betray him. If we accept that it was the apostle John himself who wrote this gospel, it is here that we get his small personal biography. “One of his disciples—the one whom Jesus loved—was reclining next to him;” (23) John is reclining next to Jesus and is in the best position to hear what Jesus said, apparently sotto voce rather than to all of the group. Peter can’t completely hear what’s going on and asks John to ask Jesus to identify who Jesus is talking about.  So, it is John who asks the crucial question: “Who is it?” Jesus answers with a gesture rather than words, handing Judas a piece of bread.

This is the moment Leonardo DaVici captures in his great painting of the Last Supper. As I read it here, Jesus handing the bread to Judas becomes a kind of reverse communion–a gesture that dismisses Judas once and for all;  the opposite of our experience of coming to Jesus through the bread and wine.

John tells us that it is Satan who comes into to Judas. And it is at this moment that John makes us understand that what is about to happen is a cosmic battle between God and the powers of evil. Judas and the ones to whom he betrays Jesus, and who actually carry out the events to follow are the means of setting events into motion, but neither Judas nor the Temple officials or even Caiphas or Pilate are more than pawns in this great battle.

The last words in this passage say it all: “And it was night.” Darkness more dark than any night in history has descended.

Psalm 120; 1 Kings 4:29-5:18; John 13:1-17

Psalm 120: Our speaker is in trouble but knows that God will respond as He has before: “To the LORD when I was in straits / I called out and He answered me.” (1) The psalmist’s reason for praying is that he is the object of slander: “LORD, save my life from lying lips, / from a tongue of deceit.” (2) The deceitful words of other are painful and burning, like “A warrior’s honed arrows / with broom-wood coals.” (4)

Again and again, the psalms come back to the power of words and of speech–and how they can injure. This psalm reminds us that they wear others down to the point where, like our psalmist, we feel, “Long has my whole being dwelt / among those who hate peace.” (6) And no matter what is said, the conflict cannot be resolved: “I am for peace, / but when I speak, they are for war.” (7)

At first reading, this last line suggests some sort of failed diplomatic mission, but I think  the hurt is much closer: this relentlessness of hateful words could be in a personal relationship; even one nagging spouse to the other.

Above all, though, is the utter futility of slanderous and angry words to bring any kind of resolution: “What can it give you, what can it add, / a tongue of deceit?” Hateful words accomplish nothing but tearing down the their object.

1 Kings 4:29-5:18: 3000 years later we speak of the wisdom of Solomon, and these words here are doubtless why: “Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than anyone else,” (4:30, 31) He receives visitors from all over the world, an accomplished sage, writer, composer and–something we don;t hear about as much as Solomon’s other gifts–scientist: “He would speak of trees, from the cedar that is in the Lebanon to the hyssop that grows in the wall; he would speak of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish.” (4:33)

But there is a darker side to Solomon that his PR agents don’t highlight. Now that Israel is at peace with its neighbors, he decides to build the long-delayed Temple: “So I intend to build a house for the name of the Lord my God, as the Lord said to my father David,” (5:5) and he names King Hiram of Tyre’s son as the general contractor. It is a joint Israel-Tyre project, “My servants will join your servants,” (5:6) and Hiram’s subjects will be paid by Solomon: “I will give you whatever wages you set for your servants.” (5:6).

Hiram’s quite happy with this big contract and “he rejoiced greatly.” They begin to cut down the cedars of Lebanon. However, he was a bit less magnanimous with his own people: “King Solomon conscripted forced labor out of all Israel; the levy numbered thirty thousand men.” (5:13) Those were just the lumbermen. “Solomon also had seventy thousand laborers and eighty thousand stonecutters in the hill country.” And as usual things are well organized and managed, “Solomon’s three thousand three hundred supervisors who were over the work, having charge of the people who did the work.” (5:16).

As king, Solomon had every right to conscript forced labor, but for me, anyway, it’s too much of an echo back to Israel in Egypt building great monuments to Egyptian royalty. Perhaps the forced laborers were paid a wage out of the immense wealth of the treasury; our author doesn’t say. But it just doesn’t seem right.

John 13:1-17: Although John doesn’t say, it’s fair to assume we have arrived once again at the Upper Room where Jesus “got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. (4,5). While this was the custom of that dusty place, I’m struck by how this act of humility and magnificent demonstration of servant leadership is also about baptism. This act is Jesus’ sign to his followers that they are no longer just followers, but now have become integral to the reason he came; they are the first members of the Church. As Jesus says, they are clean (except for Judas).

I think Peter realizes this other dimension of the foot washing when he says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (9) Peter, despite his denials later that night is “all in.”  And Jesus’ reference to “one who has bathed does not need to wash,” is as usual, at two levels: physical bathing to be sure, but also the bathing of baptism. When we have been baptized, we are clean forever. But as we walk on earth and fall and sin; our feet become dirty, and by our confession it is the forgiveness of Jesus Christ that washes our feet again and again.

Psalm 119:169-176; 1 Kings 4:1-28; John 12:37-50

Psalm 119:169-176: Finally! The last section of this long, long psalm. And we get The Big Thematic Wrap-Up.

