Thursday, August 31, 2006

Words of Life (John 6:56-59)

One of the things John draws our attention to is the fact that Jesus is here to do more than to just witness to the truth. He is the truth, as he points out.

Because of that, John pays a lot of attention to what happens when Jesus confronts people who, to borrow Jack Nicholson’s phrase, “can’t handle the truth.” Like here, for instance. We join the tail end of a story that starts with Jesus feeding the multitudes with just a few loaves and fishes. As you might imagine, this has drawn the crowds. Which would seem to be a good thing, right? More people around means the message spreads more quickly, and that’s what we want, of course.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to want the same thing, because he immediately begins teaching about himself in such strange and almost offensive terms that even some of the disciples who had followed him for some time decide they’re done. The ones who stay say, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

We don’t see that the same way, of course, because whenever Jesus speaks about his body and his blood, we think of communion. We’re familiar with the idea, and we’re familiar with the symbolic characteristics of what he says.

Not these folks, though. First, they’ve never heard of communion. Second, they have a bunch of laws about eating human flesh and drinking any blood, let alone human blood. Their holiest teachings, from God himself and given through Moses, condemn those practices in no uncertain terms. Drinking blood, the life of the body, offends God, the creator of life. Eating human flesh mimics the pagans surrounding Israel who sacrificed their own children on idol’s altars and ate parts of them afterwards.

If you want to get a sense of what they’re feeling, think of something that’s really repulsive to you. Now imagine Jesus telling you that following him is somehow like doing that very same repulsive thing.

No wonder people walked away. If following Jesus meant turning their backs on what God had always taught them, then they would have nothing to do with it.

Some stayed, though. Jesus looks at them, and asks if they will leave him also. Peter speaks for them. “Where else could we go? You have the words of life.”

Somehow, Peter understands something the walkaways don’t. He knows what he’s heard makes no sense according to what he knows about God, and about what God wants from his people. It makes no sense according to his way of looking at the world. In fact, it makes no sense according to the way Jesus was supposed to look at the world, either, since Jesus was as much a Jew as the disciples themselves.

But Peter has the faith to believe that there is somehow sense behind the nonsense that he’s hearing. Jesus hasn’t yet told the disciples that he is the way and the truth and the life, but Peter and those who stay seem to have some awareness that he is.

We might think that’s pretty good, and in many ways it is, but look at all of what Peter says. “Lord, where else would we go?” Are those the words of someone who’s checking out the seven habits of the highly purpose-driven life? Do they sound like someone who believe’s he’s found a quick and easy prayer to say to get all he wants out of life?

They don’t to me. They sound like a man who’s drowning in the ocean and has found exactly one thing he can cling to to float on. They sound like someone who doesn’t care how undignified or weird or crazy or even bizarre he has to be in order to hold on.

And if any idea in the history of ideas is weirder than the gospel, I couldn’t tell you what it was. The idea that a God who could make the universe would care about us? Or that he’d love us enough to let us reject him and everything he’d done? Or that he’d still love us after we did that and wouldn’t even let our own sins and limitations keep us away from him? Wonderful, but weird.

We sometimes have too many options around us, so we don’t realize we’re in the same position Peter and the rest are in. We’re able to handle a lot of what life gives us most of the time, so we can overlook our desperate need for those words of life. Every now and then, though, stuff hits us that that makes us turn to God and say, “Leave you? I’ve got no place else to go.”

That’s when God awakens us to the difference between “no place to go” and “no place else to go.” In words, it seems small, but in reality, it’s the difference between hope and despair, between life and death.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Wiseguy (1Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14)

Question: Was Solomon smart, or was he wise? Or maybe he was both?

There’s a difference. Sometimes wise people aren’t smart. And sometimes smart people aren’t wise. Solomon knows the difference, and that’s why he asks for what he does.

This is what I mean. This reading skips over some of the story of Solomon’s succession and his first steps on the throne. First of all, there’s the problem of Adonijah, Solomon’s brother, who tries to take the throne before David dies. Bathsheba, Solomon’s mom, has to intervene because David was pretty clear that he wanted Solomon to follow him.

Then Solomon takes care of some business as he begins his rule. He eliminates some enemies and pays off some old debts – this is were Joab meets his end, for example. Nothing unusual in that. Kings in these days often started ruling by making sure the competition was otherwise occupied, usually by running for their lives or being buried.

