Category: pentecost

A Night to Remember: Eighthteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

A Night to Remember: Eighthteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 4, 2020

Read: Exodus 12:1-13; 13:1-8

Reflection

As the book of Exodus starts, we find things are not so good for the descendants of Joseph and his brothers. The book opens us by telling us that a new pharaoh rules the land and he “did not know Joseph.” Between the time of Joseph and the current period, the Hebrews grew in size from a handful of people to a vast group within Egypt. The new Pharaoh did not have the same generous attitude as the first Pharaoh. He feared the Hebrews because of their large numbers. In order to keep the Hebrews from being a threat due to their vast numbers, he set them to work doing hard labor on his building projects. A people who were once guests were now slaves.

Enter Moses. He was saved from a terror campaign initiated by the Pharaoh which killed every Hebrew male child. Ironically, Moses grows up in the Pharaoh’s household taken care of by Pharaoh’s daughter. God calls Moses to lead his people out of Egypt.

Pharaoh refuses to let the people leave and it become a match between Pharaoh and God. A series of plagues strike the Egyptians until after a final plague kills all the firstborn Egyptians, Pharaoh lets the Hebrews go. But then Pharaoh’s heart was hardened and he sends the army after the Hebrews.

This is where the story beings for us. 1

A Dinner to Remember

Chapter 12 begins with instructions.  God is telling the people of Israel to eat on the run because God was going to force Pharaoh’s hand.  As Pharaoh sought to destroy the Israelites by killing the young boys, a spirit would come for the firstborn of Egypt.  The people of Israel were to put the blood of a lamb on the doorposts of their homes so that the spirit would “pass over” their house.

The preparation of the meal was incredibly specific.  They eat bitter herbs as a reminder of their suffering. They use flatbread or bread without yeast because they had to eat in a hurry.  The lamb was not to be eat raw or boiled.  Why did it matter if the meat was boiled?  Because the waters of Egypt were the places where the Hebrew male infants were drowned at the Pharaoh’s command.  The water brought death and this lamb could not come in contact with a reminder of the evil inflicted upon them.

But God also told the people that this night was a new beginning. God wanted the people to remember this time and share it to future generations. In fact, it was reordering time.  This day would be considered the first day of a new calendar.  What God was doing was in a way a new creation.  History would start at this moment.  We all have moments that are defining moments in our lives: births, weddings, deaths, but we usually don’t throw away our calendar and start anew.  But what God was doing was so important, so life-altering that it had to be remembered in a different way.

The placing of the blood of the lamb on the doorpost is a reminder to Christians of the death of Christ.  The blood allowed the angel of death to pass over and spare the first born Hebrews.  Christ’s blood in a way also protects us from sin and death.

Passover is an important holiday for Jews as they remember when God brought them out of Egypt and slavery.  Christians have a similar meal where we remember when Christ died in our stead to liberate us.  The Lord’s Supper or Communion it should be noted was first practiced by Jesus during Passover. 

The call to remember is a way of taking a past action and making it part of our present.  For Jews, Passover is taking what happened long ago and making it a part of their present.  Jews don’t say “We remember this night how God led those people long ago out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.”  Instead they say to each other, “We remember this night how God led us out of Egypt and through the Red Sea.”  Past and present are joined together.

In Passover, Christians can see a  parallel to the death of Christ on the cross.  Passover is a reminder of the salvation of the Hebrews. But that salvation came at a cost.  So it is with our salvation.  We are free in Christ, but only because of the death of Jesus.

This post was originally a Story of God Bible Study for October 2, 2016.





 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Sibling Rivalry: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Sibling Rivalry: Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 27, 2020

Read: Genesis 37:3-8, 17b-22, 26-34; 50:15- 21

Reflection

Beginning with chapter 37 until the end of the book of Genesis, the story focuses mainly on one person, Joseph.  The great-grandson of Abraham, you might have heard the story of Joseph as a kid, and over the last few years, you might have even seen a production of the Broadway play, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.

Our story opens with Jacob and his sons.  Joseph is one of the “babies” of the family and tends to chores close to home instead of shepherding the flock with his older brothers.

Now, it’s quite common for a child to ask their parents if they love them or their sister/brother more.  The parent will say that they love each child equally.  You won’t find that story in today’s text.  Jacob played favorites with his children, and Joseph was his number one son.  Because he was the number one son, he got a special garment- a “long robe with sleeves,” the Bible says. It was a very fancy coat, one that set someone apart from manual labor.  In popular culture, the coat is described as one of  “many colors.”  In reality, some translations note the coat was an ornamental coat and others talk about a multi-colored coat.  Either way, it was a really nice coat that signified Joseph was special- which is something that really bothered his brothers. The text never said if Joseph knew that he was the favorite, but one could guess that he did and made sure his brothers did too. None of this endeared Joseph to his brothers.  They couldn’t stand him.  Now in most families, it quite normal to have some sibling rivalries.  But as we saw with Cain and Abel, when brother feud in the Bible, it can sometimes get a little out of hand.

We learn that Joseph has a special talent: deciphering dreams.  His parlor trick will come in handy later in our story, but right now all it does is annoy his brothers as we see in this snippet: 5 Once Joseph had a dream, and when he told it to his brothers, they hated him even more. 6He said to them, ‘Listen to this dream that I dreamed.7There we were, binding sheaves in the field. Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf.’ 8His brothers said to him, ‘Are you indeed to reign over us? Are you indeed to have dominion over us?’ So they hated him even more because of his dreams and his words.Genesis 37:5-8 (NRSV)

For his brothers, this was the last straw.  It was time to do something.  It was time to get Joseph out of the way.  Permanently.

Joseph’s brothers were looking forward to getting rid (ie: kill) of this dreamer who was an annoying pest.  His brothers were ready to kill him, but Ruben stopped his brothers from committing fratricide.  Instead, Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt, and Jacob is told that his precious son, his favorite son,  is dead. Between chapters 37 and 50, we follow Joseph’s journey into Egypt.  He gets to work in the house of a government official, and later falsely accused of raping the official’s wife, who wanted to sleep with him. Joseph winds up in prison, but it released when people learn he can interpret dreams.  He is called by the Pharoah to interpret his dream and he is able to discern a famine is coming and the nation must prepare.  Egypt is saved from a devastating famine and in turn, helps other nations that are affected by a drought.  Joseph is made what would basically be the Prime Minister of the nation. Joseph’s brothers return to the scene again as they travel to Egypt to get food during the famine.  In the end, Joseph is reunited with his brothers and his father. His family is welcome to come and live with Joseph in Egypt.

