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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

 

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Today we continue our summer series in the books of Samuel. The further we read in this book the more it sounds like the evening news doesn’t it? Last week the king had an affair and tried to cover it up with murder, and this week we’ve got rape, fratricide, and civil war!  Sadly too familiar.

Our scripture reading for today is actually the end of a much longer story, so we need to back up to the beginning.  When we left off last time, David had just married Bathsheba (after killing her husband), and God wasn’t happy about it. God said ‘because of what you have done, the sword will never depart from your house’ and ‘someone close to you will sleep with your wives in broad daylight. What you have done in secret will be done in public.’

And then… not much happened for quite a few years. David ran the kingdom, and he trained his sons how to be leaders, and everything went well.

Until… many years later… David’s oldest son, Amnon, fell in love with his half-sister Tamar. David was father to both of them but they had different mothers. David had many wives and children, and a huge palace, almost like a small city, so a half-sister was almost more like a neighbor than a relative.

Anyway, Amnon was obsessed. He couldn’t eat, he couldn’t sleep, he was “tossing and turning” (cf. Bobby Lewis). His cousin asked him, “What’s wrong?” and Amnon said, “I am so in love with Tamar, I’ve got to have her!”

Instead of suggesting the right thing – which would have been for Amnon to go to King David and say ‘may I marry Tamar?’ – the cousin said ‘hey! I know! Get in bed, pretend you’re sick, and ask the king to have Tamar fix you (the ancient equivalent of) some chicken soup.’  Which he did.

Amnon and Tamar

And when Tamar came into Amnon’s bedroom to give him the food, he raped her. Tamar begged him to ask the King for marriage, but once Amnon was done with her, his love turned to hate – and he threw her out.

Tamar tore her clothing and ran weeping back to her side of the palace.  Her older brother Absalom met her at the door and comforted her, and took her to live in his part of the palace, where she stayed for the rest of her life, in mourning.

When David heard about this he was angry… but he didn’t do anything. The law of Moses (which was the law of the land) said that anyone who forced himself on a virgin was required to pay the bride price and marry her.  Which sounds like a horrible deal for the woman but it was better than most other countries at the time. And most likely someone in Amnon’s position probably would have said “take the money and keep the girl, I don’t want her” – in which case she would have had enough to live on without having to marry her rapist. Which is probably what happened more often than not.

BUT David didn’t enforce the law. He didn’t do anything. And Absalom watched while his beautiful sister spent every day lost in pain and grief. He wasn’t going to let it go. I imagine Absalom would have agreed with the ancient Klingon proverb, “revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Two years later Absalom invited all the King’s sons to a great banquet. And he said to his men, “when everybody’s had plenty to drink, at my signal, take your swords and kill Amnon.” Which they did.

This not only avenged Tamar’s rape but also put Absalom next in line to the throne. But it’s not safe for Absalom to go home just yet, so he runs to a foreign country where his mother’s brother is the king, and he stays there for three years.

In those three years, David again did nothing. He didn’t acknowledge Tamar’s rape. He didn’t condemn Amnon’s actions, or Absalom’s. He did start to miss his son Absalom; so Joab, commander of the army, recommended that David bring him back and make peace. So David brought him back… but he didn’t make peace.

Why David would do this I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense to send for someone and then refuse to see them. And for a king it was probably the worst thing to do, because a child in rebellion (when you’re the king) is a threat to the nation.  The one thing we do know is the Bible is being honest about David’s humanity. David was a hero, but he wasn’t perfect. And God is honest with us about David’s flaws.

So Absalom was home (sort of) and living nearby. Now Absalom was loved by all the people. Absalom was an extremely handsome man; and he had a head of hair so thick it had to be weighed every time he got it cut. He was like the Johnny Depp of the ancient world. His name means “father of peace” and that’s pretty much how the people saw him – but he didn’t live up to his name. He was charming; and he stole the hearts of the people, and he dropped hints that the people weren’t getting justice from David, but that they could get it from him. This was a total lie because scripture says “David executed judgement and justice to all his people.” But doesn’t this sound like our politics today? People say what they want people to think about their opponent (whether it’s true or not) and they keep on saying it until public opinion makes it so.

