Category: pentecost

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.

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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.

You Gotta Serve Somebody: Pentecost 21

You Gotta Serve Somebody: Pentecost 21

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

October 14, 2018

Read Joshua 24:1-25 (CEB)

Introduction 

Joshua was the successor to Moses.  He had led the people across the Jordan River to begin taking the land.  Now, the land was theirs and Joshua, now an old man, wants the people to recommit to God again.

God had defeated the Egyptians, allowing for their escape. God was with them as the warred with the people living on the land promised for them.  But now as the land has been subdued, the people are being challenged.  Meeting other cultures, meant meeting other gods.  As Joshua is getting ready to pass from the scene, he wants the people to take stock of their lives and choose who they would worship or serve: the gods of their neighbors or the God that led them out of slavery? 

Today we study the farewell speech Joshua and the people of Israel’s response.

Engaging the Text

 I sent the hornetb]”>[b] before you. It drove them out before you and did the same to the two kings of the Amorites. It wasn’t your sword or bow that did this. 13 I gave you land on which you hadn’t toiled and cities that you hadn’t built. You settled in them and are enjoying produce from vineyards and olive groves that you didn’t plant.

-Joshua 24:12-13

Joshua 24 includes some of the last words of Joshua.  He was a protégé of Moses, and when Moses died, Joshua took over.  He is speaking to the people after they wandered in the desert for 40 years, after they crossed the Jordan into the Promised land, after the people had battled the inhabitants of Canaan, and after they had set up the beginnings of a nation.  It took decades, but the Israelites had arrived in more ways than one.

Instead of kicking back and enjoying their new life, God is calling them to enter into covenant with God.  Joshua gives a final speech that is in three parts: recalling God’s mighty acts, discussion the covenant and then solemnizing the covenant.  When he speaks it is in the first person, meaning that it was not simply him speaking, he was speaking with divine authority.

It’s important to note that when the Israelites conquered the different nations, that meant coming into contact with foreign gods. Joshua’s talk is a reminder to make a choice to follow God, and sometimes that choice has to made daily.

Joshua starts by recounts the story of the Israelites, showing what God had done for them; the calling of Abraham and giving he and Sarah a son named Issac.  Issac had Jacob and Esau. Leading the Israelites out of Egypt, the destruction of Pharoah’s Army, and God being with them as they battled differing nations.  God even reminds them that they were given land they didn’t toil  and living in homes they didn’t build, reminding them they didn’t do this on their own. 

Everything that the Israelites had done; winning battles against the different nations, the vineyards they planted, the cities they lived in, the fields they farmed were not done by them alone.  Joshua reminds the people that all the good things they had at this moment, came from God. It was God that brought them to this moment. And because God got them to this point, they should give thanks to God.  Joshua wasn’t saying that they should just say thanks and move on, no, they were to give thanks to God’s goodness by serving God.

This concept that God is the one who is at work in our lives is something that is hard for our modern society to understand.  For good or for ill, modern society is focused on the self. It doesn’t matter what your political orientation is, we all tend to look at our achievements as solely the result of our hard work.  In Joshua’s speech, God is continually saying that it was Yahweh that did so much for the people.  Yahweh brought Israel into being and then led them out of Egypt. It was Yahweh that defeated all the enemies of the Israelites.  Joshua tells the people they are free to worship other gods. In verse 15 God says that a choice has to be made: “then choose today whom you will serve. Choose the gods whom your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you live. But my family and I will serve the Lord.”

This is a call to choosing to follow God and it is also a call to live a life of gratitude. One of my Old Testament professors at Seminary shared his view on how people take communion and how that has changed over time.  In the past, the congregants would come to the communion table in fear and trembling. They didn’t even take the bread, but opened their mouths and the pastor would place it on their tongues like a mother bird to her chicks.  In modern times, people come joyfully to the table, take the bread and wine and had back to their seats almost skipping.

In the future, the professor envisioned church members stomping down the aisle to the communion table.  The pastor shakes in fear. These members grab their bread and wine and then stomp back to their pew.

His little tale brought a few laughs in the room, but there was some seriousness about it.  It showed how one can go from having a grateful and humble heart to thinking that they don’t really need God and in fact, God should be honored they are doing this. We can go from gratitude to a sense of entitlement, thinking God didn’t do anything for us.

Joshua was trying to remind his people that their lives are not simply their own.  The Israelites were part of something bigger than themselves. They were part of God’s salvation story, God’s attempt to redeem creation from the bondage of sin.  

