Tag: Divine Presence

A House of Splendor, a Home for God —A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 22C (Haggai 2)

Cologne Cathedral
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 

1:15b In the second year of King Darius, 2:1 in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: 2 Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, 3 Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? 4 Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, 5 according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 6 For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; 7 and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. 8 The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 9 The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.

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                From the time that Solomon erected the Temple in Jerusalem, it served as the center of Israel’s life (after the kingdom divided it was the center of life for the kingdom of Judah, but I’m using the terms interchangeably here as by the time we get to Haggai the kingdom of Israel no longer existed). When the  Babylonians came early in the 6th century that Temple was destroyed and its fixtures, including the Ark of the Covenant, were taken away. Where the Ark landed, no one knows, though the search for it goes on (Remember Indiana Jones’ search for it in Raiders of the Lost Ark?).  When the exile ended around 538 BCE, after the Persians brought down the Babylonian Empire, permission was given to rebuild the Temple. According to the book of Ezra, this occurred in the first year of Cyrus’ rule in Persia (Ezra 1). For our purposes that is occurred in 538 BCE. When Haggai comes on the scene it’s been eighteen years, and the Persian rebuilding program that was authorized hasn’t gotten very far, and Haggai isn’t happy.

When we pick things up in the book of Haggai, we’re in the second year of the reign of King Darius I (520 BCE). In this reading from Haggai, the prophet addresses Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the High Priest. He encourages them to get busy with work on the Temple so that it might reflect the splendor of God. Note here that Zerubbabel, though a descendant of David, is not a king but governor appointed by the Persians. It doesn’t appear that Haggai has in mind the restoration of the monarchy, though his contemporary Zechariah does seem to envision a king arising (perhaps Zerubbabel) who will rebuild the Temple (Zech. 6:12). Haggai, like Zechariah, is interested in rebuilding the Temple so that it might again serve as the fulcrum of Judaic life. Whatever work had been done on rebuilding the Temple was insufficient. Haggai asks those who might have seen the original Temple whether whatever had been erected in the past eighteen years was anything like what had existed previously. Had anyone seen it in its previous glory? Now, we’re taking nearly seventy years here, so the number of people who remembered the previous Temple would be small if they were present at all. Nevertheless, Haggai’s point is that this dump isn’t worthy of the God of Israel. This isn’t a domicile worthy of the one who had called the people of Israel out of Egypt. Therefore, Joshua the priest and Zerubbabel the governor needed to get to work on bringing this about so that it might again reflect the splendor of God.

The word that Zerubbabel and Joshua hear is “be strong” and get to work because the Lord of Hosts is with them. Remember Egypt and the promises God made to the people as God led them out of Egypt. The former Temple might have been destroyed, but God is still present and will provide what is needed to rebuild. Just get busy! It is interesting that Haggai understands that God can live without a house, but that a house serves an important role as a symbol of God’s splendor.  

 

To add a bit of drama, Haggai speaks in apocalyptic terms. Heaven and earth will quake. Then the wealth of the nations, the silver and gold that belongs to God, will shake out and fall into the Temple so that this place would be a place of prosperity. Note here who is responsible for this. It’s God. God will bring glory and splendor to the people, but they have to build the Temple as a prerequisite. Things might seem bad, but there is hope, for God is with them!

Now this word about the Temple and the splendor that Haggai envisions might be a bit off-putting to some in our day. I remember vividly the cover of the Christian satirical magazine The Wittenberg Door after the erection of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. The accompanying article listed all the good things that could be accomplished with the eighteen million dollars expended to build that glass house. Ironically this famous building, which was as much a tourist attraction as a church, was sold to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange to serve as its cathedral after the original congregation declared bankruptcy. Now, this building was an expression of a certain vision of God and the church—Schuller’s message about “possibility thinking” (a version of Norman Vincent Peale’s “Power of Positive Thinking”). Unfortunately for the congregation fame was fleeting, as was the vision of “possibility thinking” (though the prosperity gospel still attracts plenty of adherents, leading to the building of new temples.

