The scalpel of God

File:Syriske flyktninger (8184618433).jpg

“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” (Mark 9:37)

This is the message from last Sunday, September 23, 2018, on which the congregation celebrated the 40th anniversary of my ordination. The sermon is related to that anniversary, but rooted in the assigned readings: Mark 9:30-37, Jeremiah 11:18-20, Psalm 54, and James 3:13-4:8a,

Mark 9:30-37: They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it; 31for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again.” 32But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

33Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” 34But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. 35He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” 36Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37“Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

You see, O God,
the struggle of the human heart for privilege and honor
and set before us the betrayed and crucified body of your Son.
May he who was servant of all teach us his way;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

+   +   +

Grace to you and Peace, from God our Father and our Lord and savior, Jesus the Christ.

It’s hard to believe I have been doing this for 40 years. It’s stunning to wake up one morning and realize how long it’s been. On the other hand, it’s amazing to think back to all the people and places I’ve known. I have lots of memories – though not as many as I wish. I regret not having kept a journal of my experiences through the years.

A friend wrote me last week about a dramatic graveside service in the rain. It was Wisconsin, so I’m assuming there had been a thunderstorm. I wrote back about a graveside service on a cold November day in Toledo, grey skies, the trees stripped of their leaves, in a little old country cemetery now surrounded on three sides by an oil refinery. I stood at the head of a casket before a small huddle of people, amid the pungent aromas of the refinery and the sounds of its clangs and whistles and whooshes, reading the ancient texts and speaking the promise of a new creation. I wish I knew who that was.

I wish I remembered the name of the person whose funeral I conducted one Good Friday. I had buried his wife four days earlier. He went home after the service, climbed up in his closet and got down an old pistol. Now their adult children were before me once again.

In those days when the heavens seem silent, it falls to the preacher to speak, to break that wall of silence, to let the voice of God be heard in its fearful sweetness.

I never understood the wife of a colleague of mine who was a minister in the United Church of Christ. For her, the sermon was only one member of the community sharing their thoughts for the rest of the community – thoughts the community could take or leave as they saw fit. I don’t know if that’s true of her whole church body; I just know she didn’t share this deep conviction that somewhere in the weeds of the preacher’s words would be hiding the voice of the eternal with all its power to wound and heal.

When I was interviewed here, downstairs in the Fireside Room, I was asked to lead a devotion at the beginning of the meeting. I don’t remember if the call committee had forgotten to tell me they wanted me to do this, or if it was part of the test to see what I might do at the last moment. I turned to the passage in Hebrews (4:12) about the Word of God being sharper than any two-edged sword and talked about the fact that the word ‘sword’ there was the word for the small dagger possessed by a soldier, not the big sword. That dagger was used for fine cutting. It’s more of a knife than a sword, and I suggested we should understand the Word of God as a scalpel with which God does surgery on our hearts.

We are in need of surgery. The Bible is not a book of doctrines and policies; it gives very few absolute answers beyond loving God and neighbor with all your heart and soul and mind. But what the Bible does do is convey to us these stories, events, poems and preaching that have the power, like a scalpel, to set us free from the fears and sins that bind us and shape us into the creatures we were meant to be.

Let us imagine for a moment that Kavanaugh did this thing of which he is accused. And let’s clear away for a moment all the partisan politics and ideologies that are clamoring for power. Let us just imagine that a person is suddenly confronted with a fact from the past saying, “You did this to me, and this is what it cost me.”

It is a fearful thought. Maybe it was forgotten in a haze of alcohol, maybe it was a memory suppressed, maybe it was one of those things you never thought anything about because it was ordinary in the world in which you lived, I don’t know. But suddenly here is this word with its long bony finger pointed at you. This is the story of David and the prophet Nathan (2 Samuel 11:1-12:23). David is swept away by the beauty of Uriah’s wife bathing in the moonlight. He sends for her. She gets pregnant. He brings Uriah home from the front hoping to cover his crime. Uriah is too honorable to enjoy the comforts of his home and bed while his men are in the field. David gives secret orders to put Uriah in the front lines and pull away. He is killed. The King’s crime is covered and forgotten. But then comes Nathan with a story of a poor man and his single beloved lamb. The lamb lies in the poor man’s lap like one of our comfort animals. The rich man with many flocks has a visitor arrive and takes the poor man’s lamb to serve his guest for dinner. David is incensed. “The man deserves to die,” he shouts. And then Nathan points his long bony finger and says: “You are the man.”

The word of God is a scalpel. But it points at David not to condemn and destroy, but to free and heal him.

So here we are with this story about Kavanaugh. The response we see around us is to destroy him or to destroy her, and in that instinctive reaction it is not Kavanaugh’s sins that are on display nor his accusers; it is our sins. We are not looking for healing; we are looking for triumph. One way or the other, one side or the other, we want to win. We want to crush our enemies. And we are willing to order Kavanaugh or Ford to the front lines and pull back.

So there is a story about the prophet Elisha (2 Kings 6:8-23). The king of Aram (what is now Syria) is at war with Israel. But God keeps telling the prophet what the king of Aram is doing, where he is moving his troops, where he is planning to attack, and the King of Israel keeps escaping his grasp. The King of Aram is enraged, convinced that one of his generals is betraying him by leaking his plans to the enemy. They all plead innocence. None of them is the betrayer; it is the prophet who whispers to the King of Israel the King of Aram’s private thoughts. So the King of Aram sends his army to seize the prophet. They come at night and surround the city.