Genesis 50 opens up with Jacob dying. But Joseph’s brothers were afraid of him and for good reason. Now that Jacob is dead, will Joseph make life hard for them?  They come to Joseph and tell him that before Jacob died he told them that Joseph must forgive his brothers.  His brothers really hadn’t changed- they were motivated by self-interest.  Jacob never said this.  Instead of asking for forgiveness for how they treated Joseph, they instead invoke their dead father telling Joseph that he had to forgive his brothers because it was what dear old dad wanted.

In spite of their lying, Joseph forgives his brothers responding that God was able to use an evil experience and make it into something good. There is an important lesson to be learned here about suffering and the work of God.Joseph could see how God was working within his suffering and so he could see that something good came of the years of captivity and estrangement. However, it is bad taste for someone other than the sufferer to impose a meaning on them. What we see in chapter 50 is how God’s will works even in the midst of evil.

It was wrong for the brothers to seek to kill Joseph and then decide to see him into slavery.But God used this situation to help save the Egyptians from famine.We can’t and shouldn’t say that such evils are God’s will, we can see how God’s justice can work through human sin, just as it did later on in Scripture in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.





 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Maybe Baby: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Maybe Baby: Sixteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 20, 2020

Read: Genesis 18:1-15; 21:1-7

 

Reflection

In the fall of 2001, I was a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis.  I made rounds, visiting people and I stopped  by a room where a number of people were gathered.  On the bed, was man who seemed asleep.  His wife explained he had a brain tumor.  From what I knew it didn’t look good; he didn’t have long in this world.  But the wife told me with hope that he would get better.  They were hoping he would be able to go a facility to rehabilitate. She wanted me to lead a prayer.  I was nervous, because I didn’t want to pray a prayer that would give them false hope.  I didn’t think that God was going to magically heal this man’s tumor.  And in some way I was right, a little later I heard that the man was going to hospice.

Was I right to believe that it was foolish to believe this man would be healed?  Should I have told the family that God would heal this man?

In our passage, Abraham welcomes three guests.  It was common in desert cultures to offer strangers hospitality.  Since there were no McDonalds in the desert; it made sense that people would offer travelers something to eat and drink.  Abraham welcomed these guests and went above and beyond in hospitality.  He asked Sarah to make bread with the finest flour.  He told a servant to kill a calf and then offered a refreshing drink.  We learn one of the visitors is the Lord himself.  As they ate their food, God tells Abraham that in the space of a year, he and Sarah would have a child.

Now a few things here:  Abraham was almost 100 and Sarah was 90.  God promised Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation when he was 75.  So, the couple had been told for several decades that Abraham would be the father of a great nation.  Sarah was already way, way past her childbearing years so there seemed to be no possible way that Sarah was going to have a baby.

Sarah was eavesdropping nearby and when she heard all of this, she let out a laugh.  She laughed because she had heard for decades that she would have a child and nothing ever changed.  She was already barren when Abraham first told her of what God told him.  She knew it wasn’t going to happen. She even suggested that Abraham get with her servant Hagar to have a child.  Ishmael was the result of this pairing, but even Sarah wasn’t pleased with that solution. Sarah had received heartache on heartache.  She was old, Ishmael wasn’t working out.  She knew how life worked and she and Abraham had come to accept they would never be parents. Her laugh was a laugh of anger, frustration and hurt. I’m going to have a child?  Now? At my age? Not bloody likely.

Sarah heard for years something would happen and it never did.  She was used to things being what they were and couldn’t believe that things would be different.

If we were in Sarah’s place, would we laugh?  I think if it was me, I probably would.  I would like to believe that I would believe that God could do anything, but like Sarah, I know too much.  I know that people with brain tumors seldom recover.  I know that some couples face miscarriages. I know people die from cancer.  I know that evil exists and that the impossible is just that; impossible. 

Theologian David Watson notes that mainline Protestant theologians in the 20th and early 21st centuries have grappled with the problem of evil.  The horrors of two major global wars and the Holocaust have made us think that divine action is not possible.  

Watson continues saying that the result is that because liberal theologians had this view, it trickled down to the churches.  We had whole communities of faith that no longer believed that God would show up.  Watson puts it plainly:

“For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.”

None of this means we should not take evil seriously.  But we shouldn’t let that limit God.  Instead in the midst of this world where there is heartache, we still hope and pray that God will do the impossible in our impossible world.

God answers Sarah’s doubt.  “Is anything to difficult for the Lord?”  Theologian Walter Brueggemann says that this is really a question God is expecting Sarah (and Abraham) to answer.  The story ends with us never knowing what Sarah said in response other than that she didn’t laugh.  I’m guessing she didn’t immediately believe.  God was really asking; do you believe in me or not?  Do you trust me or not? 

In chapter 21, we see a different kind of laughter.  As God said, Abraham and Sarah did have a baby and named him Isaac which meant laughter.  God had the last laugh.  “God has given me laughter. Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me,”  Sarah says with a heart full of joy.  Indeed, how could they not?  This was so fanciful and unbelievable that you had to laugh.  You had to laugh for joy.

Faith in God means believing in the impossible.  It doesn’t mean taking leave of our sense and to start jumping off buildings thinking God will save us.  We believe in the impossible, not the ridiculous.  But we have to believe that our God is real, and powerful and can make a difference in our lives and in our world.  There will still be evil in the world.  There will be heartache.  But because we believe God will do the impossible, we end up having something that in and of itself seems weird: joy.  We begin to see God in the hidden corners of our lives, places where we thought God could never be present.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

In the Beginning: Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

In the Beginning: Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost (Narrative Lectionary)

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 13, 2020

Read: Genesis 2:4b-7, 15-17; 3:1-8

Reflection

If you grew up hearing Bible stories, you know the first words in the book of Genesis.  Those words, “In the beginning” is the start of the Creation Story. We might think we know the story inside and out. But did you know there are two creation stories with two distinct emphases?

Think of it this way: Genesis 1 is like a big blockbuster motion picture. Do you remember the opening of Star Wars with the orchestra and that scrolling text? That is what Genesis 1 can feel like.  Genesis 2 tells the story again, but this time it is more intimate, more focused. If Genesis 1 is the big summer movie, then Genesis 2 is like a documentary focusing on the most minute of aspects.  Genesis 1 shows God’s power through the creation of the world. Genesis 2 shows God being more in relationship with creation, especially one particular part of creation: humans. Today we learn about the start of a sometimes beautiful friendship with humanity.

Theologian Walter Brueggemann notes that the creation stories reflect stories about how the world began that were found in Egypt and Mesopotamia (where modern-day Iraq is located). Bureggeman notes that the texts were probably written in the Sixth Century B.C.E. and to the people of Israel. At the time of writing, the Israelites were not in a good shape. Foreign invaders called the Babylonians came and conquered the people. Many were taken away from their homeland and forced to live in Babylon (again, located in what is today Iraq). If you were a Jew who had been taken away from their homeland and were told that your people are weak and even your God is weak, how would you feel? Pretty rotten. The Babylonians were acting like any invader would and trying to tell their new conquest that mighty Babylon was in charge. They told their newest conquests that their god was dead. The God of Israel was dead. Long live the Babylonian gods.