The lesson of the Crystal Cathedral could be anti-building, but perhaps it’s not the right model for understanding Haggai’s message. Consider the great temples and cathedrals spread across the globe, many of which continue to be centers of worship and pilgrimage centuries and even millennia after their creation. My own recent visits to the cathedrals in Speyer, Strasbourg, and Cologne brought me into contact with awe-inspiring buildings that continue to be expressions of splendor. Is it divine splendor or human splendor? That is a question that one must answer by faith, I think. The fact is, for many people, these buildings are more than tourist attractions (they are that as well), but they are expressions of divine presence. Indeed, during my own visits to these great centers of worship, I at times felt that divine presence, taking me from being a tourist to a pilgrim.

We live at a time when the position of many people of faith is that buildings are irrelevant. There’s nothing sacred about them. Why a building? Isn’t God everywhere? Can’t I be with God out in the forest or on a mountain? Of course, I’ve felt that presence standing on a mountain, but does that mean buildings have no sacred value? Or could it be, that buildings do have their place as sacred locations where we can encounter the divine presence on earth as in heaven?     

There are material temples and there are spiritual ones. Both, I think, have their place, within reason.  Perhaps that is the message that Haggai offers us. May we enjoy the splendor that is God, wherever we encounter it.

 

Who Do You Think You Are? – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 22B (Job 38)

Who Do You Think You Are? – Lectionary Reading for Pentecost 22B (Job 38)

“The Lord Answering Job out of the Whirlwind,” William Blake
Job 38:1-7 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
 
38 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
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                As we learned in chapter 2 of Job, the central character in this story (Job) is the victim of a wager made by God with Satan regarding the nature of Job’s righteousness. Despite being tortured, Job refuses to curse God, though it might have been the best thing for both him and his wife had he done so. As Jonathan Walton points out Job isn’t the only one suffering here. His wife had to watch as ten of her children died, the family fortune disappeared, and now she is left to care for her husband’s deteriorating body and spirit. He concludes: “When we look at the situation through her eyes, we might have more sympathy for this woman who looked upon her dying husband’s body and declared, “Please, honey. Just curse God and die” [Walton, A Lens of Love, p. 74].
The reading for this week from the Hebrew Bible is the third of four excerpts from Job. The first reading was the aforementioned excerpt from chapter 2. In the reading for last Sunday (Job 23), we find Job complaining bitterly about his situation. He doesn’t curse God, who appears to be the cause of his afflictions, but he does complain that God has chosen to be absent. This response on Job’s part followed a less than satisfying set of conversations with three friends who are also frustrated, though for them it’s Job who is the problem. If only Job would confess his unrighteousness things would get better. For his part, Job won’t give in. This will lead to another set of conversations with the friends, which leads to an angry response from a younger observer named Elihu, who is angry with Job for not admitting his guilt and with the three friends for not finding an answer. Elihu has his own set of defenses of God’s righteousness that extends from Job 32 through Job 38, where God jumps in and seemingly piles on.
 
                You must feel sorry for Job (and as noted, his wife as well). Not only is he the victim of this wager between God and Satan, but he must endure the critiques of his so-called friends as well. The reading from Job 38 brings God back into the picture. In fact, this is the first time God is going to speak since the early chapters. Throughout all this discussion between Job and his friends, he has been silent. In fact, Job bitterly complains of God’s absence (Job 23). Now God appears in the form of a whirlwind and seemingly demands to know why Job has the temerity to raise questions with God without having adequate knowledge. Before we get to God’s engagement with Job, I should take note of the reference to the whirlwind, which is a form of a theophany. It is a way of depicting God’s power and authority—storms always pack a lot of power!
Appearing in the whirlwind, God seemingly taunts Job: “Gird up your loins like a man.” If you think you know so much about life, let me ask you a few questions! Thus, begins the inquisition of Job. The lectionary spares us a bit by suggesting we read just the first seven verses of chapter 38. You can, if you wish, drop down to verse 34 and read from there to verse 41. I’m not sure it adds much to the conversation. Seven verses might be enough. Of course, God doesn’t bring this inquiry to a close in verse 41. No, the questioning goes on until in verse 2 of chapter 40, God asks Job: “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Anyone who argues with God must respond.” Job meekly responds: “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.” (Job 40:4-5).  With that response by Job, God picks things up and continues on until the end of chapter 41. Next week we get to hear Job’s answer, brief though it might be, in chapter 42.
 