That’s the game Absalom played against his father for two years. And then he said to King David, “let me go to Hebron with some of my friends to worship God as I promised the Lord.” And David said “ok.”  But Absalom sent out secret messages to his friends all around the country: “When you hear the trumpet in Hebron, shout ‘Absalom is King at Hebron!’” And that’s what happened.

A messenger came secretly to David and told him what was going on. And David, knowing how much his people loved Absalom, gathered up his household and ran. He left ten of his concubines in charge of the palace; the rest of the royal family, and everyone who supported David, took off across the Kidron Valley and up the Mount of Olives: the exact same path Jesus took on Palm Sunday, only in reverse.

And as they’re running, Absalom returns to Jerusalem; and finding the palace empty, he pitches a tent on the roof and sleeps with his father’s concubines.  And so the word of God came true: “the sword will never depart from your house; and someone close to you will sleep with your wives in the sight of all Israel.”

Absalom Crowns Himself King

So civil war breaks out, and this is where our scripture reading for today picks up the story. As the reading opens, Absalom has the advantage: he is in Jerusalem, he holds the palace, and he has many of David’s top advisors with him, plus a good portion of the army.

But Absalom doesn’t reckon on God.  In all the years that have passed, God has been working on David’s heart – made him gentle and wise; and David has been building up friendships with many of the nations surrounding Israel. So David has more help than Absalom expects.

And then, of all the ironies, as battle is being fought in a forest, Absalom gets caught in a tree by that magnificent hair of his. And his donkey rides on and leaves him hanging there by his hair.

Absalom Caught in the Tree

Now David had given orders to his men that if they found Absalom they were to ‘deal gently with him’ – in other words, don’t kill him.  But Joab, the commander, thought he knew better, so he took three spears and plunged them into Absalom’s heart, and then commanded his armor-bearers finish Absalom off.  And a Cushite who witnessed this ran and brought the news to David: “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”

And the King wept: “my son Absalom, my son, my son…”

Like God, David never ever desires the death of any of his children. In spite of the fact Absalom would have killed David given the chance, David still grieves for him: so much so that when Joab arrives he scolds David, saying “your army is sneaking back into the city with their heads down in shame because of you. You love the people who hate you and hate the people who love you, and if you don’t go right now and say a kind word to your army I will leave you!”

And so David does. But he never forgets that night. And when Solomon is crowned king, David reminds him “when I’m dead, see to it that Joab dies.”

Wars and rumors of wars… doesn’t this sound like our evening news?  People haven’t changed much in 3000 years.

So what does this have to do with our lives today? What can we take from it?

First, the story is far too complex to boil it down to good guys vs bad guys. There’s a richness of characters here which makes it a whole lot more real.  David and Absalom both start out with good intentions: David loves his sons, and Absalom loves his sister. The biggest difference between David and Absalom is that David loves God and wants to do things God’s way; but Absalom tries to do everything in his own power. In fact Absalom never even mentions God except in the context of a lie.

But the question I want to ask today is: who do we relate to in this story? And the answer will be different for each one of us, and could even be a mixture for some of us.

  1. Some of us may relate to Amnon. Some of us know what it’s like to have loved someone but to have that love turn to hate. In Amnon’s case I think we can question whether love was actually there in the first place. Real love, the kind of love God has for us, the kind of love God teaches us, never dies. Maybe we should use the words ‘romantic attraction’ instead – something full of fiery emotion, but far from permanent. If we feel like Amnon sometimes, with God’s help we need to turn to God and ask God to soften our hearts and keep us from doing harm. “The heart wants what it wants” but that’s no excuse for hatred or abusing others. And to force our will on someone else – sexually or otherwise – is NEVER God’s will, for that person or for us.
  2. Some of us may relate to Tamar. Some of us know what it is to be deceived, taken advantage of, forced to do what we didn’t want to do. Tamar’s reaction is very appropriate. First she appealed to reason; but when reason failed, and she was violated, she tore her garments, which was a sign of great grief, and she cried out loud through the whole palace so everyone could hear her. She didn’t keep what happened a secret. We see a good parallel today in the “Me Too” movement. Breaking the silence; going public with wrongs that have been done; is the first step in finding justice and regaining self-respect AND in seeing that it doesn’t happen again.
  3. Some of us may relate to Absalom. David’s failure to act put Absalom in a position where he felt he was the only person who cared enough about justice to do something. How many of us have ever waited for someone above us (a boss, for example) to ‘do the right thing’ – and have come to the realization that they’re not going to?