It was in this context that these texts were written. The goal of the text wasn’t scientific, but spiritual. The text reminded the people of Israel that the God they worshipped created the world and was the Lord of all life- even Lord over the mighty Babylonians. The creation stories were a message of hope to the Israelites. Even though it looked like God had abandoned them, the God who created the mountains and the seas, was in control. In God we Trust, indeed.

In Genesis 2:5-7, God creates the form of a human. It is when God breathes into the human that the being has life. The Bible talks a lot about breathing. God breathes into Adam and springs to life. In John 20:22, Jesus breathes on his disciples and says “receive the Holy Spirit.” In Acts 2 on Pentecost, the wind that comes can also be described as a breath. Breathing is important for our physical life, what does it mean for our spiritual life?

Adam is busy naming the animals, but God notices something. “It’s not good that man should be alone,” God says. God knows Adam needs a helper or companion. It is important to note that the first thing that was not good was not the Tree of Knowledge or even eating of the tree; it was the fact that man was alone. God creates this new being called woman for companionship, reminding us we are not made to be alone but created for each other. Just as humans enter into a covenant with God, humans enter into covenants with each other.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

One in the Spirit – Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (1 Corinthians 12)

Adam Kossowski, Veni Sancti Spiritus
1 Corinthians 12:3-13 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says “Let Jesus be cursed!” and no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except by the Holy Spirit. 
Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 
12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
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                We’ve been waiting for the Spirit to come. Whether we’re ready or not, the Spirit is coming and is here. That period running from the moment of Jesus’ ascension to the day of Pentecost has come to a close (and with it a very strange Easter 2020). The promise made in Acts 1, before Jesus departed, was that before long they would receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:5). With Pentecost that day has come. According to Luke, the followers of Jesus spent the time between the ascension and Pentecost praying and choosing a successor to the fallen Judas so that their number (twelve) would be complete. Then came the date with destiny, the day promised by Jesus.

                It was on Pentecost Sunday, a day when Jews would have gathered in Jerusalem for one of three important pilgrimage festivals. Pentecost is the Greek term for the Jewish festival of the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). And so as they gathered for prayer that day, the Spirit of God fell upon them, and as the Spirit baptized them, they began to proclaim the Gospel in a multitude of languages so that the crowd below heard the message (Acts 2). As I noted Shavuot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, along with Passover and Sukkot (Tabernacles). It was both the celebration of thanksgiving for the wheat harvest and a celebration of the giving of the Torah. As a pilgrimage festival, the city of Jerusalem would have been filled with people from across the diaspora. There are several intriguing parallels and analogies between the two festivals that should be kept in mind as we celebrate Pentecost.

Since I’m focusing my lectionary reflections this cycle on the second reading (epistles), we are invited to consider the message for Pentecost that comes from 1 Corinthians 12. First Corinthians 12 to 14 focuses on things of the Spirit. In fact, it is the place we go to understand how the Spirit works in our lives. There Paul speaks about spiritual things, of which he does not want them to be uninformed (1 Cor. 12:1). The lectionary reading begins in verse three and extends to verse thirteen. The section we’re invited to consider begins with the declaration that “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit” (1 Cor. 12:3). In other words, our ability to confess our faith is rooted in the presence of the Spirit, who empowers us to proclaim the good news to the ends of the earth.

Having made that opening declaration, Paul gets to the practical side of the equation. I should preface this by dropping down to the closing verses of our text, where Paul invokes the imagery of the church as the body of Christ. He reminds us that there is but one body with many members. What is true of the body is true of Christ and therefore of the church. I will come back to the message of verse 13 in a moment, but first let’s return to the middle section of our passage. That middle section is the first of two gift lists in 1 Corinthians 12. I have written a rather lengthy book on Spiritual Gifts titled Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, (Energion, 2013), I would direct your attention there for an in-depth discussion of spiritual gifts.  

 

What Paul does here, is describe how there can be unity in diversity in the congregation. Paul tells us that there are a variety of gifts but only one Spirit. There is, he declares, varieties of services, and the same Lord, along with a variety of activities, but one God. While I realize that Paul doesn’t have a fully developed trinitarian theology, we see hints of the possibility here and there in his letters. While I try to be careful about how I conceive of God in trinitarian terms, perhaps we can think in terms of how our own unity in diversity as a community might reflect the diversity that exists within the unity that is God.  

 

As to the variety of gifts, Paul offers nine in this first list, all of which are activated by the same God in each one. These gifts, which are given to the members of the body for the common good include the utterance of wisdom, the utterance of knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, prophecy, discernment of spirits, various kinds of tongues, and the interpretation of tongues. It appears from the larger context that this gift of tongues is a big issue. Apparently, some prize it above the others (see 1 Corinthians 14). However, while Paul never denies its value, he puts it below those gifts that allow for understanding. The point here is that whatever gift you have been given, it comes from God and its purpose is related to the common good. So, don’t mount your high horse, because there is no hierarchy of gifts. Your gift(s) are there so you can serve others, not so you can rise in stature. Gifts have a purpose, and that purpose, while it might prove to be a blessing, is given for the welfare of the body.

To return to verses twelve and thirteen, after we’ve heard the message that the Spirit brings gifts to us that are to be used for the good of others, we hear the message that there is one body with many members. This reality is rooted in baptism, through which we become one, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free. In other words, as John McClure notes, “all of the usual ways in which people are organized by class, ethnicity, gender, social status, or education are irrelevant within this new creation.  All that is relevant is the way that God’s gifts empower each for the common welfare of the whole” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 254]. Over time, the church has often failed to recognize Paul’s message as revealed here. We often follow the lead of the larger culture, just like the Corinthians. Here is a corrective if we’re willing to embrace it. Whatever gift(s) come your way, use them, Paul tells us, for the common good. Remember as well that they come to us from God through the Spirit so we can declare that Jesus is Lord.

 

Image attribution:  Kossowski, Adam. Veni Sancti Spiritus, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56946 [retrieved May 24, 2020]. Original source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/paullew/8750321716 – Fr Lawrence Lew, O.P..

 

Woe Is Me: Elijah’s Lament, a lectionary reflection for Pentecost 2C (1 Kings 19)

 

19 Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and how he had killed all the prophets with the sword. Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, “So may the gods do to me, and more also, if I do not make your life like the life of one of them by this time tomorrow.” Then he was afraid; he got up and fled for his life, and came to Beer-sheba, which belongs to Judah; he left his servant there. 

