Sunday, June 21, 2009

The Adventure of David and the Really Big Target (First Samuel 17:1-49)

What was David thinking when he walked out to meet Goliath?

I don’t mean that in the way that Jesse probably asked him when he heard about the story – the way fathers often ask their teenage sons “What were you thinking?” when something reeeealllly bad has happened, in the way that makes it certain that the question is rhetorical and does not allow for the possibility that the son was thinking in any way, shape or form. Although I believe that Jesse may have asked that question as well, and not only of David.

I was wondering what thoughts were going through his head. He was, after all, doing no more than putting feet to his earlier words about God defeating all of Israel’s enemies. If he was right, then an “uncircumcised Philistine,” said the same way the people in this part of the country say “Texas Longhorn,” didn’t have a prayer against an Israelite.

Unfortunately, after figuring out Saul’s armor and weapons didn’t fit him, David realized that all he had was a prayer, and I have to think there was some part of him that didn’t know exactly how it would all turn out.

Of course he knew that God’s people would defeat the Philistines, but he didn’t have any guarantees that he would survive the encounter. Perhaps he would. Or perhaps Goliath would kill him, but his death would enflame the Israelite army so that they would attack the Philistines: “They killed a kid! Let’s get ‘em!” All he knew for sure was that he was God’s servant and that God would win. No other promises, no other certainties, other than that someone who expected God’s victory ought to act like it.

He prepares for the battle the best way he can – he picks up some ammo first. Not just one rock, which makes me think he didn’t have any forewarning about how things would go, no matter what he said to Saul and to Goliath. Then, after Goliath insults him a little bit, the giant swaggers up to the fight. He probably figures the kid’s fear will finally get the better of him and he’ll run away, and all the Philistines will have a good laugh over it that night at his tent.

But he doesn’t see that David knows this is a real fight, even though he doesn’t have any “real” weapons like a sword and a spear. So David approaches it like a real fight, and attacks immediately, running to close the range for his sling. When he reaches a good firing position, he loads his sling and fires. We don’t know whether or not the stone actually killed Goliath when it hit him, but David renders the question moot by decapitating him (“Didn’t need to bring a sword. I used the other guy’s.”)

David’s actions teach us a lot of lessons. There’s the lesson about how sometimes it’s not about whether God’s people win, it’s about whether God wins. Remember, David picked up five stones, not one. He didn’t know Goliath would have a glass dome, but he knew God would win no matter what happened, so out he went.

There’s the lesson about using what you know how to use when you do God’s work. Saul and the soldiers – the military experts – knew what kind of armor and weaponry they would take with them if they fought Goliath, so they dressed David out in that kind of gear. Of course, if this stuff was so great, then maybe one of those experts might have strapped it on and fought Goliath himself, and anyway, David wasn’t a soldier. He was a shepherd, and he knew how to fight with a sling and a staff. So that’s what he used. And as we saw, when he need a sword, he found one no one was using.

Church folks may be tempted by the amazing success secular advertisers and companies have in branding their products and reaching the people they want to. We may want to use their tools, and I won’t deny we must find ways to effectively communicate the gospel.

But our given equipment, if you will, is that gospel. The message that God so loved his broken creation that he gave himself up to heal it. The message that matters to us because we’ve been that broken creation and we know that without God we’d have stayed broken. Until we recognize that about ourselves, the swords and spears of outrageous marketing and the full armor of the ad campaign will only hamper us.

Sure, the gospel may look as effective against the wrong of the world as David’s sling did against Goliath’s 15-pound spear. And smarter, wiser and hipper people may sneer that we’ve brought rocks to a sword fight. But remember, rock breaks giant. Or at least, the giant’s skull.

If we’ve got the winning combination and the winning weapon, why, we might wonder, why aren’t we taking a little off the top of all the giants, left and right? Why are the Goliaths of hedonism and selfishness and oppression and materialism and hate striding across our countrysides – both literally and metaphorically – braying out boasts of superiority and invincibility?

I can’t speak for you or for others, but it seems to me like one reason my particular neck of the woods is still giant-ridden is that, unlike David, I don’t find myself charging into the fight. When Goliath ambled out like he was at a modeling gig, David charged in and fired.

