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Hesed

[Scripture readings for the day are at the end of the post]

A number of years ago I was over in England and had a few hours with nothing to do, so I turned on the TV and came across a show called Ready Steady Cook.

It was like a cross between a cooking show and a game show. The contestants were chefs who were given five pieces of food that were completely unrelated to each other: something like (for example) a chicken breast, a chocolate bar, two slices of bread, an orange, and an avocado.  And the challenge was to make the best-tasting meal possible using all five of ingredients, in a half-hour’s time.

I fell in love with this show! The creativity was amazing. And if I had been a professional chef I would not have been able to tear myself away from it.

Well, along the same lines, a couple weeks ago, I came across a similar kind of challenge, only using scripture verses instead of food.  Just a moment ago you heard those four passages read: one from the Old Testament, one from the New Testament, one from the Psalms and one from the Gospels.  The Old Testament reading talks about the first man meeting the first woman; the Psalm is a song of praise written by King David; the Gospel is Jesus’ teaching on divorce; and the reading from Hebrews talks about how God’s salvation will become reality when time on earth runs out and we move into the kingdom of heaven.

The challenge: to find common ground between these four readings, and to explain why, and make it stick. So I wrote my solution in the form of a sermon, which I wanted to share with you today. See if it makes sense to you, if the reasoning holds together.

There is, of course, more than one possible solution to this challenge (just as a person could conceivably have more than one recipe on hand that contains both chicken and chocolate). But the answer I came up with is the title of our sermon today: “Hesed”.

Hesed is an ancient Hebrew word that is found almost 250 times in the Old Testament. It’s usually translated “loving-kindness” but it means far more than that.  It is one of the characteristics of God, and it includes attributes like mercy and kindness and patience, and most especially a loyalty that never quits.

Hesed is also a quality God wants us to imitate. We, as God’s children, can watch how our Heavenly Parent cares for others and then learn to do the same: showing faithful love to God and to each other.  But hesed is beyond the power of imperfect human beings; and our constant inability to reach God’s standard – in spite of our best efforts – is why we need Jesus. That’s the big picture.

But in just saying that much I’ve gotten way ahead of myself! So let me back up and look at the readings, beginning with Psalm 8.

Psalm 8 is one of King David’s hymns of praise to the greatness of God.  He starts out singing “How majestic is your name in all the earth!”. And David uses the real name of God in verse 1: “Yahweh Adonai”.  This is rare, because most Hebrew writers felt the actual name of God was too holy to speak out loud.  But David speaks it here, calling on the glory of the name – “I AM” – to proclaim God’s greatness. In verse two this great God is seen standing as a defensive wall between us and the enemy who would destroy us.

Then David turns his eyes to the night sky – as I’m sure all of us have done at some time or another – and he looks in wonder at the moon and the stars. He calls them “the work of God’s fingers”: not even God’s whole hand, just the fingers, implying God could do even more than this!  And here’s tiny little David by comparison. Or tiny little us.  What are we, compared to such greatness? We’re just tiny specks on a planet in an obscure corner of the galaxy; and the more science discovers about the universe the greater God becomes, and the smaller we become. “What are we that you are mindful of us?”

David leaves us in that smallness for a moment before he answers: “but you have made us little less than Elohim” – that’s the Hebrew word, sometimes translated ‘angels,’ sometimes translated ‘God’ or ‘deities’. “You have made us little less than the heavenly beings.” The meaning is clear: God has crowned human beings with glory and honor.

I can remember one time years ago visiting Colorado. We were staying in the middle of the Rocky Mountains.  That’s another awe-inspiring view: hundreds and hundreds of miles of mountains and trees and wilderness, and little tiny us on the side of a mountain. And as I was offering a prayer of praise to God, a thought came to me through the Holy Spirit saying: “see all this grandeur? This is nothing compared to the grandeur God has created in every human soul.”

That’s why we’re here, by the way – here worshipping at church, and here reaching out for God in our neighborhoods.  But I’m getting ahead of myself again.  Here in Psalm 8, in true Hebrew poetry form, David has placed the most important thought in the middle verse of the psalm, and this is his point: that God has made each one of us little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned us with glory and honor.

This glory includes, but is not limited to, dominion over God’s creation – “the work of your hands” as David says.  This includes all living things.  And what a gift God has given us, and what a joyful task it is to take care of!  Plants that come up every spring, and the company of animals, living beings who can communicate with us (somehow, without language) and who look to us for care. Anyone who has ever been owned by a pet – a dog, a cat, an iguana even – knows what an amazing thing it is to look into the eyes of an animal and listen to its voice, and wonder what it’s thinking. And so we say with David: “O Lord our Lord how majestic is thy name in all the earth!”

God giving the animals into our care links Psalm 8 to our reading in Genesis.  In Genesis chapter 1, God created everything: the sun and moon, the stars, the earth, the waters, the heavens, the plant life, the animal life.  And at each step along the way we hear God say – seven times we hear God say – “and God saw that it was good”.  But in chapter two of Genesis we hear God say, “this is not good,” referring to the fact that the human being God created is alone.  So God first brings the animals to the man. Wonderful companions, and the man gives them names, and doing so enters into a relationship with them. But as wonderful they are, the man is still alone, in the sense that he hasn’t met anybody quite like himself yet.

So God puts the man into a sleep, and after a bit of poetic language dealing with ribs, God wakes the man up and presents to him… a woman! And his reaction is, literally translated, “this time! (we might say “At last!”) “A real partner! This is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” – or as we would say it today, “this is my blood relative.” And he names her ‘woman’. And the author of Genesis says, “therefore a man forsakes his father and mother and sticks to his wife.”  “Sticks to” is the literal translation.  Just as the Twelve Tribes stick to the Promised Land, and just as Israel is told to “forsake all other gods” and “stick to” the Lord: as in be glued to, as in can’t ever separate. This is a picture of hesed.  Covenant love. Steadfast love that will not let go.

As an aside: I should mention here that there is a difference between hesed not letting go, and human stubbornness or obsession not letting go. Hesed comes from a place of strength and wellness and wholeness, not sinfulness or sickness or a desire to control.

So getting back to our passage: this reading in Genesis is not about romance, and it’s not about any of the modern-day debates on sex or marriage. All these things have to do with self-fulfillment. Hesed  is about self-giving. And it’s best understood in terms of sacrament: that is, an earthly representation or picture of a heavenly reality. As Methodists we only observe two sacraments, baptism and communion; but marriage is considered a sacrament in the Catholic Church, and this verse helps explain why. The unity of the first man and the first woman in marriage is meant to give us a picture of the unity of God and God’s people in hesed: an unbreakable, covenant love.

This is why Jesus is so adamant with the Pharisees in the reading from the Gospel of Mark.  The Pharisees (like many people today) were completely missing the point.  They came to test Jesus, and they ask him, “is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” It’s a question that can’t be answered without starting a debate for which there is no resolution.  They’re putting Jesus in a no-win position.

So Jesus bounces the question right back to them. They’ve asked about the law, so Jesus refers them to the law. He says: “What did Moses command you?”  And they answer him, “Moses allows for a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”

Now that’s true, that IS what the law of Moses says.  But Moses meant this to be an exception to the rule, and the Pharisees know it.

So Jesus gives them an answer that comes from before Moses, an answer that comes from God’s perfect creation, before the fall, back in Genesis. Jesus says: “Moses allowed this because your hearts are hard. But in the beginning God made them male and female, and the two are to become one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together let no one separate.”

I want to add quickly: in a congregation of this size most likely we have a few divorcees among us, and I want to say right away this passage in Mark is not meant to pile guilt on you.  The fact is nobody lives up to the Genesis standard. Nobody.  Because the Genesis standard is hesed – unending, unfailing covenant love, at all times – and mere mortals can’t do that. We do the best we can but none of us hits the mark 100% of the time.

What Jesus is saying to the Pharisees (and to us as well) is that God doesn’t grade on a curve. Just because we can’t live up to God’s standards doesn’t mean God is going to lower the standards. Hesed is the goal. Hesed is the standard.  Covenant love. Promises kept. Faithfulness and trust and loyalty, between married couples, and between us and our God.  And if one partner should fall short of that goal – as we have done with God – is divorce the answer?

Jesus says No.  God has the ability to do what we mere humans don’t have the ability to do. God is going to make the impossible, possible. God is going to soften hard hearts, and forgive us, and heal us, and lift us up to God’s standards. Our God is a God of miracles.

If anyone ever had grounds for divorce, it would be God.  Humankind has been worshipping anything but the one true God for millennia.  We chase after what God tells us not to chase after.  We make other things more important than God. Our spiritual leaders, the ones who are supposed to know God best, are caught doing unspeakable things. And when God’s son Jesus came to earth, we killed him.  God would be perfectly justified in saying “I give up” and walking away.

But God has better things in mind for us. And God’s hesed is more stubborn than any sin you or I or anyone else can come up with.

Psalm 8 gave us a picture of God’s intention for us. We are created by God to be little less than the angels, crowned with glory and honor.  So how are we going to get from where we are, on the brink of divorce in the gospel of Mark, to Psalm 8?

That’s where Hebrews comes in.  Declared by Jesus, attested by the disciples, proven by God through miracles and by the Holy Spirit. The writer of Hebrews quotes Psalm 8 – the part about being little lower than angels and crowned with glory and honor – in Hebrews 2:7-8, and then adds, “we see Jesus who, for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews 2:9)  Jesus becomes the first of God’s children to step into glory. And he calls each one of us ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, saying “here I am, and the children God has given me.”