At the end of the passage, the people recommit to following Yahweh. Of course, the Israelites would forget what God had done in their lives.  Joshua knew this. But at that moment, the Israelites get it. They will strive to live the life of a servant.

In some ways, this reminds us that we say “yes” to God day after day.  It isn’t just a “one and done” debate. People in recovery usually say that the road to sobriety is one day at a time.

Conclusion

I heard a phrase a lot when I was growing up.  It’s phrase you hear a lot in the black church.  “God woke me up this morning and started me on my way.”  When I was a kid, I had a hard time understanding this. Was God sitting next to my bed and maybe nudging me to wake up?  

As I got older, I began to understand what that meant; it means that our lives are not are own.  God has done wonderous things for us and our response is a life of service to God and to our sisters and brothers.  It’s to enter into God’s continuing salvation story and see how we can model and show what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Do we see that the God that demanded allegiance to the Israelites long ago, also demands our allegiance?  We are being asked who we will serve.  We can choose the ways of the world that leads to “death” or will we choose the one who brought us salvation through Jesus Christ.

Choose this day who you will serve. Who will you serve? As singer  Bob Dylan says, “you gotta serve somebody.”

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

Ten Words from God: Pentecost 20

Ten Words from God: Pentecost 20

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 30, 2018

Introduction 

In the waning days of the Roman Empire, a monk named Benedict wrote a document that would direct how his fellow monks would live.  Used by Benedictine monks for 15 centuries, the Rule of St. Benedict laidout how monks were to live in a communal environment.  The rule provides order as well as helping the monks foster a sense of the relational nature of humans.

The Israelites crossed the sea and are now  “safe” on the other side.  Pharaoh and his army are gone. No more Egyptians to worry about.  But now they were out in the wilderness where they faced many unexpected challenges. In Egypt,  they followed Egyptian laws, but they weren’t in Egypt anymore.  They were now out in the wilderness. Rules were needed to help everyone get along outside the structure of Egyptian society and law. Common expectations and community norms were needed. The needed a rule, like the the Rule of St. Benedict.

As the people journey together, Moses presents them with a new Law from God.   The core of God’s Law for the Israelites is the Ten Commandments. Received by Moses and delivered to God’s people, these laws became important not only among the Israelites but also to many cultures and governments around the world.  In our own nation today, the Ten Commandments are widely accepted as social and spiritual norms.

It is important to note that the Ten Commandments were given to the Jews (actually the male Jewish head of households) and were not intended for universal use.  That said, we they can help us understand how we should live as Christians, what God expects from us and how following rules can be seen as an act of grace.

Engaging the Text

The Lord called to him from the mountain, “This is what you should say to Jacob’s household and declare to the Israelites: You saw what I did to the Egyptians, and how I lifted you up on eagles’ wings and brought you to me. So now, if you faithfully obey me and stay true to my covenant, you will be my most precious possession out of all the peoples, since the whole earth belongs to me.

-Exodus 19:3-5

It’s easy to see the Ten Commandments as rules to be on God’s good side.  But that’s not really what they are about.  In fact that aren’t really about us at all.  Theologian Rolf Jacobson notes that there are two things the Ten Commandments don’t do; they aren’t a pathway to salvation and they aren’t there to make you a better you.  Jacobson says the following:

The first is that God does not give the law as a means to salvation. To use the law to earn salvation, to win your soul’s way into heaven, is like trying to build a faster-than-the-speed-of-light spaceship or a time-travel machine out of plywood. It’s not possible. And neither is it possible to earn salvation through the law. God does not give the law as a way to establish relationship with the people. God establishes the relationship and then gives the law.

That leads to the second point about the law. It isn’t about “us,”per se. God does not give you and me the law in order to perfect us or even to make us a better “you”or a better “me.”The law is not about us — it is about our neighbors. God gives you the law, not so that you can get more spiritual or have your best life now, but so that your neighbor can have her best life now.1

The Ten Commandments are for our neighbor and for God.  How do we relate to our neighbors?  How do we relate to God?  We aren’t blessed when we do good, but when we do good to the other and the other does good to us.

The first four commandments deal with our relationship to God.  The next four deal with our relationship to others and the last two deals with the desires of the heart.

We will look briefly at each commandment starting with the first one.

You shall have no other God’s before me. Don’t put anything or anyone ahead of God.  We are to pledge sole alligence to God. When we fail to love God, our neighbor is affected. As Jacobson notes, “When we center our lives around things other than God — whether it be money, fame, power, pleasure, beauty, even religion, or anything else — our neighbors will pay.”