                In the meantime, we have before us God’s questioning of Job. The questions start at the very beginning of the biblical story: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4a). Were you there when the creation of the earth commenced? If not, then you can’t know the full story of reality. Much of chapter 38 focuses on God’s act of creation, as well as God’s provision. It’s a bit unfair of God, don’t you think? What is Job to say in response? Of course, Job wasn’t there. Of course, Job can’t issue “an order to the clouds so their abundant waters cover you?” (vs. 34 CEB). And on it goes. Job isn’t suggesting he’s God. He’s just claiming to be righteous and faithful. I don’t know about you, but I think God “doth protest too much!” Or, maybe, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, it’s possible that God’s rhetoric is not angry but ironic. Drawing from their former colleague Gerald Janzen, they suggest that what God does here is “prompt Job to realize that God approves of Job’s questions.” At the same time, they note that Carol Newson suggests that God’s speech is a reminder that we “should honor the boundaries of our own knowledge and figure out how to live creatively within them.” [Preaching the Old Testament, p. 159]. Thus, what looks like God shutting down the conversation is simply a redirection of it. Keep asking questions, even if there are no final answers to be found.
 
                Tone is always difficult to discern. It seems as if God is ignoring Jobs complaints and shutting things down, when God might be doing something else. Perhaps God is suggesting that the entire discussion of retributive justice that marked the prior thirty-five chapters or so might not be the correct conversation piece. Perhaps God is really rebuking the friends and not Job. As for Job, perhaps the answer is that somethings are simply unknowable. So, we must come to life’s situations with humility, asking questions, knowing that answers might not be forthcoming.
 
                We might not have been there “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?” but it is good to know that there was joy at the beginning (vs. 7). J.S. Randolph Harris notes that in this response to Job and his “friends” God reminds Job and us that this “is God’s world, and not ours. Sometimes we need to hear that word.” [Feasting on the Word, p. 173]. But, even so, despite the vastness of the cosmos, all of which belong to God, Job 38 reminds us that God chose to speak to Job. Harris writes: “For all of our seeming inconsequence, we are the ones to whom God has spoken, the ones to whom God holds out the promise of conversation about the design of creation.” God doesn’t dismiss Job, but simply reorients his vision. [Feasting on the Word, p. 175]. This is valuable knowledge. Job might not have been there at the beginning, but he is part of that divine creation.

 

Robert Cornwall is the Pastor of Central Woodward Christian Church in Troy, Michigan. He 10646937_10204043191333252_4540780665023444969_nholds 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.

Dancing before the Lord – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (2 Samuel 6)

Dancing before the Lord – A Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 8B (2 Samuel 6)

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
6 David again gathered all the chosen men of Israel, thirty thousand. 2 David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. 3 They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart 4 with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. 5 David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals. 
12b So David went and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom to the city of David with rejoicing; 13 and when those who bore the ark of the Lord had gone six paces, he sacrificed an ox and a fatling. 14 David danced before the Lord with all his might; David was girded with a linen ephod. 15 So David and all the house of Israel brought up the ark of the Lord with shouting, and with the sound of the trumpet.
16 As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart. 
17 They brought in the ark of the Lord, and set it in its place, inside the tent that David had pitched for it; and David offered burnt offerings and offerings of well-being before the Lord. 18 When David had finished offering the burnt offerings and the offerings of well-being, he blessed the people in the name of the Lord of hosts, 19 and distributed food among all the people, the whole multitude of Israel, both men and women, to each a cake of bread, a portion of meat, and a cake of raisins. Then all the people went back to their homes.
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                If you’ve seen Raiders of the Lost Ark, you know that you must handle it with great care. Terrible things happen when you don’t show proper reverence, or you handle it with malevolent purposes (as in Raiders). It’s possible that Stephen Spielberg was inspired by reading from this passage of 2 Samuel 6. The “scary” part of the passage, of course, has been excised by the lectionary creators. It’s not very worshipful to hear how God got peeved with Uzzah, when Uzzah reached out to try and steady the ark. He meant well, but God didn’t take kindly to the help, and struck him dead. Apparently, David got a bit skittish about bringing the Ark any further. While he wanted to bring the Ark, which represented the presence of God, into the city, cementing his role as king over the entirety of Israel, he decided to leave the Ark at the home of Obed-Edom. There it sat until David got enough courage to bring it the rest of the way to Jerusalem, so he could set it up in its new home—the Tabernacle. It’s always good to remember that Solomon, not David, gets to build the Temple, so during David’s reign it sat in a tent.
                The reading from 2 Samuel is divided into two sections. Section one is the initial attempt to retrieve the Ark, so it can be set in the city. The Ark had been lost during a battle with the Philistines during the reign of Saul.  Apparently, the Philistines decided that the Ark caused more trouble than it was worth, so they let Israel have it back. Now, it could be placed in an appropriate place in David’s capital. At least that’s what David hoped would happen, when he went out with 30,000 soldiers to retrieve and transport the Ark to Jerusalem. Unfortunately, as noted above, the first attempt went badly—cue Raiders.
 