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: “It is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, “Get up and eat.” He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the Lord came a second time, touched him, and said, “Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.” He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God. At that place he came to a cave, and spent the night there.  

Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 10 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 
11 He said, “Go out and stand on the mountain before the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.” Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence. 13 When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. Then there came a voice to him that said, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” 14 He answered, “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword. I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 15 Then the Lord said to him, “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus; when you arrive, you shall anoint Hazael as king over Aram.
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                We have moved through the Day of Pentecost and Trinity Sunday, and now we begin the long journey that takes us to Advent. This season, which is nearly six months in duration (and marked by the color green) is called, by some, ordinary time. I don’t care for this designation, so I tend to count the Sundays after Pentecost. I don’t know that any moment in time is ordinary, though there are moments, like Christmas, Epiphany, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost that stand out, but each Sunday has its own value. During this season there usually two choices for the first reading, all coming from the Hebrew Bible. I will normally be commenting on the semi-continuous texts, rather than the paired texts. The first of these texts is taken from 1 Kings 19, which picks up immediately following Elijah’s encounter with and triumph over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. That encounter is both exciting and off-putting. It’s always good to hear that God triumphs, but the killing of the prophets of Baal—that’s not so enticing. Such violence doesn’t fit well with our sensibilities. In fact, it serves as a reminder of the tendency of religions in general and Christianity in particularity to enforce doctrinal and moral compliance with the threat of violence. At the same time, it represents the reality of the cycle of violence that is so present in our world. However, this is the background to the reading from 1 Kings 19. In fact, the prophet Elijah seems to take pride in his act of violence, which he believes cleansed the land of religious pollution (the prophets of Baal). Now it should be noted that Jezebel, Queen of Israel, had been attempting a purge of the prophets of Yahweh (1 Kings 18:4). This appears to be the way religious differences were handled back then. But despite his victory, it appears that Elijah is feeling depressed. He did his job, but it doesn’t seem to have made a difference.   
 
                When we come to chapter 19 of 1 Kings, having already watched as God answered Elijah’s prayer and had sent fire from heaven to consume the offering, something Baal could not do, the wrath of Jezebel is unleashed against him. When King Ahab told Jezebel what Elijah had done at Mount Carmel, Jezebel sent a message to Elijah threatening to do to him, what he had done to her prophets. Thus, the cycle of violence would continue, and truth be told, it continues into the present. When Elijah received this message he fled for his life, traveling to Beer-Sheba, in the neighboring country of Judah. He was safe, for now, unless Jezebel could get an extradition order for his arrest. Though he was safe, he felt depressed. He felt as if, despite his efforts, nothing had changed, and so he left his assistant in the town and headed out into the Wilderness (desert). He was ready to give up and even die. Why go on? He had no purpose.
He lay down in the desert and went to sleep (perhaps hoping not to wake up), but as he slept he was visited by an angel (I’m not sure why verses 5-7 are considered optional, as they detail the angelic vision). The angel had laid out food and water and commanded him to get up and eat. He did so, then went back to sleep. The angel woke him up and told him once more to eat, so he would have strength for forty days and nights (presumably a time of fasting as well as journeying). This time instructions were given. He needed to eat so he could make the journey to Mount Horeb, the holy mountain in the Sinai, where Moses saw the burning bush.  He traveled to Mount Horeb, where he entered a cave and spent the night. You can see here parallels to the story of Moses. Moses had to flee, and it was in the desert of Sinai, on this mountain, that God appeared to Moses and spoke to him (Exodus 3:1-6). It was here that Moses received his commission. It would be here that Elijah would hear from God.
The Lord spoke to Elijah, asking him why he was there. Elijah responded by reminding God of what he had done. He was zealous for the Lord. He’d torn down the altars to foreign gods and put to death the prophets of these gods. Now, he alone was left, and his enemies are after him, seeking to put him to death. Elijah is not in a good place. He feels abandoned. He’d done what he thought God wanted, but to what end. Sometimes we feel that way. We may not have torn down altars, or thankfully killed prophets, but we’ve given our all, and don’t have much to show for it. It’s one of the reasons so many clergy hang it up before they reach five years of service. Where is the fruit of one’s efforts? Where is the appreciation?
Burnout is a common concern among clergy. It’s one reason why pastorates tend to be short. Clergy give their all and then within a few years, feel as if they have nothing left to give to the congregation. So, it’s time to move—either to a new congregation where one can start over or to another vocation. Elijah is feeling it. He’s been battling in Israel for Yahweh for countless years. While he might have a token success here or there, the status quo remains in place, and the people simply don’t seem to care.
God responds to Elijah’s laments (and those of contemporary clergy, perhaps), but sending him out of the cave so he can experience the presence of God. The Lord promises to pass by, but what will be the form of that presence? First Elijah experiences a mighty wind, so mighty it splits mountains and breaks apart rocks. I’ve experienced some big winds, but nothing like that. Even hurricanes and tornados don’t split mountains. Nevertheless, despite the power of the wind, God is not present in the wind.  Then comes an earthquake, but God is not in the earthquake either. Both the wind and the quake suggest power and might. Though different in its makeup, God wasn’t present in the fire either. This is fascinating because the Pentecost story suggests that the Spirit came as a mighty wind and baptized with fire. But at least here, wind, quakes, and fire, are not markers of God’s presence, even though that likely was what Elijah expected (or something like it). It’s what we tend to expect as well. Our God is an awesome God, is that not true?
So how is God is present? The reading suggests that the fire was followed by “sheer silence” or as the Tanakh puts it, as “a soft murmuring sound.” This is the opposite of power, and yet this is how God chose to be revealed. Of course, the Gospels recount the story of Jesus, the revelation of God, who reveals God’s presence in and through the cross—not something one would expect of God.
I don’t know if Elijah isn’t all that impressed with this show of God’s presence. He does cover himself with his mantle (cloak), so maybe he got a bit of a scare, from the wind, quake, and fire, but then there’s the quietness. So, maybe he’s a bit underwhelmed because he goes back to his complaints in response to God’s question: “why are you here?” Elijah’s answer is simple: I was zealous for the cause. I did everything I was supposed to do, but here I am, alone with a death warrant set out for me. That’s why Elijah has gone out to the desert—not to meet God but to flee God’s call, which doesn’t seem to have made a difference.
How does God respond? God kicks Elijah in the backside and tells him to get back in the game. Go back to where you came from and along the way stop in Damascus and anoint Hazael king of Damascus, and from there go and anoint Jehu, son of Nimshi as king of Israel. Set up a rival regime in the nations. While you’re at it, anoint Elisha as your successor. It’s time for change—politically and spiritually. The kings of Damascus and Israel had their chance, but they failed, and so it’s time for another. As for Elijah, he still has work to do, but it’s also time to prepare another to take up the mantle. In the end, all who bow to Baal will fall to the sword. That is the task set before Elijah. Oh, and by the way, you’re not alone Elijah. There are seven thousand in Israel who haven’t bowed to Baal.
The word to us as the people of God is the same. Even when things look bleak, we’re not alone. There are others who are steadfast in the faith. So, get back out there. Don’t lose faith. Trust in the Lord who is present not only in the quakes and fire but in silence as well. Now, none of this is meant to downplay the realities of burnout, stress, and a sense of aloneness that many clergy feel. I know I’ve felt it. I’ve had my moments of depression over the years. So, I understand. There are times to walk away. On the other hand, there are times to persevere—in the Spirit, of course.  It is good to know, we’re not alone.