Jesus was sent, not for angels, but for us.  And in the final order of things, Jesus brings us to where he is.  Verse 17 in Hebrews says, “he became like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.”  A high priest full of mercy and faith – that’s hesed.

And so, in the words of Hosea chapter 6: “Come, let us return to the LORD… that we may live before him. Let us know, let us press on to know the LORD; his appearing is as sure as the dawn…” (Hosea 6:1a, 2)

In God’s faithful loving-kindness – in God’s hesed – God has crowned us mere mortals, each one of us, with eternal glory and honor.  This is our hope, and this is the message we carry to the world. AMEN.

~

Preached at Incarnation Church (Anglican) 10/7/18, Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church 10/14/18

~

Genesis 2:18-24   Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.”  19 So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.  20 The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper as his partner.  21 So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh.  22 And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.  23 Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; this one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken.”  24 Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.

Psalm 8:1-9  Psalm 8:1 To the choirmaster: according to The Gittith. A Psalm of David. O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth! Thou whose glory above the heavens is chanted  2 by the mouth of babes and infants, thou hast founded a bulwark because of thy foes, to still the enemy and the avenger.  3 When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast established;  4 what is man that thou art mindful of him, and the son of man that thou dost care for him?  5 Yet thou hast made him little less than God, and dost crown him with glory and honor.  6 Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands; thou hast put all things under his feet,  7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,  8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea.  9 O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is thy name in all the earth!

Hebrews 2:1-18  Therefore we must pay greater attention to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away from it.  2 For if the message declared through angels was valid, and every transgression or disobedience received a just penalty,  3 how can we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? It was declared at first through the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard him,  4 while God added his testimony by signs and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit, distributed according to his will.

 5 Now God did not subject the coming world, about which we are speaking, to angels.  6 But someone has testified somewhere, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, or mortals, that you care for them?  7 You have made them for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned them with glory and honor,  8 subjecting all things under their feet.” Now in subjecting all things to them, God left nothing outside their control. As it is, we do not yet see everything in subjection to them,  9 but we do see Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

 10 It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.  11 For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters,  12 saying, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you.”  13 And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.”

 14 Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil,  15 and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.  16 For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham.  17 Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.  18 Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Mark 10:2-9   Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”  3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?”  4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.”  5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.  6 But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female.’  7 ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife,  8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

~

 

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The Power of Prayer

[the day’s scripture verses are reprinted at the end of the post]

A number of decades ago one of the first Christian rock bands called The Imperials (they actually started out as a backup band for Elvis, it was that long ago) recorded a song called Praise the Lord, and one of the lines in that song said “praise the Lord / for our God inhabits praise.” **

In other words, when we praise God, God’s word comes to life in us in a unique and powerful way.  It’s one of the reasons why worshipping together is important and singing hymns is important.

Those of us who have had ‘mountaintop experiences’ have some idea of what I’m talking about.  Wonderful things happen on mountaintops: the giving of the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount. We may spend the majority of our days trudging through the valleys, but every now and then we have a ‘mountaintop experience’ that reminds us how much God loves us and how wonderful God is.

We may experience this at places like Jumonville (which is a good reason to go there) or maybe when we walk into the church when it’s dark and empty and we sense God’s presence in the stillness. These ‘mountaintop experiences’ make us aware of God being with us, and the memory sticks: it stays with us for a long time.

When we praise God with our whole hearts, or when we sing praises, we become aware of God’s presence in the same way, and it can give us the same encouragement and uplifting feeling that we get at places like Jumonville.  That’s why it’s important for each one of us to find our own voice (so to speak), our own way of praising God, whether it’s in prayer or in song or some other form of expression.

In our scripture reading from James today – which is the final reading in our series on the book of James – James starts out by saying “Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.”

We usually do the first part well.  If people in our church are suffering we are quick to pray for them. James does not tell people who are suffering just to be strong and ‘tough it out’ – we’re supposed to pray for each other, and we do.  But do we remember to praise God in the good times?  This is just as important. Just as we share both good and bad news with our families and friends, we also need to share both the lows and the highs with God. James highlights this, and I want to highlight his highlight.

Our sermon title for today is The Power of Prayer but we could also call it Prayer, Power, and Praise:  because the three go together and are the focus of both our readings today.

Let’s start with James.  James says prayer has the power to:

  • ease people’s sufferings;
  • heal the sick;
  • restore sinners;
  • forgive sins.

Did you know you have that power as a Christian?  Not that we can heal the sick or forgive sinners ourselves, but that God has given us, through prayer, the ability to ask God for these things on behalf of others.  Through prayer, as God’s children, we can ask our Father to take away suffering, or to heal, or to forgive.  And God will hear us and will answer.  And if that seems like a lot, James says: ‘Remember the prophet Elijah? He was a human being just like us, and when he prayed for no rain there was no rain for 3 ½ years. And then when he prayed again for rain it rained. If a mere human being can do that, you and I can pray for the sick and the hurting.’ That’s what James is saying here.

We also, like Elijah, can pray for things happening in the world, not just for the sick. (BTW I’ve found the more specific our prayers are, the more we’re aware when prayers have been answered. For example, if we pray for peace in general – which is a good thing – how do we measure God’s answer? But if we pray for an end to hostilities in a specific location and for God to turn the heart of a specific ruler – then we’ll recognize when God is working.)

For those of us who have been on prayer teams here in the church, or who have been involved in prayer ministries of some kind, we can bear witness that God answers prayer.  The power to heal is not ours; the power to set things right is not ours; all the glory goes to God.  But prayers are answered.  Just this past week a woman I know was told by her doctor to go have a biopsy done because they suspected her cancer had returned.  She was troubled, so the people of the church prayed over her, and the next day she got a phone call from her doctor saying he’d read the films wrong and had mistaken an old scar for a new lump.  I think the doctor probably would have found the mistake eventually but to get a phone call the next day?  Coincidence?  I don’t think so.

I knew a wise woman many years ago who said she didn’t believe in coincidences. She believed in God-incidences.  I like that word. God-incidence.  That’s exactly right.

Some people might say, “well, but prayer doesn’t always work. Not everybody gets good news, not everybody gets healed.”  And that’s true. There is a mystery here we don’t understand: why some people are healed and some aren’t.  When Jesus walked this earth, anyone who came to him in person and asked, was healed; but not every sick person in Israel was healed.  Jesus didn’t put all the Israeli doctors out of business.  Why are some people healed and not others? We don’t know, and we may not know in this lifetime.

(By the way the answer to the question of why some people don’t experience healing is not ‘lack of faith’, as in, ‘we didn’t believe hard enough’ or ‘we didn’t pray hard enough’. I’ve heard people say that sometimes and it’s hurtful and it’s simply not true. God answers prayer the way God chooses to answer prayer, because God is God and we’re not.)

Even James doesn’t say in this passage that everyone we pray for will be healed.  What he does say is that the sick will be saved, and that the Lord will raise them up, and that their sins will be forgiven.  These things may happen in this life or they may happen in the next life.  We can be confident that one way or the other it will happen. So we pray; and God hears and answers.

Which brings us to our reading from the book of Esther.  This is kind of an unusual story to mix with our James reading, isn’t it?  And then the passage we heard read is from the end of the book of Esther, so we heard the end of the story without hearing the beginning.  So we’ll need to back up and fill in the story. But the story of Esther is a story that talks about prayer, and the power of prayer, and the praise that results from prayer. Let’s dig in.

Esther’s life was a hard life, not unlike the lives of the people James was writing to.  Esther lived with the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon, which is present-day Iran.  The people James was writing to were mostly Jewish people under persecution who were fleeing Jerusalem.  So in both cases the people were not in their homelands. They were not at home, they were strangers in a strange land. They were, basically, refugees.  The people James was writing to, some of them were experiencing illness – and can you imagine what it would be like to be sick in a foreign country, and not be able to go home?  Or imagine Esther, living in a land where at least some of the people wanted her dead simply because she was born in a foreign country.

So Esther was living among a captive people. She was an orphan, having lost her parents at a young age, and she was raised by her uncle Mordecai.  As a young woman she (along with hundreds of other women) was forced to enter a beauty contest when the king decided he wanted a new queen and was going to hold a nation-wide competition for the job.  Esther and the other young women were rounded up and kept in the palace for a year and fed special food and given beauty treatments every day. (And if you’re thinking ‘well that doesn’t sound so bad’ – personally I can’t imagine too many fates worse than being cooped up in the same house with hundreds of women all competing for the same man! This was like The Bachelor, ancient-style.) Anyway all this activity was in preparation for the night when the king would choose her name from the list of hundreds he had to choose from.  And Esther would go and spend one night with this foreign king she’d never met – and if he didn’t like her, she would have to spend the rest of her life living in the palace doing nothing; but if he did like her, she would be forced to marry him whether she liked him or not.

As it turned out, Esther won the contest and became queen.  Some time after that, the king’s top advisor, Haman, was offended by Esther’s Uncle Mordecai. And Haman thought, rather than just kill Mordecai, he would wipe out all of Mordecai’s people – all the Jews who had been brought captive to Persia.

So when this news broke, Mordecai sent a message to Esther saying “talk to the king and ask him to spare our lives.”  And Esther wrote back saying “there’s a law that says anybody who goes to see the king without being asked will be put to death – unless the king extends the gold scepter to let them live.”  Mordecai wrote back and said, “who knows but that you have come to the throne for just such a time as this?”  (Mordecai didn’t believe in coincidences either.)