The second section tells the story of David’s decision to go and retrieve the Ark from the home of Obed-Edom. After all, during this intervening period when the Ark rested at there, Obed-Edom and his family were being blessed (that part is excised as well). When David hears this news, he decides he needed he bring the Ark in the city, so he could be blessed. This time David took more precautions so that nothing could go wrong during the transport of the Ark. There would be no ox-cart this time. Instead it would be carried to the city. The procession would include sacrifices, dancing, trumpets, and shouts of praise. David not only accompanied the Ark, it appears he the dances as the train of people made their way to the city. And all went well. David and the Ark arrived in the city. They safely placed the Ark in its new home—a tent that David erected. Everyone went home. Now blessings could flow David’s way.
                Everyone in the city seemed to be excited. Restoring national treasures is something to celebrate. David was happy. He had his Ark. Perhaps God was happy. But when he returned home, he discovered that not everyone was happy with the recent events. David was met at the door by his wife Michal, who was the daughter of Saul. She was scandalized by David’s dancing, believing he had revealed to much of himself before his “servant’s maids.” The thought is that the linen ephod, which was similar to what the priests wore, that David was wearing left very little to the imagination. Again, the lectionary selection ends before we get the full story.  and that he may have exposed himself to the populace. That embarrassed his wife, who was also daughter of Saul. Once they were in love, but time had passed. David had added to has harem. Michal was put off to the side. She gets a bad rap. After all, David was simply dancing before the Lord. But maybe we’ve been too harsh. Maybe Michal has a right to be concerned. The story goes on beyond what is set for this Sunday’s reading. Perhaps Michal needs our support. After all, her family is gone. She has been largely abandoned by her husband, whom she loved, but perhaps with an unrequited love. We usually give David a pass on his behavior. Yes, he could be a bit boorish, but he was close to God. Unfortunately, too many of those close to him, including Michal, suffered.
                The reason this passage is chosen for inclusion in the lectionary is that it celebrates God’s presence among the people. The Ark symbolizes this presence, which brings blessing to homes and cities. David had reason to be exuberant in his joy, but perhaps he didn’t consider the feelings of everyone involved. To David, the Ark had been placed in its appropriate spot. It gave him legitimacy and the city legitimacy. It was a sign of unification of a loosely connected community. David had religious motives, but political ones as well. As we ponder the text it might be worth considering which of these two motives held the greatest sway in his life. Granted in the ancient world church and state were more thoroughly integrated than today, but still, was David more influenced by his relationship with God or by his search for power. That question then gets posed to us. Are we Christians first or Americans first?
                As we ponder this passage, we might think about the symbols that speak to us. Which symbols do we consider sacred? The Communion Table and its elements are possible signs of God’s presence in Jesus. The cross can be a sign. The question is, when push comes to shove do we put greater emphasis on these sacred signs or on alternative signs like the American flag?
One further note, it might be worth noting that while the creators of the lectionary have omitted the section detailing how Uzzah gets zapped by God, we would be wise to make clear that such a vision of God is not healthy. If, as at least some of us Christians proclaim, God is love, then surely this act is not representative of God. That is not to say that we need to so soften God’s image that anger and wrath are no longer part of God’s personality is wise, it’s just that we need to be careful in how we depict God, because such depictions can influence our own actions.
Passages like this seem so distant from our lives. Yet, they are expressions of human experience. David was happy. His people were happy. They celebrated the presence of God. The question as always comes down to motive. We might rather explore a passage from the Gospels, but let us not forget that even passages like this can speak. It might even serve as an invitation to dance before the Lord (with all due modesty taken into consideration).
 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.

Picture attribution: Salviati, Francesco, 1510-1563. David with Ark of the Covenant, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=47899 [retrieved July 9, 2018]. Original source: http://www.yorckproject.de.