Sunday, June 24, 2012

June 24, 2012, "There Will Be Blood"

1 Samuel 17.48-51

We all love a good story.
Big bad wolves.
A wooden puppet who becomes a real boy.
Cinderella and her prince.
And, of course, David and Goliath.

Stories teach us valuable lessons:
Believe in ourselves, and we can do anything.
No matter how big the problem, we can solve it.
Use what we have, and if we have only a stone and a sling, use them with all our might.
Courage conquers every enemy. 
Truth wins out.
Faith triumphs.
All of this and more.

In one of the greatest stories of the Bible.
David and Goliath.
But if read it only as a story, we miss the big picture.

David and Goliath is a somber reflection on the price of victory.
Much of what we have in the Old Testament was compiled during the Babylonian Captivity … 
586 years before Jesus, Babylon’s armies swept down upon Judah and Jerusalem like a Tsunami - destroyed everything … tore down the Temple, stone-by-stone … carried off to faraway Babylon Judah’s teachers and leaders.
By the rivers of Babylon—
      there we sat down and there we wept
      when we remembered Zion.

The people in Babylon try desperately to put together the shattered pieces of life and hope.
Why are we here? 
Why were we defeated?
Why has this heathen nation prevailed over the Holy City and it’s Temple?
Where is God in all of this?
Who are we?
What shall become of us?
Did we go wrong somewhere?

Before we go any further, let’s turn to Jesus.
The Garden of Gethsemane … the mob in the night, led by Judas, to take Jesus away.
A disciple draws his sword and strikes the High Priest’s slave, cutting off his ear … 
Jesus says, Put your sword away. 
And then tells the world a truth the world never wants to hear: Those who live by the sword will die by the sword.

In Babylon, the people try to figure it out.
I’m sure they remembered what Samuel said to the people when the people cried out for a king.
Do you want a king? Samuel asks.
Let me tell you how kings behave!
And when the people hear it, they still cry out in one voice, Give us a king!
We want a leader who will lead us in battle and secure our safety.
We know what we want, and we want what we know. 
God says to Samuel, Give them what they want!
There will be blood, but give them what they want!

For nearly a thousand years, Israel lived by the sword … from the Battle of Jericho to Jerusalem’s defeat at the hands of Babylon … a thousand years of triumph and sorrow, life and death … good kings, bad kings … treaties signed and treaties broken … constant warfare to expand the boundaries of the nation, protect what had been gained, and regain what had been lost!

The power of the sword is mesmerizing.
I don’t know about you, but when I see a display of military might, I get goosebumps.
Donna and I were driving through the upper reaches of Death Valley a few years back, when, in the distance, a small speck on the horizon, and it wasn’t long before the speck became a plane, flying fast and low toward us, and suddenly it veers toward the road, right over the car, mighty and roaring … it passed us quickly and then beyond us … 

The power of the sword … humankind mesmerized by the sword … ever since Cain kills Abel … humankind strives against one another for dominance and power … vast armies on the move, great ships on the high seas … in the modern era, the latest technology, weapons of unimaginable power, weapons of mass destruction.

The power of the sword!

David’s first entry into Israel’s life - by the sword.
Goliath was no lion threatening David’s sheep.
No bear growling in the night.
Goliath was a man.
A large man, to be sure.
Well-trained and ready to fight.
But a man, nonetheless.
A human being.
Did Goliath have a family back home?
A mother who loved him?
A father proud of him?
Brothers and sisters who honored him?
Fellow soldiers who admired his bravery?
What about the Philistine soldiers?
All of them, human beings.
Families back home.
Families who loved them.

The sword is blind to all of that.
The sword doesn’t care.
The sword kills without regard.
The sword knows only two words: Friend or Foe?

1500 years later, Jesus says to the people of his time, descendants of David and the people of Judah: Love your enemies … pray for those who harass you … so that you will behave as children of your Father in heaven.