 Don’t make yourself an idol. God is supposed to come first over everything.  It is easy to think we could love God and something else, but God commands that there are to be no idols.

 Don’t use the name of God wrongly.We call upon God to forgive us when we sin, to offer praise, to seek healing. God’s name is powerful so we should use it with care.

Take the Sabbath off.    The Sabbath is a day to worship God, but more importantly, it is usually about rest and fairness. This commandment gives the poor a day of rest. It is also a reminder that in Egypt, the Israelites had to work without a day off. Now they are free from having to work all the time, so take the time to rest.

Relating to Others.The next four focus on who we take care of our neighbors.  That includes are parents. The first one of these commandments, honoring your parents is about loving the other, our neighbors.  In a more modern tone, we are to care for the elderly in our midst.  We are also not to take the life of another (again, to murder is to not care for the other), not stealing and not having sex with a person’s spouse.  Again, we don’t do these things to get on God’s good side, but we do it for the benefit of the neighbor.

State of the Heart. The last two commandments deal with the heart.  Don’t bear false witness against a neighbor and don’t covet anything of the neighbor.

An aside about how Jews might see the Ten Commandments. Protestant Christians tend to look at law and gospel or grace differently than Jews.  Starting with Martin Luther, we emphasize grace and sometimes see the law as something that is archaic and has nothing to do with our faith.

Jews, however, see this differently.  They see the law as a response to God’s goodness.  Theologian Geoff McElroy explains: 

At first glance the Decalogue seems to be a list of regulations, and that’s what we assume they are, a list of do nots.  But maybe they are more like a framework through which life, specifically life with God, is interpreted.

Jewish tradition about the Decalogue gets this in a way that post-Pauline Christianity has seemed to have lost.  For many Christians, the Ten Words are “law” vis-à-vis the gospel or good news of God revealed in Jesus and even though we’ll still think following them is a good thing, they are seen as something distinct from the concept of God’s grace, as things that we as humans have failed to live up to and thus we need saving.

But in Jewish tradition, the Ten Words are a response to grace.  The Jews traditionally order their commandments differently; what the Jews regard as the first commandment or word, many Christians just dismiss as a prologue or introduction to the commandments.  But in Jewish tradition, the first commandment is not to have “no other gods before me,” but is instead: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the  land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery”  (Exo 20:2).

In other words, the first word of life with God is to, “Remember what God has done for you!” 2

Conclusion

As Christians, especially  Protestants, it’s easy to look at the Ten Commandments as rules to follow or rules that weigh us down, take away our fun.  Because we are all children of the Reformation, Protestants tend to believe in grace over law.  That we are saved by grace is the central message that reformers like Luther and Calvin.

However, these passages were originally written by and for Jews,  so we need to see how Jews responded to these Commandments.  Jews tend to see the Ten Commandments or Ten Words as a response to grace.  The Ten Commandments are a response to grace.   The law is the vehicle for grace.  

It’s important to realize that the first commandment in the Jewish tradition is not You should haven’t other gods before God.  Instead, the first commandment is “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the  land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.”

It’s these sentences that the rest of the commandment flows from.  The rules that follow are not God keeping tabs as it is a response to what God has done.  If God has shown mercy to you, then you are to not make idols to other Gods.  If God has led you out of Egypt, then you are to care for the elderly.  If God has loosed the bonds of slavery, then you are to not steal or covet anything your neighbor has.

Theologian Thomas Long has likened following the Ten Commandments to a dance.  He writes:

The Decalogue begins with the good news of what the liberating God has done and then describes the shape of the freedom that results. If we want to symbolize the presence of the Ten Commandments among us, we would do well to hold a dance. The good news of the God who set people free is the music; the commandments are the dance steps of those who hear it playing. The commandments are not weights, but wings that enable our hearts to catch the wind of God’s Spirit and to soar.3

Like the Ten Commandments,  Communion reminds us of God’s wondrous acts of freedom through Jesus Christ.  How will we respond?  If God has freed us, then we should take the bread and wine with great joy, learning to follow God’s ways in joyous response.  We will fail at times, but God forgives us and we are reminded again of God’s love.  

  1. Rolf Jacobson, Working Preacher, June 15, 2014.
  2. Geoff McElroy, Desert Scribblings, 2008 (http://gmcelroy.typepad.com/desertscribblings/)
  3. Thomas G. Long, Christian Century, March 7, 2006, p.17.