So Esther wrote back and said, “tell all our people to fast and pray for me for three days. And I and my handmaids will do the same. And then I will go to the king, and if I die, I die.”

So all the Jewish people prayed and fasted for three days. Prayer – unleashing God’s power – which resulted in praise. And look at how God answered those prayers:

  • When Esther went to see the king, God moved the king to hold out the gold scepter and let her live.
  • When Esther invited the king and his adviser Haman to a banquet, he said yes.
  • At that banquet, when Esther invited them both to a second banquet, again he said yes.
  • The night in between those two banquets, the king was not able to sleep. So the king ordered a servant to find the scroll of the history of his reign – all the things that had happened since he became king – and had the servant read it out loud to him. And listening to the history the king was reminded of a man named Mordecai who saved his life a number of years before by exposing an assassination plot. That the king should be reminded of this, on this particular night – coincidence? I don’t think so.
  • So the next day, at the second banquet, when the queen told the king what Haman was doing, and how he wanted to kill Mordecai and all of Mordecai’s people, the king was outraged.
  • God’s people were spared, and Haman was hanged on the gallows that he’d built for Mordecai.
  • The kingdom was spared a civil war – which was what Haman had planned. The king ordered peace between the Persians and the Jews.
  • According to the Apocrypha (ancient religious writings that didn’t quite make it into our Bible) the king’s orders to the nation contained the following words: “we find that the Jews… are no evil-doers, but live by just laws; and that they are children of the Most High and Most Mighty God…” That’s a pagan king talking about the God of Israel. Did the king come to faith through all this? We don’t know for sure, but these words seem to indicate that he at least had a healthy respect for the God of Israel.

Prayer, power, and praise.  The day the Jewish people were saved by Esther is celebrated, even today, every year at a holiday called Purim.  As the book of Esther says, “from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday.” Today the Jewish people celebrate Purim with feasting and by giving gifts to the poor (so that the sorrow of the poor can also be turned into gladness).

Prayer, power, and praise.  Prayer is the lifeblood of our relationship with God.  It’s how we communicate with the Lord we love. It’s how we grow in faith.

And like the old hymn says: “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit/ O what needless pain we bear /
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer.”*

Prayer, power, and praise. May the story of Esther and the words of James encourage us in prayer and in praise. These are the gifts of God for the people of God. AMEN.

 

(*What a Friend We Have In Jesus)

**Lyrics for Praise the Lord by the Imperials:

When you’re up against a struggle that shatters all your dreams
And your hopes have been cruelly crushed by Satan’s manifested schemes
And you feel the urge within you to submit to earthly fears
Don’t let the faith you’re standing in seem to disappear

Praise the Lord, He can work through those who praise Him
Praise the Lord, for our God inhabits praise
Praise the Lord, for the chains that seems to bind you
Serve only to remind you that they drop powerless behind you
When you praise Him

Now Satan is a liar and he wants to make us think
That we are paupers when he knows himself we’re children of the King
So lift up the mighty shield of faith for the battle must be won
We know that Jesus Christ has risen so the work’s already done

Praise the Lord, He can work through those who praise Him
Praise the Lord, for our God inhabits praise
Praise the Lord, for the chains that seems to bind you
Serve only to remind you that they drop powerless behind you
When you praise Him

© 1979 Warner/Chappell Music, Inc

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“Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.  Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord.  The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective. Elijah was a human being like us, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain and the earth yielded its harvest.

 My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.  – James 5:13-20

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So the king and Haman went in to feast with Queen Esther. On the second day, as they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, “What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you. And what is your request? Even to the half of my kingdom, it shall be fulfilled.” Then Queen Esther answered, “If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me — that is my petition — and the lives of my people — that is my request. For we have been sold, I and my people, to be destroyed, to be killed, and to be annihilated. If we had been sold merely as slaves, men and women, I would have held my peace; but no enemy can compensate for this damage to the king.” Then King Ahasuerus said to Queen Esther, “Who is he, and where is he, who has presumed to do this?” Esther said, “A foe and enemy, this wicked Haman!” Then Haman was terrified before the king and the queen.

Then Harbona, one of the eunuchs in attendance on the king, said, “Look, the very gallows that Haman has prepared for Mordecai, whose word saved the king, stands at Haman’s house, fifty cubits high.” And the king said, “Hang him on that.” So they hanged Haman on the gallows that he had prepared for Mordecai. Then the anger of the king abated.

Mordecai recorded these things, and sent letters to all the Jews who were in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus, both near and far, enjoining them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and also the fifteenth day of the same month, year by year, as the days on which the Jews gained relief from their enemies, and as the month that had been turned for them from sorrow into gladness and from mourning into a holiday; that they should make them days of feasting and gladness, days for sending gifts of food to one another and presents to the poor. – Esther 7:1-6, 9-10, 20-22

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/30/18

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The Greatest

[scripture readings attached at the end]

King Solomon was probably the greatest, and definitely the wisest, king of ancient Israel.  Even today his name is synonymous with wisdom.

Solomon was also the greatest of Israel’s kings in terms of maintaining peace and promoting prosperity. Solomon built the first great temple; in Solomon’s time there was near-universal employment in Israel; and Solomon’s fame spread throughout the known world.

Solomon’s great wisdom, and his great name, were a result of a prayer he prayed when he was young. God came to him in a vision and asked him, “what can I do for you? What can I give you?”  And Solomon answered, “you have been faithful to my father David and you have been faithful to me; and now I am in charge of leading your great people, even though I don’t know how.  Therefore give me wisdom so that I may govern your people rightly.”  And God was so pleased at this request, He gave Solomon the wisdom he asked for AND many things he didn’t ask for, including fame and fortune and long life.

Solomon never sought greatness. He was born into it, and with God’s help he grew into it.  But Solomon’s heart was always a servant’s heart; he knew that the people belonged to God, and he was only a temporary caregiver. So he looked for God’s lead and God’s wisdom to fulfill his calling.

When Solomon passed on to glory his son Rehoboam inherited the throne.  And at that point the people of Israel came to him and said “please ease our burden; your dad worked us hard and we need a break.”  The king answered them basically saying, “you think my dad’s hand was heavy? My little finger will be heavier than his entire hand.”  (Actually he wasn’t that polite, but I won’t repeat what he really said.)

And hearing this, ten of the twelve tribes of Israel rebelled and founded what became known as the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Only two of the tribes in the South stayed faithful to the lineage of David. From that point on the descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were never one nation again, all because one young, unwise king decided he wanted to upstage his dad.

So why am I talking about ancient history when today’s scripture readings are from James and Mark?  Because this story illustrates the truth of both passages we heard today.

In Mark chapter 9 verse 30, starting in the first paragraph we see Jesus passing through his home district of Galilee. And he’s doing it secretly, not letting anyone know he’s there, because he wanted some alone-time with his disciples.  Jesus had something important he wanted to tell them: namely, that he was about to be killed.  He wanted the disciples to understand he wouldn’t be with them much longer; that they needed to prepare themselves for something that was going to be extremely difficult to face; that it would feel like all their faith and hopes had been shattered.  Jesus needed them to know that his death would not be the end of the story; that after three days he would be back again, that he would return to life.

While Jesus was trying to communicate all this, He was exercising the greatest humility. He was in his own hometown, but he didn’t try to visit his family or call on his friends; he kept on doing what needed to be done, teaching his disciples. They just weren’t getting it; but he didn’t get angry with them. Jesus he suffered the loneliness of being un-heard, of standing alone in a crowded room.

Mark says the disciples didn’t understand what Jesus was saying and they were afraid to ask. Why might they be afraid to ask? Were they wondering if Jesus was speaking literally or figuratively when he talked about dying?  Were they afraid they might be asked to die with him? Were they afraid of the power the Pharisees? Maybe a little bit of all of the above?

Mark doesn’t tell us.  But Mark does tell us that instead of asking questions, as the group came closer to Capernaum, they started arguing over which one of them was the greatest.

And Jesus, rather than lecturing, again took a humble position and said to them gently, “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  And then He took a child in his arms and said, “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me and the one who sent me.”

Now a child, generally speaking, does not have wisdom, at least not worldly wisdom. Children have other godly qualities like purity and a sensitivity to God’s Spirit. In other gospels Jesus adds the words “for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven”  Children have a different kind of wisdom.

Our reading in James today takes us further in defining this different kind of wisdom.  James draws a clear distinction between the wisdom of God and the so-called ‘wisdom of the world’.

James begins by describing Godly wisdom. He uses words like goodness, gentleness, purity, peacefulness, a willingness to yield, a mindset of mercy and righteousness.  The world looks down its nose at these qualities, calling them ‘immature’ or ‘unsophisticated’ or perhaps ‘charming’ at best – in other words, child-like.

And then James gives us words to describe the qualities of people who reject God’s wisdom and choose worldly wisdom:  he says they are earthly, unspiritual, devilish, disordered, wicked, hypocritical, conflicted, murderous, and violent. This is the end result of people seeking greatness the world’s way rather than God’s way.

Above all, James says, doing things God’s way brings peace.  Three times in the first four verses James uses the word ‘peace’ to describe the fruits of wisdom. Peace is what Solomon found when he did things God’s way, and peace is something his son Rehoboam never knew.

James’s advice to all of us who love Jesus is to resist the devil, to draw near to God, to cleanse our hands and purify our hearts, and to become (as Jesus says in Matthew) ‘wise as serpents yet innocent as doves’.