What does Jesus mean by love?
Something emotional? Sentimental? Mushy-gushy?
Jesus means right behavior, fairness, even kindness.
Jesus makes it clear when he describes his Father’s behavior: God makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

Jesus offers us weapons of the soul, not a sword for the hand!
The sword fails … 
Those who live by the sword, live by the sword only for a time … and, then, death catches up … whatever the purpose, high-minded or mean-spirited, those who live by the sword die by the sword.

David’s kingship was soaked in blood.
It’s all there for us to read … the folks in Babylon have done us a great service in telling the whole story.
Was David a man after God’s own heart?
Yes, David loved the LORD, and served the LORD.
But David was a king, and kings go off to war, kings wield the sword, kings love power, and power always loses its way.
Those who live by the sword … die by the sword.

Israel lives by the sword, and then falls to the larger sword of Assyria.
Judah survives by the sword, and then falls to the larger sword of Babylon.
Babylon lives by the sword, and then falls to the sword of Persia.
Then comes the sword of Alexander the Great.
To be replaced by the Caesars, Pontius Pilate and their legions - the Roman Empire.
Then the Byzantine Empire … then the Holy Roman Empire of Northern Europe … the great seafaring empires of Spain and Portugal and The Netherlands and Britain … the Ottoman Empire throughout the Middle East and North Africa … Empires have come and gone in every part of the world … Russia, Africa, India, China, Japan - in various times and ways, kings and queens, rulers and potentates … and now, for a time, the burden and blessing of Empire has fallen upon the United States of America.
Empires live by the sword.

Our military spending is highest in the world - 711 billion dollars in 2011 … China at 143 billion … Russia at 71 billion.

Some months ago, I said to you, “The greatest challenge facing Christians around the world is violence.” Violence against women and children … school-bus bullying … road-rage … the spirit of vengeance … dissing the poor … and war … violence wears many faces.
Especially violence in the name of god!

Empires always use god, or the gods … every nation believes in god, in some form or other … the divine is invoked to bless the sword and bless the hand that wields it.
Every soldier fights for god and country … every soldier prays … while the people at home pray for victory.

Christianity, as we know it, comes out of 1800 years of Empire and war … Christians fought Christians … Christians colonized and enslaved peoples around the world, … Christians cheered the sword and sent their children off to war … and there stood the clergy, with holy water and prayers … all for god and country … 

There will be blood … David begins his journey to greatness with blood … and blood flows across the pages of Israel’s book.
In Babylon, now, defeated and dispirited, God’s people search for meaning … and ask hard questions:
Was there too much blood?
Too many swords?
The love of war and conquest?

A telling review of David’s life from the Book of Chronicles - it’s right here; in the Bible: God forbids David to build the Temple … and why?
God says to David: You’ve shed much blood and waged great wars. You won’t build a temple for my name because you’ve spilled so much blood on the ground before me.
God closes the book on war and conquest when Jesus is born … the Promised Land reaches its final chapter when angels sing to shepherds in the field.

A savior is born in David’s City, they sing … but no David is he; David’s story comes to a close … a new story birthed in Bethlehem.
We have much to learn from King David, no doubt.
Even more from Jesus, the Prince of Peace.
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

June 17, 2012, "The First Shall Be Last"

1 Samuel 15.34 - 16.13

Quit moping Samuel!
We’ve got work to do.
We’re not gonna wait any longer.
Saul is history.
I’m sorry I selected him.
And you never liked him, anyway.
No sense crying over spilt milk.
Water under the bridge.
Water over the dam.
So it goes.
Fill your horn with oil and get going Samuel.
I’m sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem.
I have found me a king!

A trip of about 20 miles or so … from Saul’s home in Ramah to Bethlehem … 
Off the beaten path.
Out of the ordinary.
But Samuel is no dummy.
If Saul finds out what I’m doing, he’ll be furious … he’ll kill me.
Maybe so, says God.
But let’s not think of the negative!
Let’s not ponder the worst.
Here, I’ve got an idea.
Take a heifer.
When you get to Bethlehem, tell them you’re there to worship, to make a sacrifice … a festival … a time of celebration … a barbecue … a picnic for the town!
And be sure to invite Jesse.
Only then will I make it clear to you what comes next.

