Wednesday, January 10, 2018

What can we say come July 22? 9th after Pentecost

   Ordinary time, and three great texts. In 2 Samuel 7:1-14, God sends Nathan to David – a preview of a far harder conversation they will have in chapters 11-12, where the question “Will you build me a house?” receives a tawdry answer in David’s house-building via his seizure of Bathsheba. Robert Barron, on the plan David hatched while resting: “We will see the contrast between this use of Sabbath time and the use that David makes of his leisure time in the eleventh chapter” – which he says is “none other than the difference between Adam’s proper and improper exercise of authority in the garden.”

     It’s tempting to preach on the nature of God, which is mobile, elusive, never boxed in. Of course, since the temple eventually happened, we try to fix blame on David. 1 Chronicles 22 chalked it up to David having shed too much blood – which is appealing to me, as it refutes those who see the God of the Old Testament as bloodthirsty! I think there is preaching fodder in this: David wants to do something for God – which seems noble. But in the phrase I rattle off now and then: It’s not what I want to do, and it’s not what I want to do for God, but rather what God wants me to do. 
Barron again: “A person’s plan might be bold, beautiful, magnanimous, and popular, but still not be God’s plan. A person’s ambition might be admirable and selfless, but still not be congruent with God’s ambition… Our lives are not about us. God’s plans for us are always greater, more expansive, and more life-giving than our plans for ourselves.” Or as Anne Lamott famously said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell her your plans.”

     The house David hoped to build got built – and its successor was the one Jesus cleansed and then announced it would be destroyed. Jesus is God’s house – which none of us can personally build. Ours is to enter, to worship, to move around with him as the ark moved around.

     Details in the text are worth attending to. God says “I took you from following sheep” – not leading them but following them! “…that you should be a prince” (not a king!). In my leadership book, Weak Enough to Lead, I reflected on what unfolded in 2 Samuel 5:

     [The tribes gathered and spoke of the days when Saul became “king” (melek). Then turning to David they added, “The Lord said to you, You who shall be ruler” (nāgîd, not melek). All other nations (and the people’s trouble began when they wanted to be like the other nations!) spoke of their king as melek. But the Lord called David not melek, but nāgîd, which implies “prince,” maybe even the crown prince. What a theologically useful distinction this was! The Lord alone is king (melek); but Israel now had a ruler (nāgîd), a “crown prince” to the Lord if you will. At the pinnacle of human authority in Israel stood someone who was a dependent subject to the true king. The king had no absolute power, but was just as answerable to God’s law as everyone else. The Bible reminds us that a leader is not a superior being, and has no significant status others don’t. At their best, leaders can be like those consuls in the Roman Republic, who were not dictators but simply role-fillers, each one nothing more than a primus inter pares, “first among equals,” and only for a time, and only in a particular role.]

     The preacher has to cope with or just ignore the clear redactory edits about Solomon. Also, as is the case with the people’s desire for a king (1 Samuel 8), the desire for a temple isn’t God’s desire – but then God lets them have what they long for. “God gave them up to their desires” – but then God used kingship and even the temple powerfully in people’s and the nation’s life. Such is our God.

     Now to Ephesians. Frank Thielman suggests that the primary orientation of 2:1-10 is vertical, whereas our text for this week, 2:11-22, is horizontal. 2:1-10 is about God’s powerful work through Christ; 2:11-22 on the social alienation between Israel and the Gentiles and Christ’s role in solving this. Let’s ponder some moments in this rich text. At the end of verse 12: “without God in the world.” The Greek is atheos, which it turns out was a disdainful term Gentiles used to describe Jews for their refusal to worship the pagan/civic gods. This same term became a slander against the Christians. The martyrdom of Polycarp: as the fires were being lit, the Romans shouted “Away with the atheists!” – and Polycarp responded in kind: “Yes, away with the atheists!”

     Many scholars suggest that Paul is reciting a pre-Pauline hymn here. I like to fiddle around with that idea in preaching, asking people to wonder with me what the tune was like, what the voices of the early Christians, huddled in small homes or the catacombs, sounded like singing these words.

     “You who once were far off have been brought near.” They didn’t come near; they were brought near. Paul is thinking Gentiles outside the covenant people – but it’s no stretch to extend his words to all of us, and our immense gratitude for God bringing us near.

     “He is our peace.” Love that. Not he brings peace or wants us to have peace. He is our peace – and has made us one by breaking down the dividing wall of hostility. With all due sensitivity to political upset, the preacher would be remiss not to speak of real walls that divide: the Iron Curtain, the Berlin Wall, Israel's wall today, Hadrian’s Wall, maybe the railroad tracks through a segregated town, and the proposed wall President Trump promised to build… Paul is envisioning the balustrade, the low stone wall the separated the outer from inner courts of the temple, the wall that declared “No Entry” to Gentiles. All division crumble in the light of Jesus.

     And then our Gospel, a bit weirdly, mandates Mark 6:30-34, 53-56 – skipping the whole multiplication of the loaves! I preached on that section, exploring the 12 baskets leftover, at Duke Chapel a couple of years ago. But the sandwich around that story is intriguing enough. The pace of vs. 30-34: lots of rushing and intensity. The disciples turn in their mission reports – and he notices they are weary. “Come away by yourselves to a lonely place” (the wrong word – it’s not loneliness but solitude! – and in this case the “lonely place” is one where they are together!).

     The very rushing around of the people to hear Jesus is part of their being “like sheep without a shepherd.”  They had plenty of leaders, of course: Herod, Caiaphas, the Emperor… but they are lost even in their frenzy to find a new leader.  How much spiritual seeking is more lostness than finding?

     Jesus, the Messiah, with an endless to-do list, “went up on the mountain to pray.” And then, as if to underline the strangeness and otherness of Jesus, when the storm rages and he’s walking on the water, the text says “He meant to pass by them.” Where was he going???  The preacher need not answer.  But how intriguing.  On his way somewhere else, he’s interrupted – Jesus, the ultimate interruptible one.  Interestingly the crowds reach out hoping just to touch the hem of his garment – as in that other story where the woman interrupted him on his way to Jairus’ home (5:27).  In one way, I wish the text didn’t say “and as many as touched his hem were healed.”  Sounds magical…

     But then the “hem” would have been those tassels worn by observant Jews in compliance with Numbers 15:37-39.  Jesus is a devout, fastidious Jew!  That Numbers text is fascinating: “The Lord said to Moses, ‘Speak to the people of Israel, and bid them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put upon the tassel of each corner a cord of blue; and it shall be to you a tassel to look upon and remember all the commandments of the LORD, to do them, not to follow after your own heart and your own eyes, which you are inclined to go after wantonly.’”  That’s what Jesus was about – and what following him is about.


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 My new book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

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