Greatness in the kingdom of God means seeking wisdom first; seeking God’s way first; seeking the good of others first.  God’s wisdom is a wisdom that shows itself in actions and not in words; in truth and beauty and generosity and reconciliation.

And when we speak of wisdom bringing reconciliation and peace, this is true not only in our communities but in our own hearts; inside ourselves. Often times it’s our own inner divisions – our own doubts and fears – that, when they work their way out into the world, cause discord. So wisdom begins in the heart by bringing peace and unity inside us; and then that peace works its way out into the world.

One last thought: If we try to do all the things that lead to wisdom and greatness in our own power, or because it’s the right thing to do, it won’t work. The root of Godly wisdom is in God’s covenant relationship with us.  In Solomon’s life the covenant was with Solomon and with his father David; in our lives, the covenant is one of forgiveness and new life in Jesus.  It is God who gives the promises, and it is God who gives the power. And it is our relationship with God that allows us to grow into the promises, and from there into greatness and wisdom in the kingdom of God.

To illustrate what I mean:  Think about our own relationships: our marriages, or our friendships. When we love someone, we don’t go around thinking “how much can I get away with that this other person won’t like?” In the case of marriage – can I get away with holding hands with another man? Kissing another man? You get the idea.  If a spouse is thinking along these lines the marriage is in trouble!  And yet how many people approach their relationship with God this way, saying: “how much can I get away with and still make it into heaven?” If we’re asking this question our relationship with God is already in trouble.

Wisdom – and greatness – begins with a relationship; with a promise – God’s promise.  And when we respond, we respond almost as a child would,  “What makes you happy, Lord? What do you enjoy?” That’s when the relationship grows.

Let’s pray.  Lord Jesus, forgive us when we try to operate in worldly wisdom; and forgive us when we try to do things in our own power.  We do love you Lord, and we want our relationship with you to grow. Help us to know and do the things that bring you joy.  Thank you for your promises, and thank you most of all for your Son Jesus, who is the wisest and the greatest.   AMEN.

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James 3:13 – 4:8  13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.  14 But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.  15 Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish.  16 For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.  17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy.  18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

 Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?  2 You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask.  3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures.

7 Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.  8 Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.

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Mark 9:30-37 They went on from there and passed through Galilee. He did not want anyone to know it;  31 for 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.”  32 But they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask him.

 33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?”  34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest.  35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”  36 Then 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.”

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Preached at Fair Oaks Retirement Community, 9/23/18

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Faith Without Works Is Dead

“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism.  For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes, and there also comes in a poor man in dirty clothes, and you pay special attention to the one who is wearing the fine clothes, and say, “You sit here in a good place,” and you say to the poor man, “You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives? Listen, my beloved brethren: did not God choose the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Is it not the rich who oppress you and personally drag you into court? Do they not blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called? If, however, you are fulfilling the royal law, according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing well. But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.  For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” – James 2:1-10

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A good name is to be more desired than great riches,
Favor is better than silver and gold.
The rich and the poor have a common bond,
The LORD is the maker of them all.
He who sows iniquity will reap vanity,
And the rod of his fury will perish.
He who is generous will be blessed,
For he gives some of his food to the poor.
Do not rob the poor because he is poor,
Or crush the afflicted at the gate;
For the LORD will plead their case,
And take the life of those who rob them. – Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

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Last week we started a new sermon series in the book of James. But last week the lectionary also included one of my favorite passages of scripture, and this passage gives us a great place to stand while we’re looking at James, so I wanted to share a little bit of it as an introduction to this week’s reading.

The passage I’m talking about is Psalm 45. This psalm was paraphrased and set to music back in the 90s and it’s the song I came down the aisle to when I was married 18 years ago next Sunday.  And I won’t read the whole thing but here’s part of it:

“My heart is stirred by a noble theme
as I recite my verses for the king…
You are the most excellent of men
and your lips have been anointed with grace,
since God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your side, O mighty one;
clothe yourself with splendor and majesty.
In your majesty ride forth victoriously
in the cause of truth, humility and justice…” (Psalm 45:1-4a)

This psalm is a wedding song, written for the wedding of one of the kings of ancient Israel. But both Jewish and Christian scholars agree this is also about the Messiah. In other words, the king described here is Jesus.  So this psalm gives us a vision of heaven.

And this makes a great foundation for James because, as we read the book of James, it’s easy to get discouraged because James takes sin very seriously (rightfully so) and he takes holiness very seriously.  And listening to James’ teachings on what not to do, and how far we are from being perfect, can tempt us to forget who we are in Jesus. We have an eternity to look forward to, where our sinful nature will finally be healed and “we will be like him” (I John 3:2).

Also as we read James it’s good to remember that the Christian faith is not about keeping rules or about believing the right stuff.  The Christian faith is, and always has been, about a relationship: between God and God’s people.  It’s a relationship that has been strained and broken by human rebellion, but it has also been restored by Jesus through his death and resurrection.

So standing on the vision of Psalm 45 gives us the courage to look our shortcomings in the eye: to say to God, as Job once said, “make me to know my transgression and my sins” (Job 13:23). We are children of the king.  We are loved.  And it’s only when we forget who we are and whose we are, that we fall for the lies that lead us into the kind of sinful behavior James describes.

The main point James is making in his letter is that we as believers need to live what we believe. Or as he says at the end of the chapter, “faith without works is dead”.

MoveYourFeet

In this passage James chooses one particular sin to illustrate what he’s talking about: the sin of favoritism. It’s an interesting choice of sin. If you and I were going to talk about sin in the church, we’d be more likely to talk about things like the recent clergy sex scandal, or maybe the times church employees have been caught with their hands in the till. But favoritism? Most of us don’t consider that one of the “big” sins.

But James demonstrates how even the smallest and most common of sins is an act of injustice that insults God.  My guess is James chose favoritism for a number of reasons, the first being because it seems so small and happens so easily. A well-dressed person sparkling with jewelry walks in and is welcomed with open arms; by contrast a person who is dirty and smelly is someone we’ll put up with because it’s the ‘right thing to do’ but we kinda secretly wish they’d go somewhere else.  In verse four of our passage James calls this kind of thinking “being criminally minded” or “motivated by evil” depending on which translation you’re reading.

Another reason James may have chosen this example is because it shows how different God is from the way the world is.  God loves the poor; the world looks down on the poor. In fact the world often blames the poor for being poor, as if it’s something they chose.

Another reason James may have chosen this example is because it helps us understand God’s character. God doesn’t judge by what’s on the outside. And when you come right down to it, how good did Jesus look when he was on this earth? The prophet Isaiah says of the Messiah: “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by others; a man of suffering and acquainted with grief…” (Isaiah 53:2b-3a)

I also think James chose this example because it takes a stand against divisions in the church. God is not divided. If we make distinctions between rich and poor, between well-groomed and dirty, we are dividing the body of Christ. And Jesus is not divided. The word ‘divided’ in verse four can also be used to describe a person who is divided within themselves; divided between loyalty to God and loyalty to the world; divided between trusting in God and trusting in money. Faith is trusting God. And favoritism happens when our inner faith isn’t what it should be. If we trust God we will have no need to draw distinctions between rich and poor.

So the issue of favoritism confronts us with some hard questions: What do we really value? What do we really put our faith and our trust in?  Do we find security in God, or do we trust in money? Do we favor the rich because we see prestige or wealth when we look at them? When we see poverty do we see shame?

All through the Old Testament and New Testament God tells God’s people “Look after the poor. Be kind to the poor. Take care of the poor.” Over 200 times in scripture God talks about caring for the poor.

In the Old Testament, Isaiah writes to a people who are asking God why the exile happened, when they’ve been fasting and praying. And God answers: “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free… Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?  Then your light shall break forth like the dawn…” (Isaiah 58:6-8a)  God calls the poor and the stranger ‘our kin’ – our relatives.  And so we are.

Now do have to say this: that I have seen in our congregation a true concern for the poor and the stranger and the hungry and the hurting. It’s heart-warming to watch it happen, and I just want to say ‘keep doing that’.  Because God has chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom.

But I’d like to take it a step further now. We do well to welcome people into our church; but how are we doing outside the church? Do we fall for the world’s divisions the other six days of the week? For example, do we watch commercials that say “you need a BMW” and then make divisions in our minds between people who drive BMWs and people who don’t?  Or how about people who go on cruises and people who don’t? Of course there’s nothing wrong with BMWs or cruises.  But we run into difficulty if we buy into the world’s view that (a) we deserve them; or (b) there aren’t more important things to spend money on; or (c) these are things to brag about.

James reminds us that the very people who claim to be the ‘beautiful people’ of the world are in fact the ones who cause most of the pain in the world. James says: ‘Is it not the rich who oppress you and keep you down and even drag you into court?’ In our day, is it not rich people who force-feed us advertising on every device we own, so we will buy things we don’t need so they can live better? Isn’t it the rich who keep us working 50 or 60 hours a week, while they take three-month-long vacations?

And isn’t it the rich who persecute people with lawsuits?  Take as an example the people who go around trying to get rid of public displays of the Ten Commandments. I’m not taking a stand one way or another on the issue, politically. But has the thought ever crossed your mind, as it has crossed mine: how do people afford to quit their jobs and travel around the country looking for offensive signs, and hiring lawyers, and schmoozing the press, and stirring up public opinion, neighborhood by neighborhood, across the country? I don’t know about you, but my friends and I have to work for a living!  No matter where you stand politically, it’s the rich who drag people into court – the poor can’t afford to.