It happens a lot in business; it happens a lot in politics too. We think we’ve found a political candidate worthy of support, and we vote for them, but then they fail to take a stand when moral decisions needs to be made: which leaves us, the members of the public, to duke it out amongst ourselves. (And people wonder why the nation is so divided…)

Sooner or later, if justice is delayed – as Martin Luther King said, “justice delayed is justice denied.” And then people look for comfort wherever they can find it, as Tamar did: right or wrong, healthy or not. Absalom was not the right person to bring Amnon to justice; but the right person failed, so Absalom took it upon himself. Can we relate to that? If Absalom had only brought his heart and his life – and his anger – to God, things might have been different. God is able to act in ways that we can’t; to bring justice in ways we can’t yet see.

  1. And finally, some of us might relate to the crowd. We average folks, we’re fond of people like Absalom: physically attractive, popular, smart, warm and charming and beautiful. They make us feel good just to be near them. In our day, these people might be on TV, or in politics, or in business, sometimes even in religion. For those of us who are fans of the beautiful people: we buy their books, we watch their videos, we tell our friends and family members to ‘check this out’ – a word of warning: fame built on image never ends well. Someday, some way, that famous person will begin to tell little lies, or cheat in some way, and everything they’ve built comes crashing down.  For those of us who may find ourselves up against someone like this: opposing someone who is charming and attractive and who carries public opinion – but we know what they’re doing isn’t right – is very difficult. The best thing to do is to confront when the time is right… and look to God to know when that time is. And when it’s all over it’s OK to grieve, like David did.

So today we leave David with his tears; but we also leave him with faithful friends and an army worthy of their calling. God’s judgement has passed, and now God’s mercy begins. Next week we’ll see David crown his son Solomon the next King of Israel, just as God promised. Brighter days are ahead.

Let’s pray: Thank you Lord that through all the ups and downs of life you are always with us, just as you were with David.  Help us to walk with you in wisdom and righteousness and love. We pray Lord for those we know who are in Absalom’s shoes – that you would call them to yourself and keep them from rash and violent actions. We pray for those we know who are in Tamar’s shoes, that you would heal their pain and help them find strength and peace and joy. And we pray for those in David’s shoes, that you would heal their hearts and give them wisdom for just and compassionate action. We pray these things in Jesus’ name. AMEN.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, 8/12/18

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Scripture Reading: II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33

“The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom.

 “So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword.

 “Absalom happened to meet the servants of David. Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.

 “A man saw it, and told Joab, “I saw Absalom hanging in an oak.”  Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.” But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying: For my sake protect the young man Absalom! On the other hand, if I had dealt treacherously against his life (and there is nothing hidden from the king), then you yourself would have stood aloof.” Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak.  […]  And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. […]

 “Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, “Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you.”  The king said to the Cushite, “Is it well with the young man Absalom?” The Cushite answered, “May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man.”  The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!””

 

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

Last week I ended our sermon with the words “to be continued…” because when we left off last week, King David had just committed adultery and murder. He had slept with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, and she had gotten pregnant; and when David’s attempt to cover up the affair failed, David sent word to Joab, commander of the army, and said “put Uriah where the fighting is the hardest and then draw back so he dies”.  And that’s where our scripture reading ended last week: on a very dark note.

Side note: in that Uriah was an innocent man put to death by a conspiracy that was both illegal and immoral, and yet his death set in motion a series of events that would end up blessing the nation – in as much as that’s true, Uriah’s story foreshadows the story of Jesus, because Jesus also was put to death by a conspiracy that was both illegal and immoral, and yet his death brought blessing to the nation… and in fact to the whole world.

So last week we saw King David – a man who had been called “the man after God’s own heart” – breaking a majority of the Ten Commandments and seeming to get away with it.

As our scene opens today, Uriah has just died, and Bathsheba is alone at home, grieving the loss of her husband. She has no way of knowing David is the one who ordered her husband’s death; and she has no way of knowing that David has further plans for her. She only knows she is alone and pregnant with no means of support.