In the morning, the prophet’s servant looks out and sees the town surrounded by an army of horses and chariots and cries out in fear. His story is about to end at the point of a spear. But the prophet prays for God to open his servant’s eyes, and he looks up to see the angelic armies of God encircling the city. “Those who are with us,” says the prophet, “are more than those who are with them.”

God strikes the enemy troops with a blindness, a confusion, a fog. As they come into town, the prophet says “Oh you have the wrong town. I’ll show you the way.” And he leads them to the King of Israel. The prophet prays for God to open their eyes and they find themselves surrounded in the capital city. And here is the punch line: The king asks the prophet what he’s supposed to do with the enemy now in his hand. “Shall I kill them, my father? Shall I kill them?” All his enemy’s soldiers are in his power. He has the chance to destroy them completely. But the prophet says instead that he should feed them. The king sets before them a banquet. They sit down to a table of peace. They are reconciled.

We want to win. We want to crush our enemies. “Shall I kill them, my father?” But the scalpel of God tells a story about reconciliation, repentance, transformation, love of God and neighbor.

I have a deep sympathy for Ford; I know something about sexual assault. I also have a deep sympathy for Kavanaugh; I know something about having your life turned upside down in a moment – and I know something about the sins of our youth. Perhaps mostly, I have a deep sorrow for the nation, because we are so far from the kingdom and rushing in the wrong direction. We are a people who do not know how to repent, and the sins of our past – from greed and slavery and genocide to our everlasting faith in winning at all costs – keep haunting us. Our good deeds can’t make the old deeds go away. David was faithful in almost everything. Yet this murder of Uriah needed to be confessed or it would all go wrong.

So there’s another story (1 Kings 21). King Ahab married the daughter of the Sidonian king (1 Kings 16:31). Her name was Jezebel. We don’t name our kids Jezebel anymore.

Ahab grows up in a world where God is God. God has given the land to the people, divided it among every tribe and family. The land is not my possession; it is a gift of God to my family. It is my responsibility to care for it; it is not my privilege to dispose of it. The law says I can’t sell it. If I have to, I can sell the right to use the land until the next sabbatical year. I can sell the next so many harvests, but I can’t sell it permanently.

Ahab is king. He has a palace. He wants the vineyard that belongs to Naboth in order to grow vegetables. Naboth is scandalized by the idea that he should sell his patrimony. He says no. Ahab is depressed and goes to bed. Jezebel is disgusted. She will teach him how a king uses power. She gives a banquet. She invites Naboth to sit at the high table. She hires two scoundrels to sit next to him. In the middle of the dinner they stand up and accuse Naboth of cursing God and the King. They take him out and stone him to death. Jezebel goes to Ahab and says, “Go get your garden.”

Except God has a prophet. God has a servant with God’s heavenly scalpel. And the prophet is standing there in the garden when Ahab shows up to claim it. This is not the kingship God wants, says the prophet, Ahab’s kingdom will fall by the same violence Ahab used.

And so the scalpel of God comes to us. Will we choose violence or faithfulness? Will we choose victory or redemption? Will we choose wealth, power and conquest or justice, mercy and reconciliation?

Story after story, preached word after preached word, songs and poems and history and even erotic poetry – it’s all here in this book – and lurking in it all is this God with a scalpel who would heal our hearts.

So, in the texts we heard today: Jeremiah is a prophet. He holds the scalpel of God. And the word of judgment he speaks against a corrupt regime creates enemies. The king doesn’t want to hear what Jeremiah has to say. Jeremiah will send the king a copy of everything God had said, and the king will burn it all, page by page, in the brazier standing next to him to keep him warm. (Jeremiah 36)

Jeremiah is a priest. His hometown is a village of priests. They all have a stake in the temple and the monarchy. They have a good life. They don’t want Jeremiah mucking it up for them. They see treason in him, not the divine scalpel. They plot to kill him. And so we hear Jeremiah crying out to God in the words we read this morning: “I was like a lamb led to the slaughter.” And we know there is in us a piece of this village of Anathoth that wants to hold on to what we have even if it means silencing the prophet. Even as Jerusalem rose up against Jesus.

The book of James wields the divine scalpel against the passions that drive our hearts and lead us to betray the divine will. Submit yourselves therefore to God,” he writes, “resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.”

Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. The disciples are thinking: “Our time is coming! We are going to win. We are going to rule.” And they argue over which of them is the top dog.

“What were you talking about?” asks Jesus. He knows full well what they were talking about. Arguments in the Middle East are never quiet.

“What were you talking about?” And suddenly they are silent. Jesus is holding the divine scalpel in his hand. It’s not a sword, though; it’s just a scalpel. It is always just a scalpel, meant to heal and not to harm. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And Jesus puts a child in their midst.

Now we have to get this right. In our society, if you don’t have enough food, you feed the children first. In the time of Jesus, you feed the adults first. Children are loved, but they are at the bottom of the totem pole. They are valued. They are blessings from God. Hopefully they will become adults and take care of their aging parents. But the odds are they won’t make it to adulthood. The death toll is too high. The calories have to go to those who can work the fields.

If we really want to understand what Jesus is saying to his followers, we need to imagine Jesus taking a refugee, or a homeless person, or an addict, whomever we think matters least, and setting him or her in the midst of us, putting his arms around him or her and saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”

It is the scalpel of God.

Amen

+   +   +

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syriske_flyktninger_(8184618433).jpg By Norsk Folkehjelp Norwegian People’s Aid from Norway (Syriske flyktninger) [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

The Spirit of God

File:Zugliget templom tetőablak.JPG

Last Sunday, the festival of Pentecost, we talked about the Holy Spirit. Our series that reflects on how the Biblical narrative points ultimately to the sacrificial love of God manifest in the cross and resurrection stepped away from Genesis to talk about the work of the Spirit.