And that’s not all, James says. He adds: “the rich blaspheme the fair name by which you have been called.” That is, they ridicule God’s name.  This happens every day on TV. I don’t know if you ever watch the daytime talk shows: I don’t very often, but when I do, without fail, I see celebrities who don’t believe in God and are airing their prejudice against anybody who does. And they see no difference between the lunatics from the Westboro Baptist Church and the nice people in the Methodist church down the street.  Rich people do this, not poor people.  Poor people know better.

James goes on to say if we fulfill the royal law which is ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ we do well. But if we play favorites, we sin. And James adds: “whoever keeps the whole law, and yet stumbles in one point, has become guilty of [it] all.”

If this doesn’t seem fair, think about it for a minute.  Imagine a man who robs a bank, and he’s arrested and brought into court, and the judge says “how do you plead?” and the man says “Not guilty your honor. I didn’t kill anybody.” Wouldn’t the judge say “but you’re on trial for robbery”? If he’s not a murderer but he is a bank robber, he’s still going to jail. If we break any law, it doesn’t matter which one, we will have a criminal record and we will suffer the penalty. That’s what James is saying here.

BUT!! If by faith our lives are changed, then as James puts it, we are “judged by the law of liberty”.  We are forgiven because of what God has done, and we show we are different by how we live from that point on. Faith without works – without a change in behavior – is dead.

FaithWithAction

Now this statement has been controversial throughout church history.  People have taken it to extremes: on the one extreme we have people who say we are saved by ‘faith alone’ apart from works.  They say God alone can save; there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves; and so our works count for nothing. On the other extreme we have people who think a good person can ‘deserve’ heaven by doing good deeds, by giving money to the poor. Both of these extremes mean well, but they end up leading people astray.

It is true we are saved by faith alone.  Only God can save; only God can redeem a life. But knowing this sets us free to make mistakes, to be God’s children: still growing, still learning.  It is also true that faith without works is… impossible.  If we love God, as members of God’s family, we will grow up into the likeness of Jesus, and that means doing the things that He does. So both faith and works are needed.

I’d like to give a final illustration from a book I’m currently reading.  It’s an old book, something I never knew I had; it probably came to me in a box of my mother’s things. At any rate I have been thinking lately about all the people on TV and on Facebook who are always comparing people they don’t like to Hitler.  And I’ve been thinking: how weird is this, because my generation doesn’t even remember WWII.

So much to my surprise I discovered this book on my shelf titled Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer. (I recommend it BTW. It’s not easy reading but it does give a lot of insight into today’s world, and not the way the talking heads on TV think.)

The author was one of Hitler’s closest associates and one of his best friends (which to me is weird, just thinking of Hitler as having a best friend). But Speer was, for the most part, a person we would think of as a decent guy: he was a loyal husband, the father of six children, intelligent, well-educated, patriotic, creative, and a gifted architect. So how did he get from there to being found guilty at the Nuremburg Trials – of using prisoners of war as slave laborers in German factories, under concentration-camp-like conditions? He served 20 years in prison, and most likely the only reason he wasn’t executed is because he admitted he was wrong. Speer is famous for being the only Nazi who ever apologized.

The book I’m reading recalls his years of serving under Hitler.  And at one point in the book (without realizing it) he illustrates what James is talking about, about the relationship between faith and works.  Speer recalls visiting one of his factories for the first time – unaware the SS had been using prisoners to work the factories, or that the conditions were so horrible.  But the day came when he saw for himself first-hand and he couldn’t deny it. Looking back on that revelation, he asks himself what his feelings were in that moment.  He writes: “it seemed to me the desperate race with time” (that is, they were losing the war at this point, and he was in a major time crunch) “… the desperate race with time, and my obsessional fixation on production and output statistics, blurred all considerations and feelings of humanity. […] The sight of suffering people influenced only my emotions, but not my conduct. [In the realm of] feelings, only sentimentality emerged; in the realm of decisions… I continued to be ruled by the principles of utility” (that is, doing what works.)

This is exactly why faith without works is dead. Faith without works, in Speer’s words, is sentimentality. We may feel religious; we may feel like we love God; we may feel sympathy for the poor; but if our feelings never influence our actions, they have no meaning.

Speer felt pressured by time, pressured by the need to get things done, and pressured to do what works. And if that doesn’t speak to our world today I don’t know what does.

I want to close today with another quote I came across this week. Remembering that Jesus said that to love God and to love our neighbor is the fulfillment of the law. God’s law of love sets us free: free from sin, free from death, and free from fear. Under God’s law we are judged, not by the law of death but by the law of life, the law of love, the law of liberty.

The quote I came across this week was this: “To love one’s neighbor is the highest form of freedom.”

Love can’t be legislated; it can’t be forced, and it can’t be stopped. Love can only be freely given. Love of neighbor survived even in the Nazi death camps; and yet the Nazis, witnessing this, never found love’s freedom for themselves.

To love our neighbor is the highest freedom.

In Jesus’ name – be free.  AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/9/18

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A Love Song

My heart is full of admiration
For you my Lord, my God and King
Your excellence – my inspiration
Your words of grace have made my spirit sing

You love what’s right and hate what’s evil
Therefore your God sets you on high
And on your head pours oil of gladness
While fragrance fills your royal palaces

(Chorus)
All the glory, honor, and power belong to you
Belong to you
Jesus, Saviour, Anointed One I worship You
I worship You 

Your throne O God will last forever
Justice will be Your royal decree
In majesty ride out victorious
For righteousness, truth, and humility

(Chorus)

~Graham Kendrick’s paraphrase of Psalm 45~
 (“My Heart is Full of Admiration” – Graham Kendrick, © 1991)
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7Qcbl7-nxc

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I’m going a little off-lectionary today for a number of reasons, partly because we’ve been in the books of Samuel and Kings all summer long, and today’s psalm follows nicely from that; and partly because Psalm 45 is one of my all-time favorite passages of scripture and I didn’t want to pass it by.

I was introduced to this psalm back in the 90s when it was paraphrased and set to music by an Englishman by the name of Graham Kendrick (see above). You may know him as the guy who wrote the song Shine Jesus Shine. Kendrick’s version of Psalm 45 is what I came down the aisle to when Neil and I were married – 18 years ago this month.

Kendrick interpreted Psalm 45 as a praise song to Jesus. But if we look at Psalm 45 (see the end of this post for the text) – we see that Jesus isn’t mentioned at all. In fact the psalm was written around 500 to 1000 years before Jesus was born, give or take a century.  But Kendrick’s interpretation works, and the reason it works is because this psalm has a double meaning.

Psalm 45 is a very unusual psalm in a number of ways. The book of Psalms was basically the hymnal of ancient Israel – it’s a collection of song lyrics for songs that were sung in worship in the temple.  However this Psalm wasn’t written for worship, and it wasn’t written for the temple. This song was written for a civic  occasion: for a royal wedding.

At the beginning of most of the Psalms we find a few comments about the psalm’s source and its use, and this psalm is no exception.  In the Bible the notes above Psalm 45 read: “Ode for a Royal Wedding. To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.” This last comment – ‘a love song’ – gives us the title for today’s sermon.

A Royal Wedding

What these opening comments tell us is that first off this was meant for a wedding. It doesn’t say whose wedding, and historians disagree on whose wedding it was. I would love to be able to say it was for one of Solomon’s weddings, partly because we’ve been talking about Solomon lately; and partly because it would give us a glimpse into Solomon’s life without any theology involved – just a picture of ‘a day in the life’ of one of Israel’s kings.  But we don’t know for sure who this was written for. If it wasn’t written for Solomon it would have been written for one of the kings of ancient Israel or Judah before the fall of the monarchy.

This psalm has been used in connection with weddings on and off over the years, throughout Israel’s history and throughout church history, sort of in cycles – which leads me to suspect that this is one of those wedding songs that was so popular it got overdone and then was forgotten, and then was re-discovered, and then forgotten again, and then remembered again, kind of like “Here Comes the Bride” in our day. Every few generations the beauty of Psalm 45 is rediscovered, and I think we’re due for a rediscovery.

So continuing with the directions at the beginning of the psalm, it says: “to the leader, according to Lilies.” So this song is to be given to the choir director to be set to music. And Lilies was probably a musical reference of some kind, possibly the tune, possibly the choice of instruments (it might mean “add a string quartet”) – we don’t know for sure. “Of the Korahites” means it was written by the professional temple musicians, which was a group of priests who specialized in writing and performing music for worship. (I have always found it interesting, as a musician, that the position of ‘church musician’ in ancient Israel was an ordained position – theological training required.  I don’t draw any conclusions from that but I note it.)

And then it says “a maskil, a love song”.  The exact meaning of the word “maskil” has also been lost, but it is believed to have something to do with genre. The root of the word ‘maskil’ is related to the Hebrew word for wisdom or understanding. So this is a song that should inspire or teach a truth about God, in spite of the fact the song is not written for worship.

Another reason I love this psalm is because it goes a long way to answering a question I used to pester members of the clergy with when I was young, specifically: ‘where are we going?’  And by that I didn’t mean location.

What I meant was, ‘I hear a lot of talk about God and about heaven, but what is God really like and what is heaven really like? And how does the church help us get there? What is the goal of living life in a Christian way? How can we (as Jesus put it) ‘store up treasure in heaven’ if we don’t know what kind of treasure is going to be needed in heaven? Where are we going with all this religion stuff?’