Samuel shows up, with heifer in tow.
The town elders shake in their boots.
Samuel is Saul’s righthand man … famous and fierce … What is he doing here?
It can’t be good.
Have we done something wrong?
Everyone’s afraid.
Samuel is afraid of Saul.
The elders are afraid of Samuel.
This is not the fear of faith.
This is anxiety … raw anxiety.
The anxiety of the unfamiliar, the unknown, the uncertain, the unpredictable.
Everyone’s anxious; everyone’s nervous … sweaty palms and churning stomach!

But Samuel obeys the LORD.
Let’s party, says Samuel.
Here’s a heifer I brought with me.
I want to worship the LORD here.
Go make yourselves holy.
Get ready for a feast.
And a feast it was.
Sacrifice was a time of festivity.
Sure, there were sacrifices for sin and sorrow and wrong-doing, and they were somber affairs … but this was a sacrifice of joy - purification and well-being … only certain parts of the animal were burned on the altar, the rest was available for a picnic.

I think of family picnics … Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Labor Day … hamburgers and hotdogs sizzling on the grill, clouds of blue smoke rising into the air … a big green bowl of Gramma’s potato salad, Aunt Marie’s jello with little oranges and marshmallows, Uncle Ben’s horseradish, strong enough to curl the hair on your head, and all those fabulous pies … kids running around, ducking behind trees, shouting and jumping … playing games … everyone having a good time, getting caught up on all the news, who’s getting married, who’s pregnant, who’s sick, and we all miss Uncle Jim who died last year, and cousin Bob who ran away with the neighbor’s wife, and no one knows where they are.

A family get-together … food and drink and all that talking.
Everyone at ease.
Full belly.
A few beers.
And Samuel with a keen eye.

He asks to meet Jesse’s boys, and Jesse is pleased to comply … What’s he looking for? Why does he want to meet my boys? Maybe he’ll take them back to the palace. High places. Big things. Fame and Fortune. The lucky break.
Sort of like an audition for “America’s Got Talent.”
Samuel looks at the boys, one by one.
Samuel’s no one’s fool.
He’s got a keen eye, for sure.
And when Samuel sees the first son, Eliab, Samuel thinks to himself, This has got to be the one.
No need for any more fuss.
But the LORD says to Samuel, Uh uh, nothing doing.
Don’t waste your time or mine on appearances … I look at the heart, and I’m looking for man with a heart … a heart after my own heart!
So the next six sons are presented, and each time God says, Not the one!

Samuel asks Jesse, Do you have another son?
Yes, but he’s just a boy, he’s the youngest … we sent him out to look after the sheep while we’re at the picnic.

The eighth son … if seven is the full number, then eight is a brand new universe … God created heaven and earth in seven days, and rested.
A new born son is circumcised on the eighth day - because a child is always new day, a new world, a fresh expression of hope - the first day of whole new dimension.
The eighth son of Jesse … out in the fields … 

For reasons unknown to us, Jesse sent young David to the fields while he took the other seven boys to the party.
Didn’t Jesse have a hired hand?
Someone else to help?
Why did he send little Davy away?
Sometimes things happen in a family.
Brothers turn against brothers.
Parents play favorites.
Sisters fight with each other.
I’m not talking about the usual stuff … I’m talking about really mean stuff … when love grows twisted and toxic … the hurt goes deep, and goes on and on.

Who knows?
Little Davy was sent to the fields, while the rest of the family went to the party.
Bring him here, says Samuel.
We can’t proceed until he gets here.
Jesse sends for the boy.
Wonder how long that took.
There they all stand, looking at each other.
No one dares to challenge Samuel, that’s for sure.
So they wait … hands in their pockets, kicking stones.