So far we have talked about the Biblical vision of a God who, by his word, called forth a good and beautiful world (week 1: Creation), and breathed into the first humans his breath/spirit (week 2: Garden), endured their broken relationship yet continued to protect and care for them (week 3: Fall) and continued toIS call to his creation in the narrative of Cain (week 4: Violence).

Cain chose revenge over reconciliation, and violence continued to spread over the world. In contrast to the spirit of power and revenge manifest so profoundly in Lamech’s boast, is the Spirit of God that brings beauty and life to the world.

Below are the pictures and text from the booklet we handed out following worship last Sunday. This coming Sunday, takes us back to Genesis and the narrative accounts of the flood.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AZugliget_templom_tet%C5%91ablak.JPG By Solymári (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Acts 2:1-21


The Biblical story begins
with the wind/spirit/breath of God


File:Breaking waves (13286850323).jpg

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Genesis 1:1-2)

The ancient idea of the Spirit connects to the power in the moving of air. It is the breath of life, the breath of speech, the breath of God in the wind, the breath of God that moves prophets and inspires warriors. With Pentecost it is the breath of God that empowers the love, faithfulness and witness of the followers of Jesus. It is the sign of the reigning presence of God and foretaste of a world made new.

Photo: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Breaking_waves_(13286850323).jpg By Archangel12 (Breaking waves) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The wind/spirit/breath of God is the breath of life in us


File:Gott Vater haucht Adam den Odem ein Hann Münden.jpg

Then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. (Genesis 2:7)

In the ancient story of Genesis 2 God forms the first human (the ‘adam’) from the earth (the ‘adamah’) and breathes into him the breath of life. Our life breath is from God. It is the breath of God that makes us living beings. It is the Spirit that gives life.

Photo: God breathes into Adam the breath of life
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGott_Vater_haucht_Adam_den_Odem_ein_Hann_M%C3%BCnden.jpg By Clemensfranz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The wind/spirit/breath of God is the breath of life in all things


File:Whales - Banderas Bay, Mexico - panoramio.jpg

24How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number –
living things both large and small.
26There the ships go to and fro,
and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there.
27These all look to you
to give them their food at the proper time.
28When you give it to them,
they gather it up;
when you open your hand,
they are satisfied with good things
29When you hide your face,
they are terrified;
when you take away their breath,
they die and return to the dust.
30When you send your Spirit, they are created,
and you renew the face of the earth. (Psalm 104:24-30)

The life breath of all things is the breath/spirit of God. The Spirit of God is creative, empowering, life-giving, life-renewing presence of God. It lifts the fallen, heals the wounded, restores the separated. It raises from death to life.

Whales – Banderas Bay, Mexico
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Whales_-_Banderas_Bay,_Mexico_-_panoramio.jpg  Steve Hedin [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The words that are used to describe the Spirit
are like those used for water


File:Fulmer Falls Top 1 3264px.jpg

The Spirit is “poured out” upon people. It “fills” them.

On the last day of the festival, the great day, while Jesus was standing in the temple, he cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me, 38and let the one who believes in me drink. As the scripture has said, ‘Out of the believer’s heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” 39Now he said this about the Spirit, which believers in him were to receive.” (John 7:37-39)

Fulmer Falls, Childs Recreation Area in the Pocono Mountains
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fulmer_Falls_Top_1_3264px.jpg Photo by and (c)2006 Derek Ramsey (Ram-Man) (Self-photographed) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Like wind and water,
the Spirit is a power to accomplish things



The Spirit of God gives insight and understanding


File:Pharaoh's dream.JPG

The Spirit of God grants Joseph wisdom to interpret the dreams of Pharaoh.

38Pharaoh said to his servants, “Can we find anyone else like this—one in whom is the spirit of God?” 39So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “Since God has shown you all this, there is no one so discerning and wise as you. 40You shall be over my house, and all my people shall order themselves as you command; only with regard to the throne will I be greater than you.” (Genesis 41:38-40)

Illustration by Owen Jones from “The History of Joseph and His Brethren” (Day & Son, 1869)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pharaoh%27s_dream.JPG Owen Jones [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Spirit of the Lord grants skill to work beauty in the world


File:Flower of heaven.jpg

Then the Lord said to Moses, 2 “See, I have chosen Bezalel son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, 3 and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, ability and knowledge in all kinds of crafts– 4 to make artistic designs for work in gold, silver and bronze, 5 to cut and set stones, to work in wood, and to engage in all kinds of craftsmanship. (Exodus 31:1-5 NIV)

The ceiling of a vault at the Shah Cheragh shrine at Shiraz, Fars province, Iran
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Flower_of_heaven.jpg By http://www.flickr.com/people/ dynamosquito/ [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The Spirit of the Lord grants courage and strength


File:Samson Fighting the Lion (18th c., Kargopol style).jpg

Samson went down to Timnah together with his father and mother. As they approached the vineyards of Timnah, suddenly a young lion came roaring toward him. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him so that he tore the lion apart with his bare hands as he might have torn a young goat. (Judges 14:5-6NIV)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Samson_Fighting_the_Lion_(18th_c.,_Kargopol_style).jpg By Anonymous Russian icon painter (before 1917) Public domain image (according to PD-RusEmpire) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


and empowers people to lead


File:Dura Synagogue WC3 David anointed by Samuel.jpg

The Spirit of God raises David from tending sheep to guiding the nation.

13Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. (1 Samuel 16:13)

Dura Europos Synagogue, panel WC3 : David anointed king by Samuel
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dura_Synagogue_WC3_David_anointed_by_Samuel.jpg By reworked by Marsyas [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Spirit of the Lord inspires people to declare God’s message


File:Russian - Great Deesis with Prophets - Walters 37625.jpg

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion–
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory. (Isaiah 61:1-3)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Russian_-_Great_Deesis_with_Prophets_-_Walters_37625.jpg By Anonymous (Russia) (Walters Art Museum: Home page Info about artwork) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The prophets promise a day when all things are made new
and the Spirit of God is poured out on all people


File:Grib skov.jpg

But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
Israel whom I have chosen!
2 Thus says the Lord who made you,
who formed you in the womb and will help you:
Do not fear, O Jacob my servant,
Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
3 For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring. (Isaiah 44:1-3)

26 A new heart I will give you,
and a new spirit I will put within you;
and I will remove from your body the heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh.
27 I will put my spirit within you,
and make you follow my statutes
and be careful to observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

New beech leaves, Grib Forest in the northern part of Sealand, Denmark
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grib_skov.jpg By Malene Thyssen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


Jesus brings the dawn of that new age (God’s kingdom)


Now after John was arrested, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” (Mark 1:14-15RSV)


John declared Jesus would drench the world with the Spirit


File:Gullfoss rainbow.JPG

“The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” (Mark 1:6-8)

Gullfoss waterfall (Iceland)
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGullfoss_rainbow.JPG By Laurent Deschodt (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost
represents the dawning fulfillment of the promised Spirit


File:El Greco 006.jpg

17“In the last days it will be,” God declares,
“that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
18Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
and they shall prophesy.”
(Acts 2:17-18 where Peter quotes Joel 2:28-29 to explain the wonder of Pentecost Day)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:El_Greco_006.jpg El Greco [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Spirit is the gift of the risen Lord


File:Duccio Maesta detail2.jpg

19 When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side. Then the disciples rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.” (John 20:19-23)

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Duccio_Maesta_detail2.jpg Duccio di Buoninsegna [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


The Spirit is a gift God is eager to give


11“Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)


The Spirit is the gift of being joined with Christ in Baptism


File:Greven Gimbte - Alter Fährweg - St. Johannes Baptist in 23 ies.jpg

36“Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” 37 Now when they heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and to the other apostles, “Brothers, what should we do?” 38 Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 For the promise is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him.” (Acts 2:36-39)

The word ‘repent’ means to change sides, to participate in and show allegiance to the new creation dawning in Christ.

St. Johannes Baptist, Alter Fährweg in Gimbte, Greven
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AGreven_Gimbte_-_Alter_F%C3%A4hrweg_-_St._Johannes_Baptist_in_23_ies.jpg By Frank Vincentz (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons


The Spirit anoints us with the gifts of the age to come


7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. (1 Corinthians 12:7-11)


The Spirit of the Lord bears the fruit of God’s reign in our lives


File:2004 orford 03.JPG

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)

Detail of a statue at St Bartholomew’s Church in Orford
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2004_orford_03.JPG By Ziko-C (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Biblical text: New Revised Standard Version
© Text by David K. Bonde, Los Altos Lutheran Church, 2017

Children of Light

File:Window Shadows on Ceiling of Sagrada Família 2010.JPG

Watching for the Morning of March 26, 2017

The Fourth Sunday in Lent

We hear the story of Samuel journeying to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse in the first reading this Sunday. It is a narrative fraught with danger, since Israel already has a king, and Saul has shown himself more interested in preserving his rule and his house than attending to God’s commands. Saul was the tallest in Israel. Strong, able, he looked the part of a kingly warrior. And the eldest of Jesse’s sons also looked the part – as, presumably, did the second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth. But God sees the heart. And God saw fidelity in the heart of David – fidelity to God and to the people. (Yes, David sins when he murders Uriah to hide his infidelity with Uriah’s wife but, unlike nearly all later kings, he repents – he turns back to God and to the people.) This faithfulness of David is reflected in the familiar psalm for the day.

It’s not clear why this story of David is paired with the account of the man born blind in Sunday’s gospel except, perhaps, for the idea of seeing. The leaders of Israel are unable to see what is happening in Jesus, but the blind man comes to see.

Light and darkness are the theme of the reading from Ephesians. There we are exhorted to eschew the “unfruitful works of darkness” and “live as children of the light.”

For the ancients, darkness was not the absence of light; it was a substance. Light was something that was within and went out through the eyes to perceive the world. Those who are blind, therefore, had darkness within; what came out through their eyes was darkness. Jesus has filled the blind man with light. He has washed away the mud. And Jesus has not only filled him with a physical, material light, he has filled him with a spiritual light. So, if we are filled with this true light, this light of God, that light will go out not only to see clearly the gracious hand of God in the world around us, it will do the works of grace. On the other hand, if the ‘light’ within us is darkness, what will come forth from us are the works of darkness.

Why do we come to worship? Why do we set ourselves before the Word? Why do we take into our hands the bread of life? That we may be filled with light. Look around, the world sorely needs children of the light.

As We Forgive
Our focus on a portion of the catechism during Lent takes us into the Lord’s Prayer this year. Sunday we will consider the fifth petition: “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We pray not only to be forgiven but, with that prayer, we choose to live the grace we desire.

Reflections on the themes of each week and brief daily devotions related to those themes can be found on the blog site for our Lenten devotions.