These aren’t questions with instant answers, and the answers don’t really lie in the realm of reason. Philosophers and theologians have filled volumes trying to answer questions like these. But God’s reality is broader and more complex – and yet in some ways more simple – than anything our minds can hold. The answer to the question ‘where are we going?’ can’t always fully be described in words. The answer may be found more often in the realm of poetry or music…

…which Psalm 45 gives us.  Psalm 45 is about the Messiah and his Bride – that is, Jesus and the Church. Jesus, in whom all the fullness of God dwells; and the Church, in whom all the fullness of God’s people dwell (not the institution, but the human community); these two coming together as partners – in love and in eternity.

Now this is not the only interpretation of the psalm, and it is not the original meaning. And I say this because people have sometimes gone way too far in digging for Christian meanings in this psalm. Some interpreters have seen historical events, some have seen references to the Mother Mary, some interpreters come off sounding like people who are trying to figure out Nostradamus. Let’s not go crazy with this!

I like how one Bible scholar (Peter Craigie) puts it. He says:

“In its original sense and context [Psalm 45] is not in any sense a messianic psalm. And yet within the context of early Christianity (and in Judaism before that) it becomes a messianic psalm par excellence.”

For Christians the tie-in can be found in the book of Hebrews where God says of Jesus:

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever;
A scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness;
Therefore God, Your God, has anointed You
With the oil of gladness more than Your companions.”  (Hebrews 1:8-9)

…which is a direct quote from Psalm 45:6-7.

And if, as scripture teaches, the church is to be the bride of Christ, then this is our wedding song! This is will be our love song in heaven. This is our destiny. You want to know where we’re going? We’re right here, stepping right into Psalm 45.

So let’s step into it!  The songwriter starts by declaring his purpose: he says, “I address my verses to the king.”  In ancient times this would have been a standard introduction to a formal event in the royal court. And it reinforces the fact that this psalm was not originally written for the temple or for worship.

Then the songwriter praises the groom, the King. He says the King is “the most handsome of men” but then goes on to describe, not the King’s good looks – he says nothing about hair or eyes or build – but he describes what makes the king inwardly handsome: grace, glory, majesty, and victory in the cause of justice and righteousness.

The military imagery in verse five (“your arrows are sharp in the heart of the king’s enemies; the peoples fall under you”) may be disturbing for some of us, especially as we try to apply it to Jesus, the Prince of Peace. I like 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon’s interpretation: that Jesus’ “arrows” were his words. As Spurgeon puts it, they were “arrows of conviction, of justice, of mercy, of consolation; aimed at the heart and never failing to find their target.”

These are all qualities that a human king may strive for, but none have ever achieved perfectly. But our wedding song, if it’s going to be true, must be about someone who can and does embody all these qualities perfectly; and so we enter into a prophecy of the Messiah.

In the psalm our king stands front and center, dressed in royal robes, smelling of myrrh and aloe and cassia – all three perfumes that are taken from plants that can also be used for healing; which brings to mind the words of Revelation, where the apostle John describes heaven: “on either side of the river was the tree of life… and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.” (Rev 22:2)  Our king brings healing when he comes.

We enter then into the palace, which is decorated in expensive items made of ivory. As we read verse eight some of us may be reminded of the old hymn Ivory Palaces: “out of the ivory palaces/into a world of woe/only his great eternal love/made my Savior go.”  The lyrics of this hymn speak of how Jesus left this beautiful scene in Psalm 45 to enter into our wounded world, so that we could someday be with him in the ivory palaces.

And in this beautiful palace, brightly lit and smelling of perfume, we begin to hear the music of stringed instruments. The queen and ladies in waiting stand to one side as the bridal procession begins.  And the psalmist says to the bride: forget your people and your father’s house, for the king desires your beauty and he is your lord. From now on the richest of people and nations will seek your favor.  And the bride enters, dressed in robes of many colors (that’s us!) inter-woven with gold. And her bridesmaids follow as she is led to the king.

So Psalm 45 was originally written for a human king in a particular time and place. But it is also a song of the Messiah.  And if all of this sounds too much like mythology, three thoughts:

  1. In Judaism, and in the Eastern Orthodox church, it has become tradition to address a bride and groom as royalty. If you ever go to an Orthodox wedding, you’ll see the bride and groom given crowns to wear during the ceremony. Even though Psalm 45 was written for a secular event, there is a rich spiritual meaning in it.
  2. In verse six where the psalmist writes “Your throne O God endures forever” – this cannot refer to a human king because no human king has lived forever. This line was interpreted as referring to the Messiah long before Jesus was born.
  3. CS Lewis writes that if the Christian story sounds like a myth of some kind, he says the meaning of the word myth “contrary to popular usage, is not simply a story that isn’t true. A myth is truth communicated in story-form.” And he adds, “the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us the same way as other myths [do], but with [a] tremendous difference… it really happened.”

Psalm 45 gives us a truth, in myth-form, in poem form, so that it can address and satisfy our hearts as well as our minds; our imaginations as well as our sight. This is a work of art designed to address and delight our whole selves.

So as we apply it to ourselves, and try to answer the questions “where are we going?” and “what is heaven all about?” a few final thoughts:

  • Just as the bride in verse ten is called to leave her people and her father’s house, we also are called to leave our home, this earth, behind. The bride is told: “the king desires your beauty” – and our focus needs to be on the King: on Jesus. Not looking back but looking forward. As the apostle Paul says: “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead,  I press on toward the goal…” (Phil. 3:13-14a)  Jesus is our goal. Jesus is the King of heaven, who rules over the Promised Land that we’re going to.
  • There’s another scripture passage that speaks of our future in terms of marriage, and that’s Isaiah 62:4-5, where the prophet writes: “You shall no more be called Forsaken, and your land shall no more be called Desolate; but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the LORD delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your builder marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.”This is our future. This is the answer to the question ‘where are we going?’
  • To quote CS Lewis again: “This is the marriage of heaven and earth: Perfect Myth and Perfect Fact: claiming not only our love and our obedience, but also our wonder and delight…”

‘Where we are going’ is a place of joy and delight. We go to a King beautiful beyond the power of words to describe. How then can we prepare for this?  Anything we can do in the meantime to increase in our hearts the capacity for holy delight; anything we can do to introduce others to our king, so they can share in our joy; anything that we can do to bring our King’s qualities of grace and justice and righteousness into our world; these things will help prepare us for where we’re going.

And if you get a chance this week, make this psalm your prayer to Jesus. AMEN.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Psalm 45
Ode for a Royal Wedding
To the leader: according to Lilies. Of the Korahites. A Maskil. A love song.

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king;
my tongue is like the pen of a ready scribe.

You are the most handsome of men;
grace is poured upon your lips;
therefore God has blessed you forever.
Gird your sword on your thigh, O mighty one,
in your glory and majesty.

In your majesty ride on victoriously
for the cause of truth and to defend the right;
let your right hand teach you dread deeds.
Your arrows are sharp
in the heart of the king’s enemies;
the peoples fall under you.

Your throne, O God, endures forever and ever.
Your royal scepter is a scepter of equity;
    you love righteousness and hate wickedness.
Therefore God, your God, has anointed you
with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;
    your robes are all fragrant with myrrh and aloes and cassia.
From ivory palaces stringed instruments make you glad;
    daughters of kings are among your ladies of honor;
at your right hand stands the queen in gold of Ophir.

10 Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear;
forget your people and your father’s house,
11     and the king will desire your beauty.
Since he is your lord, bow to him;
12     the people of Tyre will seek your favor with gifts,
the richest of the people 13 with all kinds of wealth.

The princess is decked in her chamber with gold-woven robes;
14     in many-colored robes she is led to the king;
behind her the virgins, her companions, follow.
15 With joy and gladness they are led along
as they enter the palace of the king.

16 In the place of ancestors you, O king, shall have sons;
you will make them princes in all the earth.
17 I will cause your name to be celebrated in all generations;
therefore the peoples will praise you forever and ever.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Hill Top United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh, 9/2/18

~

 

The Dedication of the Temple

Solomon Prays in the Temple

[Scriptures for the day are found at the end of the post]

Life is tough.  A friend of mine said that on Facebook the other day, and I’m sure he’s not the first person to say it, but it’s true. From the minute we’re born we have so much to do and to learn and to figure out.  What’s good? What’s bad? What’s right? What’s wrong? Who’s telling the truth and who’s pulling our legs? And what should I do when I grow up? (That’s a question that keeps coming back every five years or so.) And just when you think things are rolling along pretty well, life throws you a tough one. You get fired, or a good friend gets sick, or a loved one passes, and suddenly you’re left with more questions than answers.

Today’s scripture reading is about finding direction in a difficult and confusing world.

If we think life was any less difficult or confusing back in ancient Israel, not so.  King Solomon was maybe the wisest king who ever lived, and one of the richest and most powerful.  And yet he wrote, “vanity of vanities, everything is vanity and a striving after the wind.”  If that’s how the smartest man in the world feels, I don’t feel so bad!

And think about Solomon’s family life. So much of who we are and what we become is influenced by the family we’re born into.  Solomon’s mother’s first husband was murdered by his mother’s second husband (Solomon’s dad). And Solomon’s half-brother raped one of his half-sisters (and got away with it) and then another half-brother killed the first half-brother in revenge, and then led an armed rebellion against their father.

Anyone here have a family with this much drama?