Now comes Solomon’s dream, in which God asks him what he wants. Solomon’s answer will tell God what kind of king he wants to be.

He could ask for power and glory, for a long life and victory over his enemies. If he did, he would also be following the usual kingly pattern. Wealth, power, glory, victory, a long reign – these were the signs of a successful king.

If Solomon asks for these things, then God will know he wants to be a king like the other kings in that day and time. What he won’t want is to be a king suitable to ruling the people of God. Remember, Israel is a nation founded on God’s promise and his law. Those things set the people apart from other nations. They’re the chosen people, so they’re supposed to act like it.

Again, God’s promise to David about establishing his throne for eternity suggest that Israel’s king is supposed to be a different kind of king.

We don’t see it written out, but my guess is that when Solomon realizes the choice he has been given, he evaluates what kind of king he has been so far. He sees that his rule has started with bloodshed, with family struggles, with political infighting. He’s had his enemies killed, on the advice of hs father David.

I think that if he did look at what kind of king he’s been so far, Solomon may have realized that he hasn’t been the kind of king who’s ruling God’s chosen people. Nothing sets him apart from other royalty and how they act. And he might decided he doesn’t want to be that kind of king. Which is pretty smart, if you ask me.

So Solomon doesn’t ask for riches and glory and all the other stuff. He says he’s young, inexperienced and he doesn’t know how to be the king of God’s chosen people. If God is going to give him something, could he give him the wisdom needed to be that kind of king? Could he be shown how to use the gifts he has in order to be a king suitable for God’s people? A king who is worthy to be a part of the eternal line that God promised David?

Which is also pretty smart.

The more I look at this story, the less I see God giving Solomon something he doesn’t have and the more I see God releasing qualities he already does have.

Releasing them, guiding them, refining them. God taking something that he had put in Solomon and making it into the tool Solomon needed to be what God wanted him to be.

Language like that echoes the idea that each of us is created in the image of God, designed in some way to reflect something of God to those who see us. If sin has tarnished or marred that image, then Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection cleans it and repairs it, making it what it should be.

Some combination of divine action, genetic inheritance and upbringing gave Solomon enough wisdom to know he needed God to magnify that gift in order for it to be used right. Everyone has some gift or another that is a part of the image God designed for them before they were born. But we don’t have nearly enough of it, or the knowledge of how to use it, anything like the way God wants us to.

Solomon knew this, and so he asked to be shown how to use what he had to fulfill the role God wanted for him.

Smart. And wise too.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Absalom! (2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33)

It’s easy to see Absalom as a kind of mirror of his father David. Both were charismatic, handsome men with gifts for leadership.

Both started out greatly valued by their respective kings, only to flee when their loyalty was answered with betrayal. Saul became jealous of David and tried to kill him. David, when he was king, did nothing to punish the man who raped Absalom’s sister Tamar because that man was David’s favorite son Amnon. Absalom killed Amnon himself and left Jerusalem for many years.

Eventually, David allowed Absalom to come back to Jerusalem, but he wouldn’t take him back at the palace. Absalom decided to take the throne for himself, and began gathering support for his plans.

David and many of his supporters escaped Jerusalem before Absalom could move. He planted spies to tell him what Absalom was doing and feed his councilors false information. So when the armies fought, David’s army won. Absalom, leaving the battle, got himself somehow stuck in a tree. The Hebrew is weird here, so we don’t know how, exactly. When some of David’s soldiers saw it, they remembered what David had said. “Deal gently with the young man Absalom,” he had asked. So they went to Joab, David’s main military official and the man he’d relied on to help kill Uriah.

Joab’s world is simple. In it, there are two kinds of enemies: Those who have been suitably dealt with and those who are still living. War consists of switching as many of the second group as you can into the first group. So he and his guard go to Absalom and kill him. David is heartbroken – he never fully reconciled with his son, and now he never can.

Why does Absalom’s story end differently that David’s does? I’d suggest it’s because of what Absalom’s story is missing: God.

Absalom never seeks God’s guidance for what he does, never seems to show any thought for God at all. Remember, David knew he would be king after Saul, but because Saul was still God’s anointed king, he wouldn’t attack him. Absalom tries to overthrow his father even though he is God’s anointed king.