The Prayer for March 26, 2017

Almighty God, Holy and True,
who opened the eyes of the man born blind
that he might see and know you:
Remove from us all blindness of heart and spirit
that we might truly follow you in lives of faith, hope and love;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for March 26, 2017

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
“The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” – Saul has proven himself unworthy of the monarchy and God commissions Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as king. All Jesse’s sons look the part of a king, but God chooses the youngest, David, who is out guarding the sheep.

Psalmody: Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” – David’s famous psalm acknowledging God as his ruler and protector.

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14
“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.”
–Writing to the believing community in Ephesus, Paul (or someone writing on Paul’s behalf or in his name) urges the community to live faithfully the life into which they have been called in Christ.

Gospel: John 9:1-41
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” – Jesus heals a man born blind who is subsequently investigated by the authorities and evicted from the synagogue for his affiliation with Jesus.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AWindow_Shadows_on_Ceiling_of_Sagrada_Fam%C3%ADlia_2010.JPG By Patrick Pelletier (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I am your David

Sunday Evening

Psalm 23, John 10:11-18

File:Heilig Land Stichting Rijksmonument 523633 de goede herder, reli-art Piet Gerrits.JPGThe LORD is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

11 “I am the good shepherd.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
12The hired hand,
who is not the shepherd
and does not own the sheep,
sees the wolf coming
and leaves the sheep and runs away–
and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.
13The hired hand runs away
because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
14I am the good shepherd.
I know my own
and my own know me,
15just as the Father knows me
and I know the Father.
And I lay down my life for the sheep.

I have tried to preach on these texts many times without much success. I look back on old sermons and find scattered notes rather than well-assembled manuscripts. I wish I could look back at sermons that I have stored on those old floppy disks. I wonder if I had any better luck 20 years ago than I did ten. Somehow I doubt it.

I decided last night that the problem is that preaching on these texts is like taking apart a piece of music from Bach or Beethoven or Mozart rather than just listening to it. My life isn’t really enriched by knowing what the notes are, but by letting them play – letting myself be immersed in their glorious sounds.

Psalm 23 is a prayer. Prayers are better prayed than preached upon. So let me try this:

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.

The LORD is my shepherd. The LORD is my King David who guarded his flock with his sling. The LORD is my David who fought off the bear and the lion and saved his flock from fearful enemies. The LORD is my David who slew Goliath with that same sling and five smooth stones. The LORD is my David who has beaten back every enemy. The LORD is my David who has enlarged the land. The LORD is my David who has made us to dwell securely.

The LORD is my shepherd, my righteous king, my defender, my hope. I shall not want.

I shall not be in want. I shall not lack for those things upon which life depends. Oh, I have plenty of wants and desires, but in him I lack no good thing, no true thing. In him there is the bread of life. In him there is the water of life. In him there are true pathways. In him is my way and my truth and my life.

He feeds me at his table. A table rich and abundant, a table filled with compassion and mercy, a table filled with grace and forgiveness, a table filled with joy and song, a table filled with love.

In the darkest valleys, he is my light. In the shadow of death he is my hope and promise. In weakness he is my strength. In fear he is my confidence. In sorrow he is my comfort.

The LORD is my David – and so much more than my David. He is my companion, my guide, my solace, my song. Even when surrounded by enemies, he is my overflowing cup, my soothing balm. He is my breath, my calm.

Israel was pursued through the wilderness by plundering tribes, but what chases after me is his goodness and faithfulness. Death and fear and sin and sorrow stalk me, and yet what truly pursues me, what seeks me, what follows after me, is God’s determination to enfold me in his life and love.

The LORD is my David, my perfect king, who lays down his life for me.

And now here is Jesus standing before me saying, “I am the Good Shepherd.” “I am the Good Shepherd, the true shepherd, the noble shepherd, the true and righteous king, the faithful king, who sets the life of his people before his own.”   Here is Jesus before me saying “I am the true shepherd who leads you to life.” I am the honorable shepherd, the faithful king, who lays down his life for you. Who calls you by name. Who knows your name. Who gathers you to myself. Who gathers others to my flock. I am the true shepherd, the true voice, who leads you to true pasture. Verdant pasture. Bread of life and living water.

I am the good shepherd, I am your David, I am your Moses and Abraham and Noah. I am he who walked with you in the garden and will open wide the gates of the city to come.

I am he who prepares for you a table. I am he who anoints you with my Spirit. I am he who seeks you. I am he who has prepared a place for you. “In my father’s house are many rooms. I go to prepare a place for you.”

I am he who washes away all sin. I am he who quenches your deepest thirst. I am he who turns water into wine, tears into joy, mourning into dancing. I am he who opens blind eyes, who strengthens feeble knees. I am he who meets you at the well with living water. I am the light that cannot be extinguished. I am the rock that cannot be shaken. I am the fountain that never runs dry. I am the eternal dawn, the morning light that does not fade.

I am your David, your perfect king, your noble shepherd, your eternal life.

And I have other sheep. Sheep that listen to my voice. And I must bring them also. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.

Amen

 

STatue: Nederlands: Heilig Land Stichting Rijksmonument 523633 de goede herder, reli-art van Piet Gerrits  Photo: By Havang(nl) (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Jonah

Saturday

Jonah 3

File:Prophet Jonas in Augsburg Cathedral.jpg

Prophet Jonas in Augsburg Cathedral, stained glass window, early 12th century

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2“Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.”

It was incomprehensible to Jonah that God could pardon Nineveh. Nineveh was the city at the heart of the Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was the city that sent its armies to smash the northern kingdom of Israel and subject Judah. Nineveh was the city whose policy was the extermination of subject peoples: the people of Israel were scattered across the empire and others brought in to take their place. It is because of Nineveh that there are ten lost tribes of Israel, lost to history, lost among the nations. Nineveh was renowned in the ancient world for their cruelty and brutality – rare fame in a cruel and brutal era.