Of course I say all this with tongue halfway in cheek, because King David was a great man of great faith, a man after God’s own heart. But he wasn’t perfect. And I thank God for that, because otherwise we wouldn’t be able to relate to him.  Through David’s family we learn the greatness of God’s mercy and forgiveness. We see that God is willing to forgive even the so-called “BIG” sins like murder and adultery; and if that’s the case then God can forgive our sins too, when we turn to God with our whole hearts the way David did.

But life being difficult means we need a sense of direction. A guiding light. We need something like the north star to walk by. Providing a light like that is what King Solomon is up to, in our reading today. He plans to give his people something that will point them in God’s direction when life gets tough: something that will give them a guiding light.

Let’s look at the story.

As the scene opens, King David has recently passed away, and his son Solomon has been king for about four years. In those first four years of his reign, Solomon has appointed officials, written a collection of proverbs, written a collection of songs (apparently he has inherited some of his father David’s musical talent) and he has been ruling over the lands from the Euphrates River in the east to the border of Egypt in the west. Solomon’s reputation for wisdom has spread, and people come from all over the known world to ask him questions and to learn from him.

Solomon also has made alliances with his father’s friends, particularly the King of Tyre and Sidon, with whom he has made a trade agreement to supply all the cedar and cypress-wood and stone-workers for the building of a great temple. Solomon has organized work forces, and has focused the energy of the nation on this building project.  This is going to be a technological marvel as well as a thing of beauty.

The temple took seven years to build. It was built of stone dug out of a nearby quarry. The interior was lined in cedar and cypress, and had carved figures of fruit and flowers and palm trees and cherubim. It was furnished with tables and altars and utensils overlaid with gold – in fact everything was overlaid with gold, even the walls and the floors. The temple was lit by oil lamps and smelled of burning incense, and it was three stories high. Can you imagine how awesome this place would have been to walk into?

And after seven years it was finally ready.  Solomon invited the elders of Israel – that is, the leaders of all the twelve tribes – to Jerusalem, and they followed the priests who carried the Ark of the Covenant from the tent of meeting, up the hill and into the temple, and into the Holy of Holies. Solomon offered up thousands of sheep and oxen while the priests move the Ark into its place.

And scripture tells us “a cloud filled the house of the Lord” so that the priests could no longer minister.  Isaiah had a similar experience, as we recall, when as a young man he was in the temple and all of a sudden “the threshold shook… and the house filled with smoke…” and Isaiah said, “woe is me! I am lost! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the king, the Lord of hosts!” So this smoke is brought on by the glory and presence and holiness of God. And it’s too much for mere mortals.

So Solomon leads them outside, and then, turning and facing the temple, he raises his hands to heaven and prays to God saying ‘O Lord there is none like you. You keep your promises and your covenants and your steadfast love to all who walk before you with all their heart… just as you did for my father your servant David. Therefore keep on being faithful to your servant David, keep on being faithful to your servant’s son, and let your word be confirmed.’

Side-note: when Solomon talks about God’s ‘steadfast love’ the Hebrew word is hesed. This is one of the most important words in the Old Testament.  One Bible study website says: “The word hesed is difficult to translate because it stands for a cluster of ideas—love, mercy, grace, kindness. It wraps up, in itself, all the positive attributes of God.”  It is loyal love, covenant love, never ending, never changing. Solomon is saying God has shown him this hesed, this kind of never-ending love.

So Solomon welcomes God into God’s new house. ‘And yet’ Solomon says, ‘even the highest heaven can’t contain you, much less the house I have built! But make this a place where your name dwells.’ In ancient Israel, God’s name was considered an extension of God’s being. The name is not all there is of God, but it’s the essence of God. God’s name being present means God is here.

Solomon continues his prayer saying,  ‘I ask only that your eyes and ears always be open, night and day, toward this house. Hear the prayers your servant prays; hear the prayers your people pray; hear the prayers foreigners pray when they hear of your great name and pray towards this house; hear in heaven and forgive.’

And having prayed this prayer, Solomon blesses the people and they return home.

The temple therefore becomes like a listening post for God. God stands ready to hear any prayer directed toward it: not because the building is special, but because God’s name and spirit are there. God is listening and ready to answer.  And I think this is Jesus meant when he said “my Father’s house will be called a house of prayer”.  Prayer is THE purpose of the temple. It’s a place where people can talk to God and can meet with God.

As one commentator says, “now the common people know that God welcomes them to full participation in His house… and they returned home rejoicing.” And Solomon expresses the hope that the hearts of Israel ‘would always be as they are right now’: rejoicing in God.

Of course this doesn’t happen. But the temple becomes a touch-stone for Israel to come back to again and again over the years. And for us today, Solomon’s story gives us some insights for our own temples, our own places of worship.

The first insight we see is about the nature of the temple itself.  By the time we get to the New Testament, Jesus is teaching, “the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:23) (that is, as opposed to a specific location). And Paul says: “do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit…?” (I Cor 6:19a)

So thinking about these things, how are we like Solomon’s temple? We are:

  1. Beautifully crafted by God. As the psalmist says, we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14) God doesn’t measure beauty the way the world does, thank God. But the fact that our eyes and ears and arms and legs and internal organs all work (more or less) is a miracle, that we live in every moment of every day. And it’s a thing of beauty. We are more precious in the eyes of God than all the cedar and gold that went into Solomon’s temple.
  2. Solomon’s temple was created for prayer, and so are we. Prayer is our #1 purpose in life. It’s what we were created for, because prayer is communication and communion with God.  The psalmist says: “My soul longs for the courts of the Lord” and “a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere.” We were made for prayer.
  3. Solomon’s temple held only the name of God. As Solomon says, it couldn’t hold all of God. Like the temple, we also hold the name of God, and the Holy Spirit of God. We’re not big enough to hold all of God; we’re not supposed to be.
  4. The temple was meant to be a place of welcome both for God’s people and for foreigners; because we ourselves were once foreigners welcomed by God.

But there are some aspects of the Temple that we can’t parallel to ourselves, and so these aspects we may parallel to our churches:

  1. Like the temple, our church stands as a beacon, like the north star, something people around us can look to, to point them in the right direction, to point them to God. This puts a responsibility on us, as a congregation, to faithfully guide people to Jesus.  This is the primary purpose of the church; this is our calling. When someone visits, let them leave saying “I have been among God’s people; I have witnessed God’s love.”
  2. Like the temple, the grandeur and beauty of our building is meant to be a reflection of the grandeur and beauty of God. This building is a legacy, built to be a blessing for generations to come.  And we are stewards or trustees of this great gift, left to us by people who lived 150 years ago, most of whose names we don’t know any more, but whose love for God – and for us – led them to build this place. They wanted us to know what Solomon knew: that God’s steadfast love, God’s hesed, is from generation to generation for those who fear God and walk in His ways. The question before us then is: how can we use this blessing for the next generation? How will we share our faith with those who have not yet heard? These questions need our prayers and discernment of God’s will.

So we’re kind of back where we started: Life is hard, and trying to find direction in a complex and confusing world is not easy. That’s why the church is necessary. That’s why we need to have a prophetic voice in our culture. That’s why we need to be a place where people can turn, to pray and to meet God and to hear from God. Just as in Solomon’s time, the primary purpose of this place is to be a house of prayer.

Let us be true to that calling.  Let’s pray: O Lord, in the words of Solomon we pray for our church. This building is not big enough to contain you. But we ask that your name rest here. And we ask that your eyes and ears always be open, night and day, toward this place. Hear the prayers your people pray; hear the prayers strangers and foreigners pray when they hear of your great name and pray towards this house; hear in heaven and forgive. AMEN.

 

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 8/26/18

~~~~~~~~~~

Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion.

Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.

And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,  24 the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, ‘There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.’ Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.

 “But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!  Regard your servant’s prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, ‘My name shall be there,’ that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.

“Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name — for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm– when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.” – I Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43

~~~~~~~~~~~~

How lovely is your dwelling place, O LORD of hosts! My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God. Even the sparrow finds a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young, at your altars, O LORD of hosts, my King and my God. Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise. Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion. As they go through the valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools. They go from strength to strength; the God of gods will be seen in Zion. O LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; give ear, O God of Jacob!  Behold our shield, O God; look on the face of your anointed.  For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. For the LORD God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the LORD withhold from those who walk uprightly. O LORD of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. – Psalm 84:1-12

 

Pick a Gift, Any Gift

When we left off last week, David had just survived a coup attempt led by his son Absalom, and he was grieving the death of his son. But as we wrapped up last week, the tide was about to turn; the future was about to get brighter. David had been suffering God’s judgement for his sins against Bathsheba and Uriah – and God had said the sword would never depart from David’s house and that someone close to him would sleep with his wives in public – and those prophecies had come true. But now the tide is turning, and God is about to fulfill the promises he made to David: promises to build him a house, promises of a dynasty that would never end, and that David’s son Solomon would build a temple in Jerusalem for the worship of God.

Solomon displays his plans for the temple

So today we read about David’s passing. Scripture says: “David slept with his ancestors and was buried.” Somehow this seems too short. It’s not enough to mark the passing of man who served God and country with his whole life.

But before David dies, he crowns Solomon king.  Unlike monarchies in our time, back in ancient Israel a new king was usually crowned before the old king passed, so there was a smooth transition. And doing so, David gives King Solomon some final instructions.

The first thing David says to Solomon is:

“Be strong, be courageous.”