When David finally gets there, Samuel sees a fine looking young man … mahogany in appearance … reddish brown … a ruddy complexion … beautiful eyes … just plain good lookin’.
David’s a fine specimen of a young man.
But more than that, he’s got heart!
God’s heart.
He’s the one, says the LORD.
Don’t waste any more time.
Anoint him now!
Right in front of the brothers … Davy in his jeans and flannel shirt, stained and sweaty.
Wonder what his brothers thought.
What’s wrong with us?
Are we chopped liver?
We’re smart.
Good looking.
And our little snot-nosed brother is the hit of the party?

But so it goes!
God’s ways are not our ways.
Sometimes the first is last.
And sometimes the last is first.
To God be the glory!
Amen and Amen!

Monday, June 11, 2012

June 10, 2012, "False Hopes

1 Samuel 8

Today, we begin a series on David.
The man who wrote:
the LORD is my Shepherd, I shall not want
I offer my life to you, LORD. My God I trust you
The LORD is my light and my salvation. 
Should I fear anyone?

Who can forget David’s defeat of Goliath?
David’s escape from death when Saul hurls a spear at him in a fit of despair?
David and Saul’s son, Jonathan - a friendship extraordinaire!
The moment when David had Saul in his hands, and he refuses to take Saul’s life.
David’s risqué dance before the LORD when the ark is brought to Jerusalem.
The affair with Bathsheba, the murder of her husband, the death of the child, and Psalm 51, Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!

David’s story - huge, complicated, sad and joyful.

As it is for all of us … ups and downs … moments of ecstasy; times of bitter trial … pleasant, happy days … and slow walks through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

We look before and after,
And pine for what is not:
Our sincerest laughter 
With some pain is fraught;
Our sweetest songs are those that tell of saddest thought.

David’s story begins long before we met him.
In the Book of Ruth … the story of Elimelech and Naomi who flee to the land of Moab because there’s a famine in the land of Israel. Desperate times require desperate decisions.
There, in Moab, Elimelech dies, leaving Naomi a widow with two sons.
Her sons marry Moabite women, and then, the Moabite husbands die … so there we are, a story of three widows … at the bottom of the social ladder … poor, desperate, frightened.
Naomi says to her daughters-in-law, Go back to your homes … I’m heading back home myself, to Israel; the famine is ended, I hear, and I’ll fare better there than here.
This is more bitter for me than for you, because the LORD’S will has come out against me.
Of the two daughters:
Orpah kisses Naomi goodbye and returns to her home.
Ruth casts her lot with Naomi, declaring her loyalty to Naomi: Wherever you go, I will go; and wherever you stay, I will stay. Your people will be my people, and your God will be my God.
Naomi and Ruth return to Israel … though the famine is ended, hardship and sorrow there because Naomi and Ruth are the bottom of the social ladder - Ruth goes to the fields in harvest time to scavenge for grain. … a kindly man by the name of Boaz helps her.
Ruth comes home with grain and tells Naomi.
Ruth is pleased and surprised, He’s a relative of mine, she says … May he be blessed by the LORD who hasn’t abandoned his faithfulness with the living or the dead.
Naomi tells her daughter-in-law - pretty yourself up, put on some perfume … go meet Boaz at the the threshing floor … when he’s done eating and drinking, pleasantly satisfied, comfortable and relaxed, introduce yourself to him, and we’ll see where it goes.
Naomi loves Ruth, and she’s not above telling Ruth to use her feminine charms to allure Boaz … an old man stunned by Ruth’s beauty and goodness … he falls madly in love with her and proposes marriage … redeems Naomi’s land, and all is well, as no one could have imagined.

But the story doesn’t end here!

From a generous man like Boaz, and a loyal woman like Ruth, a son is born, and they name him Obed … from Obed, a son is born, and he’s named Jesse … from Jesse, a son is born, and they name him David!

David’s story begins long before we meet him … in the “chance” encounter of a desperate woman who loves her mother-in-law, and a kindly old man who flips for her perfume!

Because God is faithful to the living and the dead … at work in all things … even perfume and longing … at work in all things for good.

Though God often be hidden in the fog of history.
As if God’s will has come out against us.
As if all is lost, and hope is gone!
But a promise made is a promise kept.

The primal promise made to Abraham and Sarah, when the  covenant story begins, long ago time, in the land of Ur  … a promise to be at work in all things … in all things for good.