Scripture says David sent for her when her time of mourning was over – which was probably around 30 days later. In Jewish tradition the death of a spouse is usually grieved for a year, but the most intense period of grieving was the first 30 days – after which the person in mourning would slowly return to daily life. Our passage tells us ‘she became David’s wife’ and then ‘bore him a son’ in that order, which means Bathsheba was still in her year of mourning when David married her.

We have no record of how Bathsheba felt about any of this. We don’t know whether she had consented to the affair in the first place; we don’t know how she felt about David. All indications are she was honestly grieved at Uriah’s death: he had been a kind and loving husband to her. And it seems Bathsheba’s marriage to David was, at best, on his timetable rather than hers. But it also meant she and her child would have a home and would be provided for.

II Samuel 12 continues: “But the thing David had done displeased the Lord; and the Lord sent Nathan to David.” (II Sam 12:1)  It strikes me as strange that the Lord didn’t send Nathan the prophet right away.  This conversation takes place after the marriage, after the child has been born, so it’s been close to a year since David first saw Bathsheba bathing on that rooftop. One wonders if maybe David was starting to think he’d gotten away with it somehow, that the crisis was past and everything was going to be OK?

I also notice Nathan does not approach David with guns blazing and moral outrage flaring. No doubt Nathan had heard the palace gossip about the affair – and no doubt he has been praying for David.  In answer to his prayers God gives him a message, which comes in the form of a parable. The parable is a study in opposites: rich vs. poor; many flocks vs. one single lamb; the powerful vs. the powerless; the guilty vs. the innocent.

Nathan tells the story: “There were two men in a city, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had many flocks and herds; the poor man had only one ewe lamb.” And this lamb ate from his table, slept in his bed, and was like a member of the family.

Side note: I’d like to take a moment to appreciate the amazing gift God gives us in animals! Especially the ones who share our homes. They are a joy and a comfort and somehow they seem to understand us even though they can’t say so in words. We say a dog is “a man’s best friend” but they’re also a woman’s best friend; and I think cats have earned the same title as well. They really are members of the family and I thank God for them.

So this one lamb who belonged to the poor man was an animal of the house. In spite of the fact the poor man had very little to eat, this lamb was not going to be on the dinner table, ever. She was a friend, a member of the family, and if it hadn’t been for that rich man she would have lived out her whole life in peace in that poor man’s house.

So to interpreting the parable: the many flocks and herds in the story represent David’s many wives and concubines, and the one ewe lamb represents Uriah’s Bathsheba. So who or what is the traveler, the visitor who comes to the rich man and needs to be entertained? Could it be temptation, perhaps? Or perhaps desire? At any rate the traveler represents something temporary. By definition, travelers don’t stay; they have a meal, they may stay overnight, and then they’re gone. The traveler represents something passing. And this rich man could easily have satisfied the traveler with what he already had – but he chose not to. Instead he chose to take by force the poor man’s best friend – and kill it, and serve it up to satisfy a visitor who would be gone tomorrow.

On hearing Nathan’s story, King David was furious!  David exclaims “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die!”  The original Hebrew is actually a bit stronger: David shouts “Son of death!” – which was probably a expression equivalent in English to a cuss-word followed by “that man ought to be shot!”

David and Nathan, 1672 (oil on canvas) by Scheits, Matthias (c.1630-c.1700)
oil on canvas
47×55.5
© Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany
German, out of copyright

And Nathan replies: “You are the man.”

“…and God says to you: I made you king over Israel. I rescued you from Saul. I gave you everything Saul had – his house, his wives, his throne. And if that were too little I would have given you even more!” (II Sam 12:7-8, paraphrased)  God is reminding David not just of what God has done for him, but what David himself has said God has done.  Remember David’s prayer after God promised to build David a house? David praises God for keeping him safe through all the years and for promising a son who would follow him on his throne. God is reminding David of David’s own words.

God the brings the charges against David. The first charge is that David has killed Uriah with the sword. The second charge is that David has taken Uriah’s wife. The third charge is that in doing these things, David has despised God’s word (has literally broken two of the Ten Commandments) and has done what is evil in God’s sight, and therefore has despised God Himself.