None of Absalom’s actions involve God. We may understand his rage and desire to avenge his sister’s rape, but did he ask God if this was the way to deal with Amnon? When he returned to Jerusalem, did he has forgiveness for killing his brother? Remember, God goes on the record pretty early with a not-in-favor-of opinion about brother-killing.

Does Absalom seek God’s guidance before he decides he will have the throne now, thank you very much, and not wait until the old man goes toes-up. Is what he does God’s will or is it his own ambition?

I see him serving his ambition, and not seeking God’s way. I can’t see that Absalom pays any attention to God at all. It’s almost like we’re watching what David’s career would have been like if he hadn’t followed God’s direction and leading before he became king.

Maybe I’m reading the story too simply, but the distinction is there to be drawn. Men who were pretty much equal in abilities and leadership. Men who had similar opportunities and similar circumstances. But one chose the path God laid out for him, and the other didn’t. And one ended up king, and the other ended up dead.

So maybe it’s not our gifts and talents and abilities that make the difference for us in this life. Maybe even if we’ve not got much in the way of talents, what happens to us in life depends on something else. Or Someone Else, I guess, is better.

If I’m on God’s side, then no matter what I’m able to do on my own, I know God’s purpose will be accomplished through me. Which sounds like good news to me.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

You The Man! (2 Sm 11:26-12:13a)

In our story today, we’ll see King David ask, “What’s with all the chickens, and why are they coming here to roost?”

To refresh, David and Bathsheba had a liaison after David spotted her bathing on her roof. She was married, so her pregnancy would have, at the very least, marred David’s image in the eyes of the people. After unsuccessfully trying to trick her husband Uriah into sleeping with her and thus provide a reasonable explanation for her pregnancy, David has Uriah killed so he can marry Bathsheba instead.

So everything’s all settled now. The baby will be the product of a real marriage, and no one’s the wiser. Except Someone is.

Nathan the prophet came to David and told him a little story about a man and his pet ewe lamb. The man and his family lost their lamb because a rich man with many sheep and cattle didn’t want to use one of his own animals to make dinner for a guest.

David is furious. This is exactly the kind of thing the laws of God were designed to prevent, and as king, it is his job to enforce those laws. The strong should not take advantage of the weak, and this rich man owes four times the cost of the lamb, or else he’s in deep trouble.

“You are the man!”

Now Nathan’s getting wound up, and probably not the least because how often do you get to talk to a king like this? He gives David the message God sent him to bring:

I put you on this throne, God says. I gave you victory over your enemy and I gave you his wives and his household. If that hadn’t been enough, I’d have given you double that, but you didn’t care.

You killed Uriah with the sword of the Ammonites, God says to David through Nathan. You did it.

David’s response is very interesting. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he says.

Does David’s response – he doesn’t mention Bathsheba or Uriah -- mean he lacks compassion for the people he’s hurt? Some people think so, but I’m not sure.

I believe that David now sees the full impact of his sin. He knew he’d done wrong against Uriah and Bathsheba, but since he didn’t get caught, it didn’t count. Now he understands that it did count, in a way he’d never thought about.

It’s probably the one part of God’s message I have to have drummed into me over and over again – God has decided that what we limited human beings do in our finite lives is going to matter. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea. All I know is that he did.

We’re not just unimportant blobs of protoplasm meandering around on a rock. We bear the image of God. So what we do isn’t just some sort of random spasm of physics and biology. Our actions and words and thoughts echo in eternity, with impacts and consequences and results we aren’t equipped to see.

God, who is so equipped, offered guidelines for us that if followed, help us join those echoes to his plan for creation. He calls us to roles in our lives that do the same, and when we depart from them we don’t just cut ourselves off from each other. We cut ourselves off from God, and we create ripples that may devastate us later, or devastate the lives of others, whether we know it or not.

Again, don’t ask me why. I wasn’t consulted, and I doubt I have the knowledge to have contributed anything intelligent. But I believe this a fact: God has decided that I matter, and that you matter, so what we do is going to matter. Anyone who’s seen one of the Spider-man movies knows another way of saying that: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So David sees that yes, his actions did wrong people he was pledged to protect. But they also went against God, because anything done to one of God’s children matters to God as well. And he responds in a way that says he finally understands: “I have sinned against God.”

In my life, those words are awful and wonderful at the same time. Awful because I realize the extent of the harm I’ve caused.
Wonderful because once I say them, God says, “Yes, but I forgive you and now I think we can get started on fixing the problem.”

Good news, I’d say.