Picture Attribution: Volterra, Daniele da, ca. 1509-1566. Prophet Elijah on Mount Horeb, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46988 [retrieved June 17, 2019]. Original source: http://yorckproject.de.

 

Confused Talk — Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday (Genesis 11)

11 Now the whole earth had one language and the same words. And as they migrated from the east, they came upon a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar. Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

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                It is truly annoying when people just babble on. That phrase or concept of speech that is confused and irrelevant takes its origins from this biblical story. Whether one knows the context or not, the story of the Tower of Babel is a biblical story people seem able to envision. It is an image that has been part of our cultural landscape for centuries. Now, it appears in the lectionary in connection with Pentecost Sunday. Pentecost is concerned with the birthing of the Christian movement as the Spirit empowers this fledgling community to spread the good news across the world (I’m tempted to say globe but that might be somewhat anachronistic). If Babel has to do with the confusion languages, Pentecost might have something to do with its reversal. Or does it? The story of Babel suggests that the confusion of languages is rooted in human hubris. In some way, Pentecost is seen as a means of undoing the damage done at Babel, but perhaps not be creating a monoculture, but providing an opportunity for understanding. What is scattered is now brought back together, without the diversity being removed.
                The reading from Genesis 11 is designated as a reading from the Hebrew Bible for Pentecost Sunday. To flesh out a bit more the Pentecost setting, we must turn to Acts 2, where we find the followers of Jesus gathered in a room in Jerusalem. They’ve heard their commission to take the good news to the ends of the earth. They’ve also heard the call to wait until the Spirit comes upon them. It’s during the festival of Pentecost, when Jews gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the harvest, that the Spirit decides to descend. The gathered disciples, some 150 strong, break out in praise, each speaking a different language, a language they had not learned prior to this experience. There was a crowd of people standing outside who heard the message—each in his or her own language—and it got their attention. This led to Peter’s sermon and an altar call that led to some 3000 baptisms (or so Luke reports).
                This passage from Genesis 11 is, in the Genesis context, a self-contained story situated between genealogical listings. For our purposes, in the context of Pentecost, it provides a background to the Spirit’s provision of the gift of languages in Acts 2. What was confused becomes understandable to the glory of God. Genesis 1-11 is understood to be primeval history. It is a saga that reveals important elements of the faith but shouldn’t be understood to provide historical information. This Kairos (sacred) time, not Chronos time. If we can agree on this matter, then we’ll be able to hear the message present in the passage. We begin with the revelation that once everyone spoke the same language. The preceding chapter (chapter 10) gives us a genealogical listing of the descendants of the three sons of Noah. Thus, we would assume that the world that is migrating to the land of Shinar, as noted in this reading, are descendants of Noah and his sons Ham, Shem, and Japheth. Interestingly, the story of Babel is situated between the genealogical listings in chapter 10 and the restatement of Shem’s descendants in verse 10 of chapter11, taking us up to Abram, son of Terah. 
 
So where is the land of Shinar? The name of the city—Babel—gives us a clue that this would be a city located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley. Now, the idea that the entire world would make this journey is assuming that the human population is rather small. In fact, the founder of Babel is named in chapter 10 as Nimrod, son of Cush, son of Ham. To the original readers of this passage, this story would speak of the origins of Israel’s enemy Babylon. Of course, Babylon’s origins would be rooted in human hubris. What else would you expect? 
 
According to our story, when the migrants from the east made their way to the land of Shinar they decided to make bricks and build a city. Not only did they build a city, but they built a tower in the middle of the city so they could reach the heavens, for, of course, that’s where God (the gods) live. We know something of these towers that were prominent in the cities of Mesopotamia, including Babylon. They were known as ziggurats, towers with stairs on all sides. At the top of the tower was an altar. This was understood to be a “Stairway to Heaven” (to borrow from Led Zeppelin).  The tower had the purpose of being a place of worship. That’s understood. What’s interesting here is that they chose to build the tower to the heavens, according to this account, not for worship but so they could make a name for themselves. This was considered an evil act, one that the LORD (Yahweh) did not appreciate. Even as the denizens of Babel built their way to the heavens, the LORD came down to check things out. When it came to the contrast between the temples of Mesopotamia and those built in Israel, Peter Enns and Jared Byas note: “By contrast, Israel’s worship structures (the tabernacle and later the temple) don’t have steps going up to heaven. Instead, Israel waits for God to come down.” [Peter Enns & Jared Byas,  Genesis for Normal People, Patheos Press. Kindle loc 984].
With the tower built so that the people of Babel could make a name for themselves, lest they find themselves scattered across the land, the LORD decided to confound their plans by confusing their languages. There is a bit of fear on the part of Yahweh and the divine council. Yahweh admits that since they are one people with one language, then if something isn’t done, nothing will be impossible for them. Action is required. Now the question here is whether Yahweh is afraid of them or for them. Remember in Genesis 3, God exiles Adam and Eve so they will no longer have access to the tree of life, effectively making them immortal. Putting a barrier up kept them from engaging in actions that might ultimately be detrimental to them (or so it seems). Could the same be true here?
The view of the people of Babel seems to be that if they don’t take care of themselves, no one will. In other words, they’re not considering how God fits into the situation. Nevertheless, despite the fear that they will be scattered, the LORD, in the end, confuses their languages and scatters them across the land. And thus the nations are born (in primeval fashion). Soon Abram will appear from one of these scattered tribes, and the process of scattering will slowly be unwound (perhaps).
So, how do we hear this story at Pentecost? I noted above that Pentecost is often understood to be an unwinding of Babel, but perhaps not.  Perhaps the response of Pentecost is not a return to a mono-lingual reality, but a binding together of peoples in their diversity. Thus, Cameron B. R. Howard writes: “In the Babel account, fear is the binding agent that drives the building projects: fear of dispersal, of loss, of living with otherness. Both the Babel and the Pentecost accounts emphasize the power of human unity, without expecting human sameness, sending people out into the world to forge connections with those who are different from themselves.” [Joel B. Green, et al, Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship: 2 (Kindle Locations 9932-9934).].
So maybe difference isn’t punishment, it’s simply reality. If this is true, and I think it is, then unity is not found in uniformity but in the way in which the Spirit, who is the binding agent, removes the fear that drove the people of Babel to build the tower and drives us to build barriers to keep each other at bay. Is this not a good message for our times when fear and hubris conspire to undermine true unity in the Spirit?  