And then God passes sentence: First, the sword will never depart from David’s house. God is not going to put an end to David’s house as he did with Saul’s; God’s promise that David’s house will last forever still stands. But the kingdom will always be marked by violence and rebellion. (Next week we will hear about the first of those rebellions when David’s son Absalom tries to take the throne.) And God’s second sentence: God will take David’s wives and give them to one of David’s neighbors, who will sleep with them in broad daylight. What David has done in secret, God will do in public.

And David replies: “I have sinned before the Lord.”  No excuses. No explanations. No attempts to plea-bargain or blame-shift. David looks his sins and God’s judgement straight in the eye and doesn’t flinch. He owns it. You gotta admire him for that.

David’s full confession is found in Psalm 51, where he begs God’s mercy: not because he deserves it – David says “I was born guilty” and “you are justified in your sentence” – but because God is a God of “steadfast love”. David puts himself completely in God’s hands, grieves over his sins, and yet he knows “the joy of God’s salvation” will be restored before all has been said and done.

This prayer, Psalm 51, unknown to David, also points us to Jesus as the one who brings healing and forgiveness. When David says “cleanse me with hyssop” this is, in part, a prophecy. Hyssop will be used to offer Jesus a drink of wine when he’s on the cross. John 19:28-29 reads:

“…when Jesus knew that all was now finished, he said (in order to fulfill the scripture), “I am thirsty.”  A jar full of sour wine was standing there. So they put a sponge full of the wine on a branch of hyssop and held it to his mouth.”

In order to fulfill the scriptures. Psalm 51 is one of only a few scripture passages where hyssop is mentioned; the others are: (1) the night of the first passover in Egypt, when the people of Israel put the blood of the lamb over their doors, they used hyssop to put it there; and (2) at the giving of the Torah, Moses uses hyssop to sprinkle blood on the Torah and on the people hearing it to make them holy.

So David’s hyssop ties together Israel’s deliverance and Jesus’ death – which is our deliverance.  Hyssop points to the Passover and to the Cross, and to the one who will die so that all people can be forgiven.

So even at the lowest point in David’s life, God is using him as a prophet… answering David’s prayer that he might “teach transgressors your ways” and that “sinners will return to you.”

But back to Nathan’s message. God’s immediate reply to David’s admission of guilt is: “you will not die; but because you have scorned the Lord, the child who is born to you will die.”  This baby is never named that we know of. After David’s conversation with Nathan, the child gets sick and dies. This is disturbing to us, and it should be; because what meaning or purpose could this child’s death possibly have? Could one say the child has died in David’s place? In a sense maybe, but not in any redemptive sense, not like Jesus. Is God saying the child’s life is the price of David’s life? No. Is it possible God is using this situation to share with David what forgiveness actually costs: the death of a son? Perhaps. And if that’s the case, then David’s prayer for the life of his child might have a parallel in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane, that is, “if it’s possible let this cup pass from me” – but the cup doesn’t pass for Jesus, and it doesn’t pass for David’s child. The Bible doesn’t really answer the question ‘why?’, other than that sin leads to death.

But at the end of the story God does not forget mercy. When everything’s over, scripture says David “comforts his wife Bathsheba” – really sharing her pain this time – and the child born of this togetherness will be Solomon, the wisest king Israel ever knew.  Solomon’s name means ‘peace’, like ‘shalom’.  And God will give Solomon a second name, “Jedediah”,  which means “beloved of God”.  God, in his great mercy, brings good even out of the ashes of David’s sin.

So a few take-aways for today:

  1. Whenever we have a need to confront sin in others, Nathan gives us a good example. Pray first, wait for God’s word, and then when God gives the word, speak the truth firmly but without anger. When Nathan said “you are the man” I don’t think he shouted it; he simply spoke the truth.
  2. When we have a need to deal with sin in our own lives, David gives us a good example: confessing it openly and completely to God without holding back. And sometimes it can help to have a Nathan in our lives who will listen and be honest with us and speak God’s word into our lives.
  3. When we sin, Psalm 51 can become our prayer. It’s a prayer of power and peace, that speaks truth and inspires trust and renews the Holy Spirit in us.
  4. Last and most important, we are all God’s children and God is our loving parent. No matter where we’ve been or what we’ve done, God wants to forgive us and welcome us home, not because we deserve it but because that’s who God is.