God grant me the grace and the courage to charge in when the foes of my own sin and shortsightedness boast about how they will trample me underfoot, having the faith the believe that even if they do so, short indeed will be their boasting when they realize that I follow the One whose death signaled, not defeat, but his greatest victory.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Here Am I? Send Me? (Isaiah 6:1-8)

In my Introduction to the Bible class, our Old Testament professor started with this passage when he began teaching us about the prophets. He stayed with it for four or five class sessions.

I’ll just sum up what he was getting at quickly, since you all won’t have to take a test like we did. We remember the ancient Israelites believed the first true king of their people, David, was anointed by God for the role. The king was more than just a political ruler; he was a symbol of God’s connection to the people.

For many, many years, the Israelites had very bad kings, especially when it came to modeling godly leadership. The faithful folks who hadn’t mixed idol worship and whatnot in with their worship of God were probably resigned to the fact that the king was pretty much never going to be on their side. King Uzziah was a welcome change – he was a believer who worked to get the nation back into compliance with the Torah as it had been delivered through Moses. Faithful people like Isaiah found hope in his efforts.

After his pride put him in conflict with the priests and he contracted leprosy, Uzziah retired from the throne while his son Jotham reigned. When Uzziah finally died, faithful people like Isaiah wondered what would happen? Would his son Jotham do right in God’s sight as well? What would happen to the people without their anointed and proven righteous leader? Jotham was righteous, but he outlived his father by only three years, and his successor Ahaz went back to business as usual.

It’s in the uncertain time after Uzziah’s death we see Isaiah’s vision of the presence of God filling the temple. On the one hand, it’s reassuring. Even though the righteous king has died, God remains.

But on the other hand, it’s a little nervous-making. Isaiah realizes that neither he nor his people are clean in God’s sight; they have said and done things that go against the God they claim to follow. Such a condition gives hope for longevity.

In his vision, the angel touches a fiery coal to his lips and proclaims that God has cleansed the taint Isaiah has admitted. He hears God calling for a messenger to speak to the people, and he calls out his desire to answer God’s call. His words echo Samuel’s when God called to him in the night. “Here am I! Send me!”

We stop there most of the time. “Will you answer God’s call?” preachers may ask. “God has cleansed you himself – how will you respond?” It’s a good question, and I believe God does want us to respond to his displayed love by bringing that love into the world around us.

But there’s a catch. We never seem to read the message Isaiah is meant to give the people: “Listen but don’t get it. See but never perceive. Make their hearts calloused, dull their eyes and ears.” How long do I do that, Isaiah asks? “Until everything is in ruins,” the Lord says. “Until everything is in ruins and there’s just a remnant left over.”

Bible scholars argue over just what God means Isaiah to say – some suggest God is literally dictating the message he wants Isaiah to give. Others say God describes how the people will respond to what Isaiah tells them. I lean the second way myself for a couple of reasons. One is the common experience most of us believers have had of people ignoring us or cutting us short when we might want to talk about our faith. Another is how often I have ignored God’s words to me about some area of my life that needs changing. Sometimes I wise up and listen right away and sometimes it takes awhile and sometimes I don’t listen until I’m wiped out down to the ruins and remnants.

Either way, this message would inspire little enthusiasm in the budding prophet or preacher. Who wants to proclaim a message that’s guaranteed to be ignored?

And yet, that’s the call and that’s the offer Isaiah has taken up. That’s what he does. Interestingly, Isaiah’s visions are what we see as some of the first inklings that God will give the people about his ultimate plan of salvation, made real in his son Jesus. A messenger who’s told to proclaim a message without hope is the source of our understanding of God’s ultimate hope.

How is that possible? I believe it’s because of that “stump” that God calls “the holy seed.” Like a tree stump produces new shoots that may in time become a whole new tree, the bare remnant of God’s presence among the unfaithful people will be enough reason for the few faithful to keep hope.

Expand that view some, and we can see God telling us that he remains no matter what the condition or situation. From a wrecked country he will bring forth his people, and from what may seem like a life wrecked by sin he will bring forth his redeemed child.