The great promise behind every story … the promise hidden in every tear … the promise that stands by the bedside of the dying and watches over us in all of our comings and goings.
I will never leave you or forsake you.
I am with you always!
I am your God, and you are my people!

Our story takes a twist with Samuel and his two sons … Samuel is old and has served the people well … but no one lives for ever … Samuel appoints his two sons to take over, but it ends badly for everyone … the two boys are not up to the task; they have their father’s blood, but they have none of his character.
The people put a request to Samuel - You’re old Samuel, and you sons don’t walk in your footsteps. Appoint a king to lead us … in times such as these, we need stable leadership, we need a king who will defend us and promote our cause … we need king, like all the other nations.

Samuel is distressed, and so is God.

But God says to Samuel - Take it easy. They’ve not rejected you; they’ve rejected me as their king.
And then something very interesting.
God says, Listen to the people … but tell them clearly, kings are kings … they’ll take your young men and press them into military service; they’ll take your young women and put them to work in the commissaries … kings will take your best grain and best wine, you best cattle and sheep, and even your best land … 
And when that day comes, you’ll complain about it.
 No we won’t, the people say in one voice. We know what we want, and we want what we know. Give us a king, so we can be like all the other nations.
God says to Samuel: Give them a king.
And with that, Samuel sends the people home.

In the next few chapters, the stories of King Saul … a king with good intentions, kindly nature, but as the story unfolds, a king with little regard for God.

Woven into Saul’s story, the tale of a young shepherd boy, who fells the giant, Goliath with a sling and a stone, and plays the harp to sooth Saul’s troubled spirit.
One day, this shepherd boy will govern the people with skill, compassion and great faith.
A man after God’s own heart, the Bible says.

But those stories will have to wait until later.
Amen and Amen!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

June 3, 2012, "The Will of the Wind"

John 3.1-17

Nicodemus, ol’ boy, you’ve got to start all over again!

That’s the message Jesus offers to this bright and timid man.
Nicodemus is bright.
One of Israel’s best.
A leader, a teacher!
And he wants to know more about Jesus.
But he’s also a timid man.
He comes to Jesus under the cover of nightfall.
He’s not about to meet Jesus in broad daylight.
But meet Jesus, he does.
He’s on the right track!
He recognizes in Jesus something great.
Something important.
His eyes, still partially shut, but he sees glimpses of truth … and timid or not, he goes to Jesus.

When it’s dark, or when it’s light … when things are good, and when things are bad … every day of our life, to Jesus we go.
The hymn puts it beautifully, I need Thee every hour!
Jesus in the morning … and Jesus in the night.
When I’m rich and when I’m poor.
When I’m happy and when I’m sad.
When my heart is full of joy.
When my eyes are full of tears.
I need Thee every hour!
To this timid man, this bright man … a man who desires truth, Jesus says, You need to start all over again!

Who doesn’t need a fresh start from time-to-time?
A change of mind.
Change is the nature of life.
Change occurs as we grow up.
Go to school … fall in love … get a job.
Change occurs through suffering and sorrow, as well as happiness and surprise.
To live is to change.

All of us have changed a great deal in the last seven years … think back to where we were and what we were doing seven years ago.
Can we even remember?
Seven years ago is a faint memory … and seven years from now, this moment will be a faint memory, too.

Change is the nature of life.
Jesus invites Nicodemus to change.
Dramatic change … life-altering change, change of heart and change of mind … Nic, ol’ boy, you’re on the wrong path. No sense trying harder to make somethin’ outta nothin’. Ya’ gotta go back. To the beginning. Start all over again!

Jesus uses the image of birth … all the way back to the beginning.
Nicodemus wonders if Jesus has lost his mind.
Can someone enter the womb again? 
This entertains Jesus … Oh Nicodemus, you’re so bright, but you just don’t get it. 
You’re a leader, a teacher, and something as basic and simple as starting all over again, you don’t get it.