 

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

The Final Showdown: Pentecost 19

The Final Showdown: Pentecost 19

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 30, 2018

Introduction 

In our last lesson, we talked about Joseph the great-grandson of Abraham who was sold in slavery in Egypt.  He becomes the head caretaker in the house of Potiphar, only to be pestered by Potiphar’s wife and her advances.  He is then falsely accused when he rejects her temptations and is placed in jail.

But all is not lost for Joseph.  We are told over and over in this story that God was with Joseph and indeed, God was present in both good times and in times that were challenging.  He is released from prison becomes the most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh, and saves his family from a local famine.  Pharaoh invites all of Joseph’s kin come and live in Egypt, a happy ending. But of course, it wasn’t a happy ending.  Today we talk about Joseph’s descendents as they leave the place that was one a refuge and became of place of hardship.

Engaging the Text

13 But Moses said to the people, “Don’t be afraid. Stand your ground, and watch the Lord rescue you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never ever see again. 14 The Lord will fight for you. You just keep still.”

-Exodus 14:13-14

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.

Pharaoh sends his army on chariots to catch the Hebrews who are stopped at the seashore.  Word gets to the Hebrews of the advancing Egyptian army who naturally, freak out.

Moses tells the people to calm down.  See God’s work of salvation at hand.  God was going to save the Hebrews once and for all in spectacular fashion.

It seems that God is working long before the showdown at the sea.  Jewish commentaries note that God had the Hebrews take a circuitous route to the promised land instead the more direct route- which would make a great escape route back to Egypt if things got dicey.  This wandering would make it seem like the Israelites were lost, which then prompted the Egyptians to attack. (Beshalach Aliyah Summary, Chabad.org.)

It’s important to note that the two pillars that led the Hebrews, a cloud and fire are examples of God’s presence.

While the common story is that the Hebrews crossed the Red Sea, some biblical scholars think they crossed the Reed Sea, which is shallow and surrounded by marshy land.  East winds can push the water away. The Egyptian army gets bogged down in the soggy soil.

Did all of this happen at the Red Sea or the Reed Sea?  If it’s the Reed Sea, how could the Egyptian army be drowned in shallow water? Who knows.  The story was handed down orally and there  is a possibility the story became “bigger” with each telling. Whether it happened at the Red See or the Reed Sea; whether it was winds that pushed away the shallow water or a huge wall of water is not the main point of the passage.  The point is that God saves the Hebrews from oppression.  The people see the power of God and place their trust in God.

 

 

Conclusion

This text is a well-known one not simply because the story has been told over and over, but because of movies that have dramatized the event.  In Cecil B. DeMille’s Ten Commandments the most memorable scene is when Moses (played by Charleston Heston) lifts up his rod and the mighty waters are swept away for provide a corridor for escape. 

While we know Hollywood’s telling of this story, what does this story have to do with our own story?  How do we see ourselves in this larger story?

The story of the Israelites in Egypt has been a story that resonated with African Americans.  Bogged down by slavery and then official segregation, Blacks in the United States looked to these passages as assurance that God was on the side of the oppressed and that someday, Pharaoh would be toppled.

Beyond this application, what does this story mean to you?  What does the liberation of a people thousands of years ago by God have anything to do with us today?

 

 

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

The Young and the Restless: Pentecost 18

The Young and the Restless: Pentecost 18

Narrative Lectionary Reflection

September 23, 2018

Read Genesis 39:1-23 (CEB)

Introduction 

Americans love a good “rags to riches” story. We love hearing about the poor man (it is usually a man in these stories) who works hard and becomes a rich person.  The person who helped plant these stories in the American imagination was Horatio Alger.  His books, written in the 19th century, focused on you teenage boys who either worked hard or committed some act of bravery that brings the boy wealth and riches. The story basically says that if you work hard, then good things will happen to you.   A religious version of this has taken hold in modern times. Called the Prosperity Gospel it says that if you follow God, you will be blessed financially.

On its surface, the story of Joseph seems like a Horatio Alger story.  He was the youngest son in a large family that was sold by his brothers to Egypt.  He is now a slave.  But then fortuned steps in and he ends up in a place of honor.  But the story here is not about Joseph working hard as it was about God being with Joseph in the good times and the bad.  So, let’s look at Jospeh as he works in Potiphar’s house.

Engaging the Text

Now Joseph was taken down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. 2The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man; he was in the house of his Egyptian master. 3His master saw that the Lord was with him, and that the Lord caused all that he did to prosper in his hands. 4So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him; he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had.