It was unthinkable that they could be forgiven. And yet Jonah knew God would – if they repented, if they turned and changed. It’s why Jonah would rather leave his home and people and flee to the furthest most end of the earth than deliver God’s warning to Nineveh. And it is why Jonah would rather be tossed into the sea than go back to deliver God’s message.

But God, in this beloved and delightful tale, does his fish trick and three days later Jonah is vomited onto the land. Three days and life is given, again. Jesus will talk about the sign of Jonah. But there, in the muck on the shore, “the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time.” God is determined.

When Jesus talks about loving our enemies, it’s not a new thought in the Biblical tradition. It’s not like hate and violence were okay and then God changed his mind. God reasoned with Cain before he murdered his brother – and God guarded Cain’s life from the threat of revenge after his fearful deed. Vengeance was not permitted to Israel – it was God’s to avenge. Tubal-cain, the father of modern weapons, is not a hero of the text. The prophet speaks of swords beaten into plowshares because we were not created for swords. David is forbidden to build the temple because he was a man of blood – necessary blood, the blood of those who sought to destroy Israel – but still blood. Before Israel entered into its struggle against the corrupt cities of Canaan, every man had to make an offering, a sacrifice. Even though they were on a divinely authorized mission – they needed to atone for the violence they were to commit. It was not until Noah that God even conceded to humanity the right to kill animals for food – but with that concession, he still required that humans not eat the blood, the life. They must pour it on the ground, a gesture to acknowledge that only God has the right to take life – even when he permits it of us.

Jonah is afraid that God will show love to the Ninevites. And he is right. What he fears comes to pass: the unforgiveable enemy turns and is forgiven.

We are not far from Jonah. We all have enemies we will not forgive. It is why God says through the prophet “My ways are not your ways.” God will do what we will not. For God’s work in the world is the redemption of the human community, not the defense of ‘his people’. ‘His people’ are the voice like the prophet, instruments to bear witness to God’s redemption of the earth. We are Jonah.

And we are like Jonah. The teacher who hurt us, the boss who ruined us, the friend who violated us, the spouse who betrayed us, the enemy from forgotten wars, the terrorist with a bomb, there are plenty of people we have good reason to hate. But God does not share our passions. His passion, his suffering, is for all, to be reunited with all, to reclaim his lost planet hurtling through hate and greed towards destruction. We made a bomb by splitting the atom, for heaven’s sake, a bomb that poisons the sea and air and land, and twists the genes in those who survive to kill them later. Whether it was necessary is not the point; the existence of such weapons of unspeakable violence points to the dark reality of the human heart.

But, truthfully, we don’t want the god made in our own image, the god Jonah wants, the god who fights on our side. We need the God who loves the whole world – even those we must fight, even those we don’t and ought not trust. We need the God who loves them all, because otherwise we have only endless war: us and our god against you and your god. To this there is no happy end. It is the world of Tubal-cain who exults: “If Cain is avenged sevenfold, I am avenged seventy-seven fold.”

Jonah cannot stand the thought that God would do anything but destroy Nineveh. We have all prayed those prayers. Thankfully, God does not answer them they way we desire.

And the story of Jonah, delightfully and teasingly told, now haunts us with the truth that we are the called and sent messengers of the God who loves all, the God who would forgive all.

Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”

 

By Hans Bernhard (Schnobby) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

“Nothing will be impossible with God”

Thursday

Luke 1

File:Paolo Veneziano (Italian (Venetian), active 1333 - 1358) - The Annunciation - Google Art Project.jpg

Paolo Veneziano, The Annunciation

37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”

It’s interesting that Luke uses the future tense: “nothing will be impossible.” We are more accustomed to expressing such notions in the present, “with God all things are possible.” But here it’s in the future tense.

“For nothing will be impossible with God.”

When the angel speaks to Mary he is not making a statement about the omnipotence of God; he is making a statement about the surety of the promise. “None of the things God has promised will be impossible.”

The impossible thing isn’t that Mary would become pregnant. Wondrous births are routine for God. Sarah conceives when she is past the age of childbearing. According to Genesis, Abraham is 100 and Sarah 90 when Isaac is born. The birth of Samuel is wondrously given to Hannah when she is barren. Zechariah and Elizabeth are granted a child though she, too, is barren. This little thing of an unconsummated marriage is no great feat. The great feat is that this poor woman’s child would be “great”. The true wonder is that a peasant child would “be called the Son of the Most High,” a designation suggesting he will be second in rank and honor only to God. It is a title given to kings and emperors. The amazing work is that “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.” That throne has been vacant for 600 years. Judea is, at the time of Jesus’ birth, a client state of the Roman Empire; Herod’s kingship is given to him by Caesar. The virgin birth is small potatoes compared to the promise that this child “will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

We get sidetracked by the small things. We either mock Christianity or treasure it because of the virgin birth rather than its claim that this child, crucified and risen, has ascended to the right hand of God and reigns there even now and shall reign forever over a world brought under the glorious and gentle governance of God.

This is why the message to Mary is in the future tense. Christ’s reign will not be impossible to God. It will become manifest in ways that may seem strange to us: starting with a peasant child whose birth is announced by angels to the unlikeliest of people. Shepherds as a class are unclean, without honor and regarded as thieves. This child will summon an odd collection of Galilean laborers as his posse, including a tax collector. He will wander homeless like a man either crazy or a prophet. He will eat with sinners. He will challenge the temple system and be crushed by the Jerusalem leaders. But God will vindicate him and set him at God’s right hand.