Picture Attribution: Bruegel, Pieter, approximately 1525-1569. Tower of Babel, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56948 [retrieved June 3, 2019]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder_-_The_Tower_of_Babel_(Vienna)_-_Google_Art_Project_-_edited.jpg.

 

Rosa and the General: Pentecost 24

Rosa and the General: Pentecost 24

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

November 4, 2018

Read 2 Kings 5:1-17 (CEB)

Introduction 

British author P.G. Woodehouse wrote a series of books focusing on two characters: Jeeves and Wooster (which was also a popular British television series in the early 90s).  Set in the 1920s, Betrie Wooster is a member of the idle rich. He tends to come off as very immature, a man with no goals other than hanging out with other members of high society.

Wooster was taken care of by Jeeves, his very intelligent and wise servant.  He is the one that gets Wooster out of fixes and keeps Wooster from flying off the handle.

Woodehouse’s stories remind people that the smartest person in the room is not always the one with the position or the big bank account.

Our text today deals with a number of nameless people who work to help the general, Naaman. Naaman was a great military hero,  dealing with a skin tradition. Naaman was clueless as to how to heal his condition, but a Jewish servant is able to point Naaman in the right direction. When Naaman initially refuses Elisha’s command to bathe in the Jordan River, it is another nameless servant that persuades the general to do what was asked of him.

Today, we meet Naaman and Elisha and the forgotten servants who helped Naaman see the light and be healed.

Engaging the Text

When Elisha the man of God heard that Israel’s king had ripped his clothes, he sent word to the king: “Why did you rip your clothes? Let the man come to me. Then he’ll know that there’s a prophet in Israel.”

-2 Kings 5:8

The passage opens with the first character, Naaman.  He is a mighty warrior, not in Israel, but in Aram (what is now modern-day Syria). Notice what is said in verse one about Naaman: “Naaman, a general for the king of Aram, was a great man and highly regarded by his master because through him the Lord had given victory to Aram. (Emphasis mine).  This tells us that God works not just for the Jews, but even those considered outside of the covenant.

Then we learn that Naaman has a skin disease.  Some versions will say he had leprosy, but it is more likely that he has some kind of skin disease that might make him appear like he is dying.  No one wanted to be around a guy who they think is death warmed over.

We also learn in those early passages that Aram goes on out on a raid and captures a young Jewish girl.  She is serving the wife of Naaman and then says that she wishes Naaman could go to the great prophet who lives in Israel.  This is kind of surprising.  This is a young girl that was ripped from her family and is now a servant to a foreign leader.  And yet, she was concerned about this foreigner, who took her away and maybe killed her family.

Naaman takes what the young girl has said and comes before his king who then sends a message to the king of Israel.  The king of Israel is kind of a comic character in that when he gets the letter he tears his garments, a sign of grief.  He thinks this is the end of the world, seemingly forgetting that there is a prophet that can heal Naaman.  While the young slave girl believed that Elisha could heal, the great king of Israel has forgotten that there is a prophet that can heal.

Naaman brings the bling to pay Elisha.  But Elisha isn’t interested in money.  He isn’t interested in fame. He doesn’t even come out to meet with Naaman.  Instead, he sends a messenger to tell Naaman to go out and wash seven times in the Jordan in order to be healed.

Naaman is angry. Elisha doesn’t even bother to show his face to Naaman, he just sends a servant to tell him to go and bath in what is nothing more than a muddy stream. You could also imagine he is angry because it feels like again, people are keeping their distance because of his skin condition. Again, someone that was behind the scenes steps forward to calm Naaman down.  The servant asks, “Our father, if the prophet had told you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it? All he said to you was, ‘Wash and become clean.’”  Naaman is a general and he took orders and obeyed orders.  Isn’t this just one more order to take, one that can heal you?  Naaman takes this to heart and bathes in the Jordan and his skin is healed. Naaman returns to Elisha asking him to accept a gift, which Elisha refused. Not only is Naaman’s skin healed, but he also becomes a believer of the God of the Israelites.
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Conclusion

I’ve always been fascinated by Rosa Parks.  This was a woman who was a seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama.  She was not a mover or shaker.  She was involved in the civil rights movement, but no one thought a simple seamstress, let alone a black simple seamstress could do anything that could change the world.

And yet, her refusal to give up a seat to white man and sit at the back of the bus as all African Americans were supposed to do, changed the course of history.  It started a movement, launched the career of Martin Luther King and helped the United States live up to its ideals.

I sat in the actual bus where Parks said “no.” It’s located at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. I was visiting my parents who lived up the road in Flint.  Here was a simple bus, a bus where the world changed.

In this text, there are the big people, the movers and the shakers, and the small people, the servants who weren’t even named.  But notice who were the ones that changed things.  The young slave girl told Naaman and his wife that there was someone who could heal Naaman.  The unnamed servant helps Naaman to get over himself in order to do what needed to be done to be healed.

This coming weekend is All Saints Sunday.  We tend to think of the big saints, like Francis.  But saints also include the older woman who shows up at mission events, or the developmentally disabled man who always greets you with a smile.  Saints are not necessarily famous people, but they are faithful people.  If it wasn’t for a servant girl and an unnamed servant, Naaman would remained unhealed and not knowing the God of the Israelites.  Sometimes it is the “little people” that can change the world.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

Solomon the Wise: Pentecost 23

Solomon the Wise: Pentecost 23

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 28, 2018

Read 1 Kings 3:1-28 (CEB)

Introduction 

“The Wisdom of Solomon.”

That phrase has been used in our culture as a way of saying that someone needs to have the smarts that Solomon had in order to solve a problem.

Solomon was wise.  But his wisdom was not something that was innate, it was something that came from God.

Solomon is the son of David and succeeds David as king.  Solomon’s rule is a time when the kingdom of Israel was at the height of its power.  Israel was a miniempire.  Solomon started a massive building program which included the building of the temple.  A fleet of ships was sent to far-flung places around the known world to bring back riches.  Solomon met many of the leaders of the day, including the Queen of Sheba.  Solomon brought a sense of cosmopolitan flair to Jerusalem.  Solomon, like President John Kennedy in the US, ushered in a Jewish version of Camelot. Things were good in Israel.