-Genesis 39:1-4

Before we go into today’s text, some backstory.  In our last lesson, we see God speaking to Abraham about being the father of a great nation.  After a long wait, God’s promise came true in the form of Issac.  Issac later had two sons, Jacob and Essau. Joseph was the son of Jacob who happened to be the grandson of Abraham.  God had kept God’s promise- a nation is being built through the family of Abraham.

Joseph was the youngest of Jacob’s sons. We start to see a textbook case of sibling rivalry. Jacob doted on his youngest, keeping him from doing the really hard work. He even gave him a fancy robe, something his brothers didn’t get.

Of course, his older brothers hated their little brother.  But they didn’t react by whining.  Instead, they wanted to kill Joseph.  Ruben, one of the brothers was able to disuade his brothers from offing Joseph.  Instead, Joseph was sold into slavery and was soon on his way to Egypt.

So now Joseph is in Egypt.  He is far from home, far from his family.  But even when things might seem dark for Joe the passage notes that “the Lord was with Joseph.” That phrase is used 4 times in this passage and it is the phrase on which this whole story hangs on. Theologian Walter Brueggemann that this phrase is not that with God, everything will work out.  He notes that three times the word is used when Joseph finds success. But the fourth time it is used is when Joseph is not successful.  In essence this phrase goes against prevailing wisdom of the culture.  God was not the good luck charm, but something very different.

Verse 2 notes that Joseph was “successful” meaning that he was making progress and indeed he was.  He ended up as the personal attendant of Potiphar and the guy in charge of the day-to-day handling of Potiphar’s house.

Throughout these early verses of chapter 39, we find that God is continually looking out for Joseph and even bless those who treat him kindly.  It seems like things were going well for Joseph and one could just end the story here, with Joseph in a nice job in an exotic locale and away from his jealous brothers.

his is where the story veers from local-boy-does-good to something out of a soap opera.  The wife of Potiphar is attracted to Joseph and more than once begs, pleads for Joseph to take part in some hanky panky.

By this point, Joseph might be in his mid 20s and according to some scholars the outfit he wore what could be considered shorts and a t-shirt.  Which means that in the eyes of Potiphar’s wife, Joseph is a hottie.

Joseph was in a pickle.  He had to obey the wife of Potiphar, but he knew he was entrusted to look after Potiphar’s household and he also knew of his covenant with God. “How could I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” he says.

Potiphar’s wife is anything if not persistent.  She keeps trying to tempt Joseph until one day she grabs Joseph and seems to jump right out of his clothes to get away from her.

There is a lot that can be unpacked from this encounter.  One way to think about this is that Joseph was tempted. Jewish midrash suggests that Joseph was a sexual being that was tempted to have a fling with Potiphar’s wife.  But the midrash goes on to say that just a the moment he gives in he remembers his relatives. Jewish theologian Louis Ginzberg explains:

[Zuleika] stood before him suddenly in all her beauty of person and magnificence of raiment, and repeated the desire of her heart. It was the first and the last time that Joseph’s steadfastness deserted him, but only for an instant. When he was on the point of complying with the wish of his mistress, the image of his mother Rachel appeared before him, and that of his aunt Leah, and the image of his father Jacob.… The vision of the dead, and especially the image of his father, brought Joseph to his senses.1

The midrash shows Joseph was a human being who was tempted, but remembers who he is and comes to his senses. 

Bruggeman sees this as a set up between God and empire, with Joseph and Potiphar’s wife as stand-ins for each. Her desire to take advantage of Joseph is an example of the powerful seeing themselves beyond the reach of the Torah and ultimately God.  But Joseph saw this as a road to ruin. ” How could I do this terrible thing and sin against God?” he says.

Joseph’s story is not unlike the temptation that so many politicians face. You could see this story play itself out in our hall of power, our state capitals, Congress and the White House.  He could have said yes to the temptations of what Brueggeman calls “empire” or what some say the ways of the world, but he had to say “no.”  This was not God’s way.2

Realizing that she was never going to get her man, Potiphar’s wife then runs to her husband and makes up a story of Joseph trying to take advantage of her.  His days at the House of Potiphar were over.

But God was with Joseph. The common punishment for rape in that time as death, not imprisonment. Why didn’t Potiphar have Joseph executed? Is this an example of God being with Joseph? Potiphar might have known what his wife was doing and opted for the least bad option.  