The promise will look empty; but “nothing will be impossible with God.”

That crazy little band will be filled with God’s Spirit and the reign of God in Christ will extend throughout the world: Lives will be healed. Hearts will be changed. Sinners will be gathered. Communities will be reconciled. The world will be reborn.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”

This is not a statement of principle. It is a promise. Christ will reign and the gates of hell cannot stop it, the darkness cannot overcome it. Even our stony hearts will become living hearts, beating with compassion and justice.

“Nothing will be impossible with God.”

The throne of David

Watching for the morning of December 21

Year B

The Fourth Sunday of Advent

File:Florenz - David von Michelangelo 02.JPG

Michelangelo’s David

It is as if King Arthur was returning to bring a just and righteous reign to the land. The birth of a new king is proclaimed to Mary:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

The promise made to David of an eternal line – a promise that seemed broken after Jerusalem was destroyed and brought under the dominion of Babylon then Persia then Greece and its warring successor states until finally Roman troops ruled the city – that promise has been resurrected. And Mary is chosen for the terrible and wondrous task of giving birth to this new king.

The promise made to David and fulfilled in Jesus governs our readings this final Sunday in Advent. In the first reading we hear Nathan declare God’s promise to David of an eternal reign:

“Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me;
your throne shall be established forever.”

Like a river that can find no path to the sea, this promise seemed to sink into the arid desert. The line of David appeared broken by Babylon and the imperial conquerors that followed. But the hope remained that Israel would again be free, that the glory of David’s realm would be restored, that they would be freed from the woes of foreign dominion. And now suddenly there is a heavenly messenger standing before a peasant girl declaring that she would bear that child, that all God’s ancient promises would be fulfilled, that all the shame of Israel’s life would be lifted away.

The joy of that promise echoes through the song of salvation from Isaiah. And the scope of that deliverance is extended to the whole world in the passage from Romans. For the king to come is far more than the warrior king to reclaim Jerusalem, but the redeemer king who brings the New Jerusalem.

As we gather on the cusp of our celebration of that birth, the joy of God’s deliverance breaks through. God’s anointed, God’s Christ, shall reign in us forever.

The Prayer for December 21, 2014

Mighty God,
who stands at the beginning and end of time,
through your son Jesus, child of Mary,
you entered into the fabric of time
to make visible among us your reign of grace and life.
Fill us with gratefulness, wonder and awe
that we may receive you with joy at your coming;
through your son, Jesus Christ our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever.

The Texts for December 21, 2014

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7.1-11, 16
“Now when the king was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies around him, 2 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.’” – When David seeks to build a temple for God, God declares he has it backwards: it isn’t David who builds a house for God, but God who builds a house (a dynastic line) for David.

Psalmody: Isaiah 12:2-6,
“With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.” – the prophet sings a song of thanksgiving, anticipating the day of God’s redemption.

Second Reading: Romans 16.25-27
“Now to God who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ.”
– A hymnic conclusion to Paul’s letter to the believers in Rome celebrates the mystery now revealed of God’s purpose to gather all people into Christ.

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph.” – The angel Gabriel invades Mary’s home and presents her with the news that she will give birth to the heir of David’s throne.

The appointed psalm: Luke 1:46-55, the Song of Mary (the Magnificat)
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” – Mary sings with joy of God’s coming deliverance when she is greeted by Elizabeth whose unborn child already recognizes their coming Lord.
or Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26
“I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.”
– The psalmist sings of God’s promise to David.

Image credit: By Rabe! (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Unexpected

Friday

1 Samuel 16

File:Dura Synagogue WC3 David anointed by Samuel.jpg

Dura Europos Synagogue, panel WC3 : David anointed king by Samuel.

4The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?”

The arrival of a prophet unbidden was cause for concern. Had God sent him with some word of judgment? Was he here on behalf of the king to seize their sons or lands? Did they imagine that Samuel was already involved in some plot against King Saul and his presence would make them enemies in Saul’s sight? They would rather be left alone. “God bless the tsar and keep him far away from here,” says the rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof when asked whether there is a blessing for the tsar.

The Bishop showed up at my parish many years ago when I was serving in Toledo. He spoke to me privately about a possible call to a church in Detroit. It was all very confidential, but the moment he walked out the door the secretary turned to me and said, “When are you leaving?” I was caught off guard – and don’t lie very well. Fortunately, she was a woman who could keep secrets. And when I asked her how she knew, she said the bishop only comes when the associate is leaving. He is, in her eyes, always the bearer of bad news.

So here is the prophet. And everyone is trembling. “What does this mean? Why would the prophet direct God’s gaze towards us? He will call our sins to God’s attention! He will make us look like rebels in the king’s eyes!” An unexpected prophet spells trouble.

Samuel is mindful of the danger of his task. Saul has shown himself unstable and unpredictable. He has not wielded his power wisely, faithfully, in service of God and God’s people. Now God has disowned him. God has sent Samuel to anoint another, sent him to start a revolution. The hunt for David will consume Saul’s life. He will throw his spear across the room in hopes of piercing David to the wall. He will rant at his son for befriending David. He will chase David though the wadis of the desert. He will try to secure the dynasty for his son and will fail. He and Jonathon will both fall in battle and the kingdom will fall to David.

Saul is a tragic figure. David, on the other hand, is on no one’s radar. He is out tending the sheep. All Jesse’s handsome, strapping, kingly sons will parade by Samuel and each time God will say no. God does not judge as we do. God is not impressed by outward appearance. God sees the heart. And it is the heart of David that matters. A heart that honors the Lord. A heart that seeks to be faithful. A heart that is not afraid of the lion or bear but will fight to protect his father’s sheep. This is the heart God wants in a king.