From here on out, God and David will go forward into the future together. Things will never be peaceful in David’s household after this; but whatever happens, God will be with David… and with his son Solomon, and his children after him, until the day when Jesus, the Son of David, arrives to forgive us all. AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 8/5/18

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2 Samuel 11:26 – 12:14  When the wife of Uriah heard that her husband was dead, she made lamentation for him. When the mourning was over, David sent and brought her to his house, and she became his wife, and bore him a son.

But the thing that David had done displeased the LORD, and the LORD sent Nathan to David. He came to him, and said to him, “There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man’s lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.” Then David’s anger was greatly kindled against the man. He said to Nathan, “As the LORD lives, the man who has done this deserves to die; he shall restore the lamb fourfold, because he did this thing, and because he had no pity.”

Nathan said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: I anointed you king over Israel, and I rescued you from the hand of Saul; I gave you your master’s house, and your master’s wives into your bosom, and gave you the house of Israel and of Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added as much more. Why have you despised the word of the LORD, to do what is evil in his sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, and have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, for you have despised me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife. Thus says the LORD: I will raise up trouble against you from within your own house; and I will take your wives before your eyes, and give them to your neighbor, and he shall lie with your wives in the sight of this very sun. For you did it secretly; but I will do this thing before all Israel, and before the sun.” David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” Nathan said to David, “Now the LORD has put away your sin; you shall not die. Nevertheless, because by this deed you have utterly scorned the LORD, the child that is born to you shall die.”

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Psalm 51:1-19  (A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba)

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin.
3 For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
4 Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.
5 Indeed, I was born guilty,
a sinner when my mother conceived me.
6 You desire truth in the inward being;
therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
7 Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
8 Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
9 Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and put a new and right spirit within me.
11 Do not cast me away from your presence,
and do not take your holy spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and sustain in me a willing spirit.
13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodshed, O God, O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your deliverance.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you have no delight in sacrifice;
if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.
17 The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
rebuild the walls of Jerusalem,
19 then you will delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.

 

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[Scripture readings for today can be found at the end of this post]

At first glance our scripture readings for today appear to be completely un-related to each other.  The Old Testament lesson tells about Noah and the flood; the Gospel lesson tells about Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan; and in the New Testament lesson, Peter is declaring Jesus at the right hand of God now ruling in heaven.

So where’s the common thread? The answer to that question can be found in our passage from Peter.

The Archangel Michael

But before I dig in to these readings, I wanted to bring to memory an old, old song… a spiritual that many of us learned as children: Michael Row the Boat Ashore.  Remember the words? “Michael, row the boat ashore, alleluia!” And the verses go:

“River Jordan is deep and wide, alleluia!
Milk and honey on the other side, alleluia!
River Jordan is chilly and cold, alleluia!
Chills the body but not the soul, alleluia!”

This old slave song has a double meaning. Taken one way, it talks about freedom: taking a boat to get away from the slave-master and travel to the promised land. Taken another way, the song talks about dying and eternal life.  The River Jordan represents death, and ‘milk and honey on the other side’ represents the promised land of heaven.

The apostle Peter didn’t know the song of course, but in his letter he says many of the same things. He says that we are “saved through water.” (I Peter 3:20)  And he points to a number of illustrations.

Noah’s Ark Under Construction

In his first illustration Peter points to Noah, who along with eight other people, traveled through the great flood in the ark and they were ‘saved through water’.  When the waters had gone down, and the ark had landed, God’s word to Noah was a covenant, a promise in which God said, “I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant… the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature…”  (I like how God includes the animals in this covenant – both domestic and wild, God says. If we ever had any doubt that God cares about His creatures, this passage sets aside those doubts!)

In his second illustration, Peter talks about Jesus “suffering for sins once for all… in order to bring us to God”.  If we ever have any doubts that God loves us, or that Jesus wants us with him – this passage sets those doubts to rest. Jesus’ last prayer for us was “Father, forgive them.”  The love of Jesus: there’s no stopping it!

Peter goes on to say Jesus was “put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit.”  So Jesus himself has taken that boat-ride across the Jordan. He has passed through the waters of death – and not only landed safe on the other side but then came back to tell us about it.