Maybe that’s trying to read too much into God’s words to Isaiah here; I don’t know. What I do know is that after this encounter comes the prophecy of Emmanuel and the promise of redemption by the suffering servant as well as the better part of sixty more chapters of messages from God to the people. Sounds to me like Isaiah heard something in these words that made him figure he had something to say, whether anybody listened or not.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Pentecost! (Acts 2:1-21)

Pentecost – rarely has so big a day been given such an ordinary name.

The word itself means “The Fiftieth Day.” Greek-speaking Jews used it to talk about a feast that was made fifty days after Passover, and during Jewish history it’s had several different emphases. For Christians, it marks what we call “the birthday of the church.”

It’s a spectacular day, really. The believers gather in an upper room and then the Holy Spirit comes, and we see these amazing effects of the Spirit’s presence; the rushing wind and the tongues of fire and the disciples speaking a variety of languages. But that name! “Day Fifty.” Whoop-ti-doo.

Oh well, we’ll chalk it up to the early church not having a good marketing rep and look at the events of that day. First, we find the believers gathered together in one place. Unlike their gatherings after Jesus’ crucifixion, they aren’t hiding or wondering what to do. They’re waiting for something, as they were told by Jesus.

Then there’s the sound of a rushing wind moving over them. You’ve probably heard any number of times that the same Greek root word translates as “wind” or “spirit,” depending on the context. People who read the Old Testament in Greek, a translation called the Septuagint, would have read Luke’s account and been reminded of the spirit of God moving on the face of the waters in Genesis.

And then “divided tongues, as of fire,” appear to rest on each believer. The presence of the Holy Spirit is often symbolized by a flame. Our own United Methodist symbol of the cross and flame uses it in that way.

Next, Kaboom! They’re off and running. They start talking about the gospel of Christ and everyone around Jerusalem hears them in their own native languages. This is not glossolalia, or the speaking in an unknown tongue, that Paul talks about later in the New Testament. That refers to someone speaking in an unknown language which someone else is given the gift to translate.

In this case, the believers speak in their own languages, but the people hear them in their own languages. It’s as though I were to travel to Mexico and deliver a sermon in English, but every one of the listeners heard it in Spanish.

It’s such a fascinating event that people gather all around to watch and listen. Some folks think that the believers have been drinking, but Peter says nobody’s been drinking yet because it’s too early. This is the first recorded instance of a sermon beginning with a joke, and you will notice that Peter is beaten by the religious authorities soon afterwards.

But now, he proclaims the gospel to the crowds and they respond, adding many believers to the church that day.

Little hints of what kind of impact the gospel will have on the world have been shown throughout Jesus’ ministry. He speaks to a Samaritan woman, heals a Roman soldier’s servant and the daughter of a Syrian woman. And Jesus of course gained many followers with his teaching. It’s almost like he has been a lit match, held to the world, and suddenly the world now catches fire itself.

We know how things catch fire. Their molecules are held together by certain kinds of chemical bonds. If we add heat – a form of energy – to them, the molecules want to move around and fly apart. Think a bagful of candy thrown into a daycare center. Enough heat and they break apart, which releases more energy and starts a kind of cascade effect. When this happens slowly, like with metal, we call it rusting. But when it happens quickly, with flammable materials, we call it fire.

For each of us, it’s as though we remain connected to things through the different bonds that have cemented us to them. Maybe it’s anger, maybe it’s sadness, maybe it’s fear…maybe it’s any one of a hundred things.

But each of us can have our Pentecost. Each of us, lit up, if you like, by the Holy Spirit, can find ourselves energized beyond the power of those connections to hold us and can break free from them. We’ll probably need that energizing over and over again, but God is infinite in all qualities, including patience.

Staying close to the flame may not be comfortable. We may have to confront attitudes or thoughts we’d rather ignore, or accept responsibility we’d rather pass along to someone else. But close to the flame is where the heat is, and the heat is the only energy we can find that’s enough to free us for the work of the Spirit as the believers were freed on Pentecost.