And it is the heart of Jesus. He will be faithful unto death. He will lay down his life for the sheep. He is a king of David’s line. He is the true, eternal king in whom blind eyes are opened and outcasts gathered in. He is the one who enlightens every heart. He is the one who fills the world with light.

There is one who sees

2 Samuel 11

Rembrandt - David and Uriah (detail) - WGA19125

Rembrandt – David and Uriah (detail) – WGA19125 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

26When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. 27When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son. 

But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord,

I love the understatement of the text.  David has conspired to murder Uriah after impregnating Uriah’s wife while her husband was away fighting the king’s wars.  Uriah was the ancient equivalent of a Navy Seal.  The best of the best.  When Bathsheba became pregnant David brought Uriah home from the front assuming he would sleep with his wife and take the child as his own.  But Uriah would not go to his wife while his men were without comfort in the field.  So David makes Uriah attend a banquet and gets him drunk hoping the alcohol will cause him to lose his integrity, but Uriah lies down in the guardhouse.  Exasperated, David sends secret orders by Uriah’s hand to place him on the front line of the fiercest fighting and then pull away to leave him exposed.

Bathsheba makes a great war widow.  And the noble king kindly takes the grieving woman into his house.  He has exercised his power shrewdly, hidden the scandal and gained the beautiful woman he watched bathing while his men fought his battles to extend his kingdom.

It is the story of power we hear all the time.

I was in Detroit when O. J. Simpson was acquitted for the murder of his wife.  I thought it was a terrible shame, but many in the African American community folks cheered – not because they thought him innocent, nor that he didn’t deserve to be punished, but only because a rich black man had finally gotten away with what rich white men have been getting away with forever.  A strange justice.  But the people in my neighborhood lived with the daily reality that the scales of justice tilt against the poor.  At least in this case, they thought, it tilted equally for a black man.

In a tilted world comes this sweet, sweet word: “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord.”

There is one who sees the injustices of the world.  One who knows the corporate boardrooms as well the ghettos.  One who knows what happens on Park Avenue and the mean streets.  One who know the abuse of power wherever it happens.  One who judges and calls to account.

Of course, there are kings who care not what message the Lord sends.  Three hundred years later Jeremiah will send his king a written copy of the prophetic messages God had spoken about the corruption in his kingdom – and the king will take his knife, cut each page loose after it has been read to him, and toss it callously into the hot coals set nearby to warm him.  But the word of the Lord stands.  Jehoiakim’s kingdom fell whereas David’s was saved by his repentance.

Why does the innocent die?

Wednesday

2 Samuel 12

Français : Chapiteau du narthex (1140-1150), 2...

Français : Chapiteau du narthex (1140-1150), 2ème pile Nord; reproches de Nathan à David ( le prophète Nathan reproche au roi David son adultère avec Bethsabée, la femme d’un de ses généraux). Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Vézelay. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

13David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord. “Nathan said to David, “Now the Lord has put away your sin; you shall not die. 14Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the Lord, the child that is born to you shall die.”

We might as well start here because it is the thing in the text we all find most disturbing.  Why should the child perish because of the sin of its parents?  I wish the answer were simple, but it isn’t.

Not that there aren’t simple answers, they just aren’t good ones.  Job’s friends had a simple answer for his suffering – he must have sinned – but it wasn’t true.  A sin may result in suffering, but suffering doesn’t mean there was a sin.

Another simple answer is that God has a hidden purpose in it – and while it is true that God works God’s purposes in the midst of suffering and that God can bring good out of the worst evil, the idea that God should slay a child to teach its parents a lesson is deeply disturbing.  The truth of human experience is the opposite: it is we who sacrifice our children at the altar of ambition and desire.

It’s not just that we trash families pursuing our desires or neglect children for our various addictions. We bury children sent off to fight our wars.  We drive them to self-destruction in the quest to be perfect in body or sport or academics.  We let them perish on our highways rather than restrict our right to drink and drive.  It is always the innocent who suffer.  And so it is here 3,000 years ago, the innocent child suffers the consequences of the parental pride, lust and ambition.

In the world of David and Bathsheba the death of children was painfully common.  The King’s household – with better food and shelter than most – may have had fewer such tragedies, but it was the way of life for all humanity before modern medical care.  Children died.  The prophet’s word in this case is that this death is not just one of those ordinary deaths – it is rooted in David’s sin.  There is no child without his sin; there is no death without his sin – neither of Uriah or the child.

Whatever hopes David and Bathsheba had for their illicit union – and Bathsheba will succeed in setting a son of her womb on the throne, though Solomon is not the eldest son and heir – God has interposed a resounding “No!”  The powerful imagine they can act with impunity; God holds them to account.  For David this is a personal message:  “You think you can have it all.  You can’t.”

The death of this child is not a general principle or an abstract theological problem; it is a specific prophetic word to a specific person in a specific time and place.  The role of a prophet is to reveal the meaning in the events of the time.  The meaning of David’s sin is that it brings death – death starting with this very own child.  David’s life will never be free of the sword.  His attempt to stand above the law will echo through his lifetime with violence in his own household.  One son will rape his step-sister and her brother will strike him down.  The eldest will lead a revolt and take all his father’s concubines in full sight of the whole city.  David will see the consequences of his surrender to the corrupting power of privilege.

None of this is surprising in a prophetic word.  What is surprising is that David repents.  The King does not destroy the prophet for his message; he submits.  He does not ignore the divine word; he turns back to God.  And God forgives.

It is this that makes David great.