And while he was doing that, Peter says, “Jesus went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey…” – that is, the people living in Old Testament times who had died not knowing Jesus, not knowing the hope of eternal life. Jesus made himself known to them and gave them a chance to respond to his invitation.  And so we say in the creeds Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried, he descended into hell” – not because he belonged there but because he was ministering to the spirits trapped there, to set them free.

And then Peter talks about our salvation, which is also through water. He writes, “and baptism… saves you – not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

In other words, just as Jesus descended to the dead and rose again, we descend into the waters of baptism and are raised up again. (That’s why many churches practice baptism by immersion: because it’s a living picture of being buried and being raised again.) And just as Jesus “has gone into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God” so we also will follow in his footsteps and one day be with him on the far side of the Jordan.

And God looks at Jesus being baptized by John in the Jordan River and exclaims “you are my Son, my beloved, in you I am well pleased.” Because Jesus accomplishes God’s will to save us through water.

And after being baptized and tempted in the wilderness, Jesus goes to Galilee and begins his public ministry. And his message to the people – both then and now – is this: “the time is fulfilled, and kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the good news.”

Jesus’ message is always about the Kingdom of God. Yes, he taught peace and love and justice and mercy, goodness and kindness and holiness, all these things; but the main point of his teaching and his life was the coming of God’s Kingdom. This kingdom, as he said to Pilate, “is not of this world”.

What we look forward to on the far side of the Jordan – that Promised Land – is seeing Jesus crowned as King of all creation. Under his rule the universe will be made new; what is wrong will be set right; and Jesus will be King of kings and Lord of lords and Prince of peace.

So Jesus’ message is: Change course (that’s what ‘repent’ means)—change course and believe the good news.

So what can we take away from these passages today? Apart from receiving a hope that does not disappoint; our first response is to believe. The longer I live, the more challenges to faith it seems we come up against.  So it’s time to dust off our spirits: dust off all the years of church history and all the theology we’ve heard (for better or for worse) and all the other stuff that seems to accumulate around our hearts and our souls – dust it all off and renew and refresh our relationship with the living Jesus.

Second, we can reflect on the River Jordan and what it means to us: the sorrows it brings, as it has taken loved ones from us over the years; and the joys it brings as we look forward to many happy reunions. The song Michael Row the Boat Ashore has another verse that’s not as well-known as the ones quoted earlier: “gonna see my mother there, hallelujah… gonna see my papa there, hallelujah”.  We will see our loved ones, and we will see Jesus, all who have crossed the river ahead of us.

And finally, we can talk about these things among ourselves during the coming week – to encourage each other, and to inspire each other, and perhaps others may overhear our conversations and find encouragement too in Jesus’ words.

Wishing you many blessings during this holy season of Lent – AMEN.

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Genesis 9:8-17  Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,  9 “As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you,  10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.  11 I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.”  12 God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations:  13 I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth.  14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds,  15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.  16 When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”  17 God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

1 Peter 3:18-22  For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,  19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,  20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.  21 And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you — not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ,  22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.

Mark 1:9-15   In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  10 And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  11 And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

 12 And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness.  13 He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

 14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,  15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”

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

Preached at Fair Oaks of Pittsburgh 2/18/18

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[scriptures for the day are reprinted at the end of this post]

The call to worship and prayers in our service sheet today mention things like the chariot of Elijah, and God’s presence in a whirlwind… but these things kind of seem to come at us out of nowhere, so to begin to fill in the blanks, the common thread is today is Transfiguration Sunday.  This is the day when we remember Jesus meeting Moses and Elijah on a mountain-top and being transfigured in front of his disciples.