We’ve heard these words in scripture before. We heard God say this to Joshua just before he led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. We heard God say it to Daniel when he was living in a foreign land where people opposed God. And we hear Paul say it to the Corinthians when their faith is being tested: “Keep alert, stand firm in your faith, be courageous, be strong; and let all that you do be done in love.” (I Cor 16:13-14)

So David says to Solomon, “Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the Lord, walking in his ways, keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances…”  In other words, ‘stay close to God, my son. If you are faithful to God, God will be faithful to you.’ David’s words suggest not so much intellectual knowledge of God’s law as an attitude of the heart and the soul.  God has promised David “there will not fail [to be] a successor on the throne of Israel” – so long as David’s heirs remain faithful to God.

Which, as we know, sadly didn’t last for very many generations.  But Solomon loved God, and while he slipped up sometimes, for the most part Solomon was faithful to God.  And God blessed Solomon’s reign.

So having reminded Solomon to keep his heart close to God, David then says: ‘oh and by the way… you remember Joab (the commander of the army)? He murdered Abner son of Ner and Amasa son of Jether,’ “retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war.” (Abner and Amasa were former co-commanders of the army, and if you’re interested, their back-stories can be found in II Samuel 3 and II Samuel 20 respectively.)

David speaks truth. These men were murdered by Joab during times when there were no battles being fought. And David says to Solomon ‘don’t forget that’.  David’s exact words are: “Act according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace.” In other words don’t let him die of old age in his bed; see to it that he gets to Sheol before then.

If this sounds harsh, bear in mind that in ancient society, if a crime was committed against a person who was in service to another person (in this case in service to the king) then anything done to that person was considered to have been done to the king. So David has both the right and the responsibility to see justice done.

And then with his last words, David gives his friends into Solomon’s care. He says, “deal loyally with the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be among those who eat at your table; for [they met me] with such loyalty when I fled from your brother Absalom.”

What a wonderful gift this is! It’s something for those of us who have kids and grandkids to think about. David is saying to his son basically, “my friends are your friends”. And isn’t that true, that as parents and grandparents, our friends (of all the people on earth) stand with us in our love for our children? Who else would support or defend our children in our absence? And isn’t this what we promise in baptism – to help raise our neighbors’ children in the faith, to teach them and guide them and protect them? My own mother, rest her soul, passed a number of years ago; but I’m still in touch with one of her college friends and that means a lot to me. It’s a wonderful gift if we can say to our children, “these friends of ours are friends of yours too. And if you’re ever in a jam, you can count on them.”

And then, having given his friends to Solomon, scripture says, “David slept with his ancestors.” David doesn’t enter into eternity alone, and neither do we. The idea that we will see our loved ones again is not wishful thinking, it’s right here in God’s word.

Scripture also tells us David was king of Israel for 40 years, which is a long time! Just by way of comparison: 40 years ago today Jimmy Carter was President, and disco was a new thing, and The Empire Strikes Back had just come out in movie theaters. We’ve had five Presidents since then, all of them serving two terms. David was king that long. At least half the people in Israel had known no other king.

And Solomon will reign for 40 more years. These two kingships together are the ‘golden age’ of ancient Israel. The kingdom will never again be as united or as prosperous as it is under Solomon’s reign. God established Solomon’s throne – gave it a solid foundation –  and “Solomon loved the Lord”. What a blessing it is for a nation when their leader loves God!

Shortly after Solomon takes the throne he goes to worship, and afterwards God comes to him in a dream and says, “ask what I should give you.”  God puts no limits on this question, no restrictions. It is an offer; but in a way it is also a test. What will Solomon say, how will he answer?

How would we answer, if we were in his shoes? Would we talk it over with our spouse or with our family? Would we go to our friends and say “Hey! God just asked me what I want! What should I ask for?”

And what are some of the things we might ask for? I’d like a trip around the world, please. I’d like a million bucks. I’d like to be young again and know what I know now.

When I’ve heard this passage taught before, I’ve heard people say the point is wisdom is the best gift we can ever ask God for.  This may or may not be true, but I don’t think that’s what the Bible is telling us here. Rather the Bible is describing how to build a loving relationship with God.  And look at how Solomon answers:

Solomon begins his answer by acknowledging what God has done for him. And Solomon lists four things God has given him:

  1. ‘You have given me the same steadfast love you gave to my father.’
    This is not just “God loves me and I know it’s true.” The Hebrew words for steadfast love are hesed godolgodol meaning ‘great’ or ‘huge’ and hesed meaning ‘loving-kindness’ on an eternal scale. Hesed is one of the most important words in the Old Testament. One website says: “Hesed is difficult to translate because it stands for a cluster of ideas—love, mercy, grace, kindness. It wraps up in itself all the positive attributes of God.”  It is loyal love, covenant love, never ending, never changing. Solomon says God has shown him this hesed, this kind of love.
  2. Solomon says God has given him his father David’s throne: his position, his palace, his wealth, his power – everything that comes with the throne.
  3. God has given Solomon the kingdom. As Solomon looks out from his palace, he sees all the land around him: the Kidron Valley, the Mount of Olives, on a clear day maybe even Bethany; and he knows beyond that is Jericho, and the River Jordan, and off to this side is the region of Galilee, and off to that side is the Red Sea and the Dead Sea… and all of this is his!
  4. God has given Solomon the people of Israel to lead. The people of course belong to God; but God has given these people into Solomon’s hands, into Solomon’s care. (As an aside, this is where secular governments often make a mistake: they think the people are theirs to do with what they want; they forget the people belong to God and not whoever’s in power.)

So Solomon looks at all these great gifts and he’s blown away by God’s generosity, and by the immense responsibility that comes with them. And Solomon looks at God’s people and says to God, “who am I? And what do I know? I’m just a child in your eyes. How can I possibly lead your people, your great people?”

And then Solomon then makes his request: “Give me wisdom and understanding to govern; to discern between good and evil, for who can govern this your great people?”  In Hebrew, Solomon’s request is “give me a lev shema” – a hearing heart. A heart that can hear what people mean and not just what they say. A heart that can discern between right and wrong, good and evil. The first words of the Ten Commandments are ‘shema Israel’ – “hear O Israel”. Solomon prays for a heart that will hear God’s voice.

Solomon asks this because he has a job to do, he has a calling, and he knows he can’t do it on his own. So he asks God to give him a hearing heart, which is what he will need to do the job God has given him.

All of us have also been called by God to do the works God has given us to do, greater things than we know how to do.  So we, like Solomon, need to ask God to equip us, to give us what we need to do God’s will. This is what it means to walk by faith and not by sight. We trust, not in what we know or what we think we know, but in God’s loving provision.

Solomon’s request pleases God deeply.  And so God answers: “because you have asked this, and have not asked for long life or riches” – or other things that would benefit only Solomon – God says: “I will give you also what you have not asked for: riches and honor all your life long. No other king will compare with you; and if you walk in my ways… I will lengthen your life.”

Side note: just because God gave all these things to Solomon when he asked for wisdom does not mean God will give long life, riches, honor, etc to everyone who asks for wisdom. As scripture often points out, God’s people are not always rich, or honored, or powerful. But it does mean God will give us what we need when we need it. And that we can trust in his hesed, his loving-kindness, every day of our lives.

Solomon’s request for wisdom also brings us to Paul’s words. Paul says: “Be careful… how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil…” – which is as true today as it was back then. And then Paul says, “sing and make melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph 5:15-16, 19-20)

So should we pray for wisdom? Absolutely.  But first: give thanks for what God has given us: his faithful hesed, his loving-kindness.  And whatever else God has given us that is uniquely ours, including God’s unique call on each of our lives, and God’s provision for that call. And then, as Paul says, “sing and make melody to God” – in other words, worship God from our hearts, with as much hesed as we have in us. AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 8/19/18

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“When David’s time to die drew near, he charged his son Solomon, saying: ‘I am about to go the way of all the earth. Be strong, be courageous, and keep the charge of the LORD your God, walking in his ways and keeping his statutes, his commandments, his ordinances, and his testimonies, as it is written in the law of Moses, so that you may prosper in all that you do and wherever you turn. Then the LORD will establish his word that he spoke concerning me: ‘If your heirs take heed to their way, to walk before me in faithfulness with all their heart and with all their soul, there shall not fail you a successor on the throne of Israel.’

‘Moreover you know also what Joab son of Zeruiah did to me, how he dealt with the two commanders of the armies of Israel, Abner son of Ner, and Amasa son of Jether, whom he murdered, retaliating in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war, and putting the blood of war on the belt around his waist, and on the sandals on his feet. Act therefore according to your wisdom, but do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace. Deal loyally, however, with the sons of Barzillai the Gileadite, and let them be among those who eat at your table; for with such loyalty they met me when I fled from your brother Absalom.’

 “Then David slept with his ancestors, and was buried in the city of David. The time that David reigned over Israel was forty years; he reigned seven years in Hebron, and thirty-three years in Jerusalem. So Solomon sat on the throne of his father David; and his kingdom was firmly established.

“Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of his father David; only, he sacrificed and offered incense at the high places. The king went to Gibeon to sacrifice there, for that was the principal high place; Solomon used to offer a thousand burnt offerings on that altar. At Gibeon the LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, ‘Ask what I should give you.’  And Solomon said, ‘You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people?’

 “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked this. God said to him, ‘Because you have asked this, and have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself understanding to discern what is right, I now do according to your word. Indeed I give you a wise and discerning mind; no one like you has been before you and no one like you shall arise after you. I give you also what you have not asked, both riches and honor all your life; no other king shall compare with you. If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life.’” – I Kings 2:1-7, 10-12 and 3:3-14

“Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” – Ephesians 5:15-20