Or were they? As we read the text for today you have to look more closely to see that things are not perfect.  Just like President Kennedy’s time as President wasn’t the Camelot that we tend to think it was, Solomon’s actions carry within them the seeds of destruction not only for Solomon but for the entire nation of Israel as well.  Today, we learn the Wisdom of Solomon, an imperfect king trying to follow God.

Engaging the Text

Now Solomon loved the Lord by walking in the laws of his father David, with the exception that he also sacrificed and burned incense at the shrines.

-1 Kings 3:3

When people think of Solomon, they think of him in two different stages.  The first stage is when he is young and asks for wisdom.  A later version of Solomon is a man who has forgotten who he is.  He has become unfaithful to God, worshipping other gods instead of the God of Israel.  In real life, people are not all good or all bad and they are not all faithful or all not faithful.  As we learn today, Solomon was already making mistakes that would have severe consequences.

Chapter 3 opens with Solomon entering into a “marriage alliance” with the Egyptian Pharaoh. He marries not out of love, but out of politics. Marrying the Pharaoh’s daughter meant an alliance with the regional superpower which made Solomon a player on the world stage.

While aligning Israel to the Egyptian superpower through marriage had its advantages, there were also problems. For one, marrying someone who was not an Israelite was troublesome. Deuteronomy 7:3 notes that Israelites were told to not intermarry.  Why? The reason for this prohibition was that it could lead the Israelites away from God and worshipping foreign gods- which is exactly what happened to Solomon. His Egyptian bride was just the beginning. As he married other women from other nations, he would end up worshipping the gods of his wives.

Starting with verse two, we see that the people are still sacrificing in the high places. These high places were named not because they were in the mountains. In many writings, high places were not portrayed in a good light. Some saw them as a sign of their lack of loyalty to God. There are hints that the high places sometimes were places where people could worship other gods. A future king, Hezekiah, destroyed many of the high places as a way to get back to worshipping God alone. The talk about the high places could also be a foreshadowing of what will happen to Solomon: his worshipping the foreign gods of his wives.

It was at a high place that God came to Solomon in a dream. God’s first words to the king are to make a request. Solomon doesn’t take time to think about this. Instead, he blurts out that he wants wisdom. He asks for a “listening heart” or “understanding mind” to rule the people. The word wisdom in Hebrew is associated with legality and justice. In this time, the King was also the final arbiter of justice, in essence, Solomon was the Supreme Court as well as the President. God is pleased that Solomon chose…well, wisely. The king gets his wish; he has an understanding mind far beyond anyone else.

Solomon paints a portrait of a human faith.  He loves God and seeks to be faithful, and yet he is marrying foreign wives- he’ going against what God had commanded. This is not an excuse to sin, but it is a reminder that when we come to God, we bring all of ourselves, both good and bad.  Solomon wanted to be wise, to be faithful to God, but he is also doing things that will bring him trouble.

We get to see Solomon’s new found wisdom in action when two prostitutes came forward. It is telling that the king of Israel adjudicates a problem between two women on the lowest rungs of society. Both women had children. One mother rolled over during her sleep smothering the child. A mother decides to take her dead baby and switch it with the other baby. The case was about deciding who was the real mother. Solomon offers a shocking judgment: slice the living child in half and give both halves to the mothers. Was this a callous response to the women? We don’t really know. What we do know is that the judge allowed the two women to respond which revealed who was the real mother. The baby’s life is spared and Solomon gets a reputation for a wisdom that comes from God.

King Solomon was obsessed with women. Pharaoh’s daughter was only the first of the many foreign women he loved—Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, Sidonian, and Hittite. He took them from the surrounding pagan nations of which God had clearly warned Israel, “You must not marry them; they’ll seduce you into infatuations with their gods.” Solomon fell in love with them anyway, refusing to give them up. He had seven hundred royal wives and three hundred concubines—a thousand women in all! And they did seduce him away from God. As Solomon grew older, his wives beguiled him with their alien gods and he became unfaithful—he didn’t stay true to his God as his father David had done. Solomon took up with Ashtoreth, the whore goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech, the horrible god of the Ammonites.

-1 Kings 11:1-5

1 Kings 3 is not a simple story of Solomon getting wisdom. There are hints of a downfall, one that is revealed in chapter 11. “King Solomon was obsessed with women,” says the Scripture. He started worshipping the gods of his wives and he built altars to these foreign gods.

Solomon’s choice to worship these foreign gods had consequences. 1 Kings 11 notes that like his father, God would judge him for his sins:

God said to Solomon, “Since this is the way it is with you, that you have no intention of keeping faith with me and doing what I have commanded, I’m going to rip the kingdom from you and hand it over to someone else. But out of respect for your father David I won’t do it in your lifetime. It’s your son who will pay—I’ll rip it right out of his grasp. Even then I won’t take it all; I’ll leave him one tribe in honor of my servant David and out of respect for my chosen city Jerusalem.”

Looking at chapter 11, chapter 3 is cast in a more tragic light. Chapter 3 shows a king that wanted to follow God and sought God for help. If we could stay just at chapter 3 this would be a wonderful story of someone seeking to follow and rely on God. Instead, it becomes a harbinger of things to come.
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Conclusion

Solomon was an imperfect leader.  He sought to follow God, but he also did things that harmed his faith in God.  Not so different from those of us who aren’t leaders.

Solomon asked for wisdom.  In the wider culture, we tend to think wisdom is something we can earn.  Wisdom is something that comes with time, from learning life’s lessons and so on.  But in Solomon’s time, wisdom is something that came from God.  Only God could make someone wise, not us.

What does it mean in our day and age to seek wisdom from God?  We won’t be asked to settle complaints like Solomon, but wisdom can be used as we live our lives in our churches, jobs, and neighborhoods.  What does wisdom look like to you?

But Solomon’s wisdom did not last.  Solomon’s story is truly a tragedy. Solomon took Israel to the apex of its power, but that all ended because of his choices.  He was the last king of a unified Israel. After his death, the kingdom would be split in two.

In Solomon’s dream, he was offered riches, but forsook them for wisdom from God.  This was odd, since there are examples in the Bible where material wealth was a sign of God’s blessing. Jesus picks up this theme of forgoing wealth in the Sermon on the Mount.  Matthew 6:25-34 has Jesus telling the people to not worry about eating or drinking because God would care for them.  Jesus even references Solomon in his talk:

27 Who among you by worrying can add a single moment to your life? 28 And why do you worry about clothes? Notice how the lilies in the field grow. They don’t wear themselves out with work, and they don’t spin cloth. 29 But I say to you that even Solomon in all of his splendor wasn’t dressed like one of these. 30 If God dresses grass in the field so beautifully, even though it’s alive today and tomorrow it’s thrown into the furnace, won’t God do much more for you, you people of weak faith?