But Joseph is now back at square one.  He went from running the house of one of the most powerful men in Egypt to now being a common criminal.  But then there’s that phrase again: the Lord was with Jospeh. Joseph ended up being the person in charge of all the other prisoners.  He was still a prisoner, but something good came out of this injustice.

This is where the story ends.  We learn later that Joseph is released from prison and becomes second in command to the Pharaoh. He saves Egypt from famine as well as his family who come to live with him. Through the good times and the bad, the Lord was with Joseph.

 

 

Conclusion

What does it mean to be blessed?  There is a common understand among some people that God means for us to be happy and wealthy. The Prosperity Gospel mentioned earlier that God intends for good things and when those good things happen, God is blessing us.

But is blessing only about good things?  Joseph was good person, maybe even blessed, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming sold by his brothers or getting falsely accused or ending up in prison.  

The Lord was with Joseph.  That phrase tells us a lot.  No matter what was going on in Joseph’s life, God was with him.  God was with him as he rose to favored position in Potiphar’s house and was there when Joseph was in prison.

We all need to be blessed.  But that blessing is not about having it all.  God blessed Joseph by being present in Joseph’s life and Joseph responded by following God, even if it meant losing it all.

In Paul’s letter to the Romans he says in chapter 8 verse 28 that “all things work together for good[a] for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The point of this verse isn’t that good can come out of some horrible experience as it has sometimes been interpreted as. No, it is that God remembers us in the good times and the bad.

 

There is a saying that I’ve heard many times over the years.  It’s goes like this, “God is good. All the time. All the time, God is good.”  God is good. Sometimes we have a hard time believing this. We might wonder where was God during certain points of our lives.  We may wonder if God is good when we are diagnosed with cancer. Was God good when a child dies? How about when your job is eliminated and you are left wondering how in the world you are going to make it financially.  

But the reality is, God is good, not because God is a spiritual Superman that comes in and saves the day.  God is good because we are not forgotten by God. God didn’t forget Joseph.

The rest of the story of Joseph is that he is freed from prison and again rises in power to become the second most powerful person in the land of Egypt.  He reunites with his brothers whom he forgives. His whole family moves to Egypt and after Jacob dies, his brothers wonder if he will bear a grudge. Joseph responds, “ Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”

All of us who call ourselves Christ followers are blessed by God.  We are blessed in the good days, when we have a good job and good health and we are blessed when we are laid off and dealing with a chronic disease. God is there working for the good of all, working to remind us we are loved by God and that God is always with us.

 

  1. Ginzburg, Louis. The Legend of the Jews. The Jewish Publication Society, Philadelphia, 2003.
  2. Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis: Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (p. 313). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Louisville, 1986.

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

A House for the Lord – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9B (2 Samuel 7)

A House for the Lord – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 9B (2 Samuel 7)

2 Samuel7:1-16 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, the king said to the prophet Nathan, “See now, I am living in a house of cedar, but the ark of God stays in a tent.” Nathan said to the king, “Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you.”

 

But that same night the word of the Lord came to Nathan: Go and tell my servant David: Thus says the Lord: Are you the one to build me a house to live in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David: Thus says the Lord of hosts: I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth. 10 And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may live in their own place, and be disturbed no more; and evildoers shall afflict them no more, as formerly, 11 from the time that I appointed judges over my people Israel; and I will give you rest from all your enemies. Moreover the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. 12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me. When he commits iniquity, I will punish him with a rod such as mortals use, with blows inflicted by human beings. 15 But I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.

 