Jesus takes his time with Nicodemus.
Jesus never hurries, when it comes to people.
The woman at the well.
Zacchaeus up a tree.
The blind man beside the road.
Jesus takes his time with all of them.
Because it takes time to grow.
Dandelions grow fast, and we call them … weeds.
Oak trees take their time, and we call them … mighty.
Jesus takes his time with Nicodemus, because it takes time to grow a human being.
And it works.
Slowly, of course, but it works!
Nicodemus shows up two more times in the story … in John 7, Nicodemus cautions his colleagues in their rush to judgment. They want to condemn Jesus, but Nicodemus urges patience; tells them to get better acquainted with Jesus.
They pay no attention to Nicodemus, but he speaks firmly - no longer timid.
In John 19, after the death of Jesus, Nicodemus goes with Joseph of Arimathea to claim the body … they properly bury Jesus, with lots of spices and expensive linen. 
It would seem that Nicodemus has made some deep decisions about what he values, what he believes, what he loves.

Whenever we meet Jesus … for the first time, the 100th time, the 10,000th time, it’s always a brand new day … a day of discovery … whatever we might know of Jesus, there’s always more to learn … whatever we have done for him, there still more to do!

Why does Jesus ask Nicodemus to go back to the beginning?
Because fiddling with what we already have produces very little more … an old car is an old car … though we may love ol’ Betsy, and she may have served us well, her tires are worn, her paint faded, the seats full of holes, the engine tired, and she’s out of alignment.
It takes more money and time to keep the old car up … it’s no longer worth it.
Time to retire ol’ Betsy.
There’s nothing Jesus can do with Nicodemus and his world as it is  … it’s time for something new … a new world is dawning; old ideas have to be set aside.

Is this easy?
Never is.
Always hard.
Most of us talk a good game of change, as long as it’s the other guy who has to change. 
The Bible says, Sing a new song to the Lord … because God is tired of the same old, same old, songs we love to sing … God wants to hear something new out of us … but if you’re anything like me, give me the old time religion - stuff I know … the tried and the true … the familiar and the comfortable.
The trap of time.
The pit of the familiar.
The couch of the comfortable!

How can I change? Asks Nicodemus … and we might well ask the same of ourselves - how can we change?
There are lots of things we can do to initiate change.
Go on a diet!
Look for a new job!
Read a book about gardening!
Find a new way to drive to work.
Make a new friend.
Learn how to knit!
Visit a nursing home!
Shop in a farmer’s market!
We can do all kinds of things to change bits and pieces of our life.

But Jesus drives home the central truth of the Gospel … to be “born again” - this is not possible for human beings.
We can be good … very good.
We can be wise … very wise.
We can be kind … exceedingly kind.
Yet still walk in darkness, burdened by sin and sorrow … a prisoner of ourselves … no greater prison than personal virtue … because we spend so much time preening in front of the mirror, comparing ourselves to others … too much time patting ourselves on the back.
I met a friend the other day … his arm was in a cast … I asked, “Hey, what happened?” He replied, “I broke my arm while patting myself on the back!”

Only God can set us free, whatever the prison may be.
Only God can birth us anew.
It’s always a miracle.
Just like physical birth.
Do any of us claim responsibility for our physical birth? Did we plan it? Map it out? Tell Mom and Dad, “Now’s the time!”?
Of course not.
Nor can any of us claim responsibility for our birth into Jesus Christ …
We didn’t choose God.
God chose us!
We didn’t pick ourselves up.
God picked us up!
We never went forward at that revival meeting.
God took us by the hand and pulled us out of seats.
We never accepted Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ accepted us and turned on the lights!
God plucked us out of the kingdom of darkness and transferred us into the world of light.
We were dead in our sins and trespasses - not just maimed, injured, or weakened - we were dead, lost, gone … but God saves us … saves us because of God’s great love.

It’s a miracle that any of us are here today to sing the praises of God … it’s all God’s work … God’s mighty love … 
Never ours to command, but always ours to receive.
The work of the Holy Spirit.
The will of the wind!
All of this, from the Great God Almighty.
Amen and Amen!