-Matthew 6:27-30

 

Solomon is both a model to follow and a model of how not to do something. King Solomon has feet of clay.  But if there is any gospel to be drawn from this it’s that God used Solomon even though he was imperfect.  If God can use flawed Solomon, then God can use us.  We can have the wisdom of Solomon if we rely on God.

 

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.

One Thing Leads to Another: Pentecost 22

One Thing Leads to Another: Pentecost 22

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 21, 2018

Introduction 

The news is about a congressman or senator or maybe a governor.  This elected official is expected to go far, maybe even to the White House. We hear about an affair with a woman.  The elected official goes before the cameras with their wives in hand wearing a plastered smile that hides the fury she is feeling.  The hope the official had in running for president is gone.  The official resigns their office, wondering that maybe someday he could run again- this time with a chastened heart.

Today, we move from Joshua to David, Israel’s most famous king.  He considered a man after God’s own heart, but even someone as faithful as David could fall into a scandal which is what happens in today’s text.

Today, we look at David, Bathsheba and a king’s attempt to cover up a grave sin.

Engaging the Text

David got very angry at the man, and he said to Nathan, “As surely as the Lordlives, the one who did this is demonic![g] He must restore the ewe lamb seven times over[h] because he did this and because he had no compassion.”

“You are that man!” Nathan told David. “This is what the Lord God of Israel says: I anointed you king over Israel and delivered you from Saul’s power.

-Joshua 12:5-7

The story opens with David in Jerusalem.  The text notes that it’s springtime.  War usually did not take place during the winter, so spring indicates that wars are starting up again. The text notes that kings go off to war during the spring and yet David remains in Jerusalem.

Why did David stay behind?  The text doesn’t say.  What we do know is that the primary function of a king during this period was to be a military leader. Saul was made king because of the threat from the Philistines.  Since David had assumed the role of king he was expected to go to battle, but he didn’t.  Staying behind communicated that David wasn’t acting like a king.

He sees Bathsheba bathing on the roof.  Why is she doing this?  Verse 4 seems to say she was bathing for ritual purification purposes.

David is captivated by her beauty.  He learns that this is Bathsheba the wife of Uriah.   So, David knew he was fooling with a married woman. He sends for her and she arrives at the palace.  Verse 4 in chapter 11 say that David “took” her.  What does took mean.? Was David forcibly taking Bathsheba?  The text doesn’t really say. We know that David wanted he and if we look at the verbs being used: it is apparent that David was the actor, while Bathsheba was being acted upon. 

One other, sometimes David and Bathsheba have been considered a passionate love affair, but in reality, it was at the very least one-night stand.

Sometime after the encounter, Bathsheba sends word to David that she is pregnant.  This is the only time in the passage that Bathsheba speaks.  David is in trouble and this leads to the next part of this passage.

It is important to note that Uriah was not a Jew, but a Hittite. So Uriah was an immigrant as was Bathsheba.  Did David’s actions with Bathsheba and his attempts to kill Uriah happen because they were immigrants?  We don’t know, but it is interesting that the Scripture highlights Uriah’s ethnicity.

David now has to cover up his dalliances with Bathsheba.  He recalls Uriah in the hope that he would have sex with his wife and obscure the fact that David is the father of Bathsheba’s child, not Uriah. David might have forgotten that warriors took an oath to abstain from sexual relations while in battle.  Uriah, the Hittite, was faithful to his oath.  David, the Jewish king was not faithful.

David ordered Joab, his commander-in-chief, to put Uriah at on the front lines. This action took Uriah’s life, as well as the life of several other soldiers.  The coverup was as worse as the crime.

The death of Uriah by David allowed him to marry Bathsheba and no one would know who the child’s father was. David probably thought that was the end of Uriah and the end of his problems.  

Then we read verse 27 where it says, “But what David had done was evil in the Lord’s eyes.”  David might have thought he had gotten away with literally murder, but it didn’t escape God.

Nathan was one of the court prophets.  He was one of the few people who had the authority to speak out against the king.

Nathan doesn’t directly accuse David.  Instead, he tells the parable of a man and his lamb. 

Why did Nathan use a parable?  Why didn’t Nathan accuse David directly?

The Intervarsity Commentary explains it this way:

The purpose of the parable was not only to induce David to condemn himself, but also to portray vividly the realities of the situation. Kings, if they were greedy, had the power to grab anything they wanted, and ordinary citizens were helpless. Nathan went on to point [p. 327] out how greedy David had been. In addition to his wives, he had apparently taken Saul’s concubines (8) as a symbol that he had taken over royal control from Saul. 1

David’s indiscretion and murder will have consequences for him and his family. Verse 9 notes“You have put Uriah the Hittite to death with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife; you have put him to death with the sword of the children of Ammon.” Bloodshed within his family would follow in the coming years and it would cause David grief.

David repents and Psalm 51 is the result of Nathan’s accusation. Nathan also says the child that was born would die, which is what happens.

While David had sinned and had to face the consequences, God did not forget Israel or David. David and Bathsheba have another child, named Solomon who would later succeed his father as king. God was able to bring good out of a bad situation.
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Conclusion

“For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God,” is what Romans 3:23 says describing humanity’s common lot.  David was considered a man after God’s own heart. He was considered faithful to God. Because of his faithfulness, Israel prospered.  And yet, this man sinned. Big time.

The story of David and Bathsheba is important to us for at least two reasons.  The first is that this story reminds us that we are people who sin, who sometimes wander off, that we fall short of the goal again and again.  That’s not something we like to hear, but we can’t understand God’s grace unless we understand that we are not okay.  Nathan’s parable is a story that shines a bright light on David’s sins. He has to face the music, he has to realize that he isn’t all that and a bag of chips.  He has sinned. Maybe our sin isn’t adultery, but we have all sinned and will sin in the future. A church is a meeting place of sinners, or at least it should be.  We come to church to join with other sinners to experience grace and healing. A church should be a hospital for sinners, a place where we can be made whole.

The second thing to remember is that God still uses us for God’s work in the world.  We feel God’s grace, the love that won’t let you go even when we fall short. None this means we should go and sin, but it is nice to know that we are loved even when we mess up which at least in my life is rather often.

I can’t say that I would never sin.  Neither can you. I’m human. None of us are above sin. We are capable of doing terrible things. But God has not given up on us.  There is judgment, but there is also grace.

Dennis Sanders is the Pastor at First Christian Church of St. Paul in Mahtomedi, Minnesota. He’s written for various outlets including Christian Century.