*******************
                As we have moved through 2 Samuel, we have seen David consolidate power. He had mourned over Saul, but willingly took control of the nation, though that took time. Remember he reigned over Judah for seven years at Hebron, before making Jerusalem his capital. As we arrive at chapter 7, David has reached the peak of power. Now, he has time to ponder the future. He looks around, sees he has a palace made of cedar, but the Ark still resides in a tent.  It’s time to build something more permanent, something grander. He confesses his desire to build a home for God to the prophet Nathan, who initially gives the okay. But, as we will see as we read further, God has other ideas.
                Nathan thought that David was on to something. Now that the kingdom of Israel had stabilized under David’s leadership, with a permanent capital, allowing David to build a nice palace out of cedar, surely it was time for God to settle down and have a permanent domain. Israel’s days of being a nomadic people seemed to be over. Later, after Nathan returned home, God spoke to him and suggested that Nathan had been a little hasty in agreeing to David’s plans.
                The message God sent to David through Nathan wasn’t quite a rebuke, but a reminder that God was not bound by a particular place. God had been moving with the people, living in tents, since Israel left Egypt. In fact, Yahweh had never had a permanent shrine (God apparently forgot about the shrine at Shiloh, where Eli presided, and Samuel apprenticed). In this word given to David through Nathan, Yahweh wanted David to know that no request for a permanent home had ever been made by God. Yahweh was perfectly happy, living in the Tent, following the people wherever they went. In other words, God isn’t tied to a particular place. David’s successor might build a Temple, but the Temple is of less importance here. Instead, we have the establishment of a new covenant relationship. God promises to make David a house for God by establishing forever David’s lineage.
                This chapter marks an important sea change in the Deuteronomic history of Israel. Here we have the establishment of a Davidic theology, that will stand alongside the covenant theology that has provided a foundation for Israel’s life. Remember that earlier in 1 Samuel, God gave in to Israel’s demand for a king. Now, the promise is given to David that his lineage will go on forever. God doesn’t need a Temple to dwell in, if God is going to dwell within David and his line.
                The lectionary creators end the passage in verse 14, where God promises to be the father to David’s successor, and he will be a son to God. That has a certain messianic feel. For Christians Jesus is the son, and God is the father. That might be the reason why we stop here, but the passage goes on to say that God might punish David’s successor, but unlike God dealt with Saul, “Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever” (vs. 16).  If, as we suppose, the final form of this book was written during the exile, this promise would provide important encouragement to a people who lived without Temple and king. If God is faithful to God’s promises, then the nation will continue. There will be a lasting legacy built upon the promise made to David. A king will arise. Now, moving forward no Davidic king would emerge. After the exile ended, a Temple was built, but no Davidic king arose. This, of course, gave room for messianic theologies, including the one that Jesus took hold of, to emerge.
                For Christians reading this passage, which appears as well in the season of Advent (2 Sam. 1-11, 16 is designated for Advent 4B), this passage undergirds the promise of incarnation. It supports Mary’s song, where she declares that “He will be made great, and will be called the Son of the Most High” (Lk 1:31-33). Bruce Birch writes of this promise, “To read God’s enduring promise to David in this text today is to be reminded of the roots and challenge of our own messianic hope. To trust in God’s promise to David and to claim Jesus has having been born into the line of that promise is to understand God’s work as being endlessly engaged with the issues of justice and power that must be faced to establish God’s kingdom in every age. In the light of this biblical promise, the church must understand its own faith as being endlessly engaged with these same realities” [Bruce Birch, “1 & 2 Samuel,” NIB, 2:1259-12-60].
                We can read this passage with disinterest, seeing it as little more than annals of the history of a long dead kingdom, or we can read it as a promise of incarnation. God needs no building to achieve God’s promises, because God is present in the line of David, which for Christians leads to Jesus, the Christ (messiah).  As Joni Sanken notes, regarding the church, “as Christ’s body here and now, is called to be a dwelling place for God and to acknowledge all God’s people. Our congregations must work to be spaces where everyone can be ‘someone’ and all can feel at home—even those whom society renders invisible” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, p. 333]. In other words, the messianic movement is a continuation (not a replacement) of the promise made to David, that God would be with David forever.

Picture attribution: Leighton of Stretton, Frederic Leighton, Baron, 1830-1896. David, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55615 [retrieved July 16, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Frederick_Leighton_-_David.jpg.

                 10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_n Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.

 

Life-Giving Breath of God – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday

Life-Giving Breath of God – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost Sunday

Ezekiel 37:1-14 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

37 The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all around them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, “Mortal, can these bones live?” I answered, “O Lord God, you know.” Then he said to me, “Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.”
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, “Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” 10 I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude. 

 11 Then he said to me, “Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.’ 12 Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. 14 I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”

 