1. We pray for understanding: “Let my song of prayer come before You, LORD. / As befits Your word, give me insight.” (169)

2. We pray for rescue: “Let my supplication come before You, as befits Your utterance, save me.” (170)

3. We praise God, who is our teacher: “Let my lips utter praise, for You taught me Your statutes.” (171)

4. God is a God of justice: “Let my tongue speak out Your utterance, for all Your commands are just.” (172)

5. We can choose to follow God and God’s word: “May Your hand become my help, for Your decrees I have chosen.” (173)

6. Following God and God’s word is simultaneously salvation/ rescue and joy: “I desired Your rescue, O LORD, and Your teaching is my delight.” (174)

So, 176 verses later we acknowledge again that our chief duty as God’s man (or woman) is to praise and live according to God’s Word. Only there will we find salvation. “Let my being live on and praise You, and may Your laws help me.” I am convinced that the end of the psalm is John’s jumping off point for his insight that “In the beginning was the Word.”

1 Kings 4:1-28: This passage gives a detailed glimpse into the sophisticated management system that Solomon has put into place. The Kingdom is finally at peace, “Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand by the sea; they ate and drank and were happy.” (20) And the extent of the Kingdom at its height: “Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt: (21)

Solomon has brought peace and prosperity: “During Solomon’s lifetime Judah and Israel lived in safety, from Dan even to Beer-sheba, all of them under their vines and fig trees.” (25) Moreover, Israel was the dominant power in the region and the nearby countries “brought tribute and served Solomon all the days of his life.” (21b)

The author gives us a tantalizing glimpse of Solomon’s wealth just by describing the size of his stables: “Solomon also had forty thousand stalls of horses for his chariots, and twelve thousand horsemen.” (26)

We can only imagine the feelings of deep longing and bitter remembrance of the glories of the past that the readers of this history must have felt as they sat there in exile in Babylon, heirs to the fallen Kingdom that God had once blessed –squandered because of the sins of the Kings after Solomon and the sins of the people, who were so poorly led.

John 12:37-50: John dips back into Isaiah to explain why Jesus was being rejected by so many, especially the leadership of Israel: “so they could not believe, because Isaiah also said,

 “He has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their heart,  (39,40)

He also reminds us that “many, even of the authorities, believed in him.” We would presume this includes Nicodemus. But the sway of prevailing thought was in the Pharisees camp and “they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue.” (42)

We are exactly like those who believe but will not confess our belief aloud because we fear. In Jesus’ time, they would not confess because they’d be banned from the synagogue. We will not speak up because we fear we’ll be put out of mainstream society because we do not go along with the prevailing social winds. To accept Jesus means having to be willing to be put out of the “synagogues” we value and to be seen not just as societal outcasts, but worse: as unenlightened and intolerant.

Psalm 119:161-168; 1 Kings 2:39-3:28; John 12:20-36

Psalm 119:161-168: This penultimate section begins to summarize the themes of this long, long psalm. It is a love song to God’s precepts and the consequences of that love and discipline: “Lies I have hated, despised. / Your teaching I have loved.” (163) That love of God’s lessons leads to a action: “Seven times daily I praised You / because of Your righteous laws.” (164) That action is rewarded with a well-lived life: “Great well-being to the lovers of Your teaching, / and no stumbling-block for them.” (165)

This love expresses itself as longing that leads to discipline: “I yearned for Your rescue, O LORD, / and Your commands I performed.” (166) Which circles back again to love: “I observed Your precepts / and loved them very much.” (167)

But the question remains: Is this love of God or is oit love of God’s teaching? Or are the two one and the same to our psalmist? I don;t think they are for me.

1 Kings 2:39-3:28: We all know about Solomon’s wisdom, which is clearly expressed in his prayer, “ Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?” (3:9) And God gives Solomon the wisdom he has prayed for because, as God says, ““Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right.” (3:11). But I think we too easily skip over the context in which Solomon prays this prayer: “O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in.” (3:7)

Solomon prays in deep humility–quite frankly a humility we only get a brief glimpse of in his father, David.  Solomon doesn’t [pray for wisdom because that’s the politically correct thing to do; nor does he pray in false humility. Solomon instead acknowledges his inexperience before God. How much better that I would acknowledge my own inexperience rather than pretending I know and then trying to bluff my way through my ignorance.

The proof of Solomon’s answered prayer lays, of course, in the famous story of the two mothers and the single child. One of the things I had not noticed before is that the women were both prostitutes. (3:16). Which is of course the only was this fatherless situation could have arisen. But that fact gives us the briefest glimpse into the underside of Israel society–not so very unlike our own.

John 12:20-36: Again we read things not recorded in the Synoptics. Some Greeks wish to meet Jesus and politely ask Philip, who goes up the chain of command to Andrew. Philip and Andrew go to Jesus, who replies with what basically seems to be a non sequitir. John doesn’t tell us if the Greeks were present or not to hear Jesus’ soliloquy, which seems to be a summary theological treatise. Only in his last sentence, “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.” (26) suggests that Jesus may have spoken in the hearing of the Greeks because he says “Whoever,” which seems quite inclusive.

Then another bizarre incident. With the crowd gathered round, Jesus asks, “Father, glorify your name.” (28) And God replies! Although many hear God’s voice only as thunder. Jesus then says, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” (31) To the crowd he seemed to be speaking treason against the Romans, but he must be speaking of Satan. In one sense this is John’s version of the wilderness confrontation between Jesus and Satan. And without Jesus, darkness / Satan / death will indeed overtake them all. John resorts to his favorite image as Jesus doesn’t just compare himself to light, but asserts he is the light. 

So, here in just a few verses, we hear the voice of God, Jesus’ most direct statement yet about how he will die and his assertion that he is the light of the world. The crowd’s brains must have been exploding at this point. And while John doesn’t say, any member of the inner circle had to be convinced that Jesus was insane and best and dangerous at worst. No wonder “After Jesus had said this, he departed and hid from them.” (36)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is how I fundamentally hear God speaking to me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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