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                When it comes to the church, the future can look bleak. At least in Europe and North America the church is retreating in the face of an ever more secular world. Christendom appears to be dead. While Christianity retains vestiges of the old ways, it has lost much of its cultural/social influence. There are those who cling to the stories of past glory and try to worm their way into positions of influence. It happens on the right and on the left. Where once the church was the religious face of empire, it has been replaced by other figures. Therefore, a more appropriate image for the church’s place in society might be exile. Thus, the words of prophets like Ezekiel can resonate, speaking words of hope to us in these challenging times.
The prophet Ezekiel is known for his imagery, and none of his images are as eye-catching as the valley dry bones. This image is an animator’s dream fulfillment. But what message does it convey? What did Ezekiel’s original audience take from it, and what does it offer to us as we gather on Pentecost Sunday? What word does it deliver concerning the life-giving presence of God, which blows into the community on Pentecost Sunday bringing life where once death seems to reign?
Pentecost Sunday is understood by many in the church to be the birthday celebration of the church. We wear red and perhaps make worship a little livelier. There’s no place on this day for sad faces. It’s a day to party, because the Spirit descends upon us, empowering our witness to the risen Christ, who now sits at the right hand of the Father. Life is restored, where death had reigned.
The story of Pentecost appears in the second chapter of the Book of Acts. It is a well-worn text that offers insight and encouragement. But what does Ezekiel offer us? What word does it speak to us? Perhaps the word it speaks is that there is life in the midst of exile. The word from Ezekiel challenges triumphalist visions, while providing us with a foundation to hear the promise of the life-giving Spirit that moves through the community empowering our witness.
The Pentecost story begins some ten days after the ascension of Jesus. The disciples (150 of them) are gathered in what we know as the “the upper room.” They appear to be praying, as they had been instructed by Jesus (Acts 1). Jesus had promised to send the Spirit, all they had to do was wait. When the Spirit came upon them, they would experience renewal and new life, and would be empowered to preach the good news to the world, moving from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. All they had to do was wait. Finally, on the Day of Pentecost (a major Jewish festival), the Spirit fell upon the disciples. They began to preach. Revival broke out. People responded and were baptized (some 3000 according to Acts). Thus, the church is born, and their mission begins, one that extends to us (Acts 2).
                The first reading for Pentecost Sunday comes from Ezekiel 37 (unless you choose to read Acts 2 in this spot), which speaks to a people living in exile. They are discouraged, wondering if they will ever return home. In other words, they have experienced death. God gives to Ezekiel a word to share with the people of Judah in the form of a vision. He is taken in the Spirit to a valley filled with dry bones. This is Israel. It is a nation of dead, bleached bones. Would the nation be restored? Or would they live out their lives in exile, a people without a country. God says to Ezekiel—prophesy to these bones. Tell them to let God’s breathe enter them so that they might be restored to life. So, Ezekiel did as he was told. He called for the four winds to come and breathe life into the bones. The winds came, and the breath of the Spirit filled the bones. They began to come together. Life returned to the bones. To those who doubt that life can be restored to Israel, Ezekiel is directed to say to the people: “I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.”
                What word do we hear from Ezekiel on this Day of Pentecost? Is there a word of hope here for the church that is, it would seem, experiencing exile? Christendom has died, at least in Europe and North America. Churches are experiencing difficult times, with aging congregations, declining attendance, and financial challenges. There is a sense of hopelessness creeping through the church. We see it expressed in a variety of ways, including grabs for power or sense of resignation. So, what work of the Spirit should we expect in our age? Are we that valley of dry bones? Is there a wind of the Spirit present that will fill us with the breath of God?
                The church may never again reach the levels of power it once wielded, but that does not mean that there is no hope. The days when the church defined the public square is over, but God has not been banished. We still have voices to proclaim the glory of God. We can call upon the four winds, inviting them to fill the valley of dry bones, bringing to life communities that can embody and declare the glory of God before the world. As John McClure puts it: “The story of dry bones takes place at the intersection of human weakness and divine power. It reminds us that God’s power is made great in our weakness, and that the power of the church wields is not the power of the sword, but the power of God’s Spirit working through the Word proclaimed” [Preaching God’s Transforming Justice, Year B, p. 255].

                The church is called to proclaim and embody the Gospel. We do this in a variety of ways, but ultimately this is about the Spirit, who empowers and guides us in this work of God. We are participants in the proclamation of the Gospel in word and deed, but ultimately this isn’t about us. It’s about the Spirit. Yes, Ezekiel played a role. He spoke the words. He called for the winds. But it was the Spirit and not Ezekiel that gave life to the bones. It is the Spirit who gave life to the church on Pentecost and on every day of every year. With that we go forth with hope.

Elkan, Benno, 1877-1960. Ezekiel in the Valley of the Dry Bones, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55841 [retrieved May 14, 2018]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Collantes,_Francisco_-_The_Vision_of_Ezekiel_-_1630.jpg.

10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nRobert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He holds the Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary. He is the author of a number of books including Out of the Office (Energion, 2017), Marriage in Interesting Times (Energion, 2016), and Freedom in Covenant (Wipf and Stock, 2015) and blogs at Ponderings on a Faith Journey.