I chose On That Holy Mountain as the title of our sermon for today: the title is taken from an anthem my choir used to sing.  This particular song was one of my choir’s favorites to sing on Transfiguration Sunday.  The words go something like this:

The wolf is the guest of the lamb
On that holy mountain
The calf and the lion shall lie down
On that holy mountain
Together they shall rest with a child…
On that holy mountain of the Lord

Justice shall flower for all time
On that holy mountain
As long as the sun still can shine
On that holy mountain
Peace til the moon be no more…
On that holy mountain of the Lord

The song doesn’t actually have anything to do with the Transfiguration! But church choirs have good instincts about these things and over the years I’ve learned to respect that. The words of the song are actually taken from Isaiah chapter 11, which predicts the coming of the Messiah. Isaiah writes:

“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.  The spirit of the LORD shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD.” (Isaiah 11:1-2)

It’s a familiar passage – one we usually read during Advent as we look for the coming of the baby Jesus.  And at the end of the passage Isaiah writes:

“They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain (there’s the title); for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9)

“On my holy mountain,” God says.  There is something special about the tops of mountains: anyone who’s ever gone to Jumonville and walked up to the cross at the top of that mountain has felt it.  And all through scripture God chooses the tops of mountains to reveal himself to God’s people. Think about it:

  • In the Old Testament, Noah and his family, when they were in the ark: after the flood was over, the ark came to rest on top of a mountain. Noah and his family learned: God’s people are saved, through the flood waters, to a mountain-top.
  • Abraham, the father of the nation of Israel, was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac on a mountain top, but at the last minute God provided a lamb in place of his son. And so Abraham and Isaac learned that one day God would provide a sacrifice on a mountain top, and God shared with Abraham what that would mean. Genesis 22:14 says Abraham called that place “The LORD will provide” (Jehovah-Jireh); as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the LORD it shall be provided.”
  • Many years later, when God set the people of Israel free from slavery in Egypt, just like Noah, they passed through waters and arrived at a mountain; and God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on top of that mountain.
  • Many years after that, when David became king, even though David was from Bethlehem he reigned as king in the City of David – Jerusalem – which was built on top of a mountain.
  • Years after that, when the people of Israel rebelled against God and started serving the false god Ba’al, the prophet Elijah called them back to the true faith, and afterwards Elijah saw God’s glory on top of a mountain.
  • In the New Testament, Jesus taught the disciples and gave us the Beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer as he preached the Sermon on the Mount.
  • And when the time was fulfilled, Jesus was crucified on top of a mountain: God’s provision for our salvation, fulfilling the prophecy God gave Abraham all those years ago.
  • At the end of Matthew’s gospel, after Jesus has risen from the dead, the disciples meet Jesus again on a mountain, where he gives them the Great Commission to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son & Holy Spirit
  • In the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus ascends into heaven from the top of a mountain.
  • At the end of the book of Revelation, an angel takes the apostle John to the top of a mountain to see the holy city, the New Jerusalem, coming out of heaven from God. John writes: “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb.” (Rev. 21:23)

Journeying from one mountaintop to the next, to the next, to the next, we hear the whole story of creation, and salvation, and God’s provision, and God’s love for humankind.

Viewed from this perspective it makes sense that Jesus would take his best friends up a mountain to reveal to them the purpose of his mission: to fulfill the law (represented by Moses) and to fulfill the prophets (represented by Elijah).

So for a moment let’s imagine ourselves with the disciples, seeing what they saw and hearing what they heard.

Jesus leads us up a mountain on a sunny spring day. The grass is tall and green, and insects are buzzing. As we get to the top of the mountain we look around at the beautiful view.  Suddenly our friend Jesus is changed.  The word Mark uses in his gospel is metamorphosis: the word we use to describe what happens when a caterpillar becomes a butterfly.  Not just changed but transformed. The best the disciples can say is that Jesus became radiant, almost blinding, and his garments became whiter than a person could scrape them clean.

All of a sudden Jesus is talking with two other men, who have appeared out of nowhere: Elijah and Moses. The disciples (and ourselves, as we stand with them) are aware of nothing else. We see nothing else. And we’re wondering if our eyes were deceiving us.

Mark says Peter then, answering, said “it’s good we’re here – let us put up some tents for the three of you”.  (The word answering only appears in the Greek, not in the English translations, but it lets us know we don’t have the entire conversation; Mark didn’t record it.) But Mark comments ‘Peter didn’t know what to say because they were all terrified’ – which sounds about right given the circumstances. At least Peter had the presence of mind to offer their guests some hospitality, which was the proper thing to do in that culture.

But then a cloud covered the mountain-top, and a voice was heard was heard coming out of the cloud saying, “this is my son, my beloved, listen to him.”

And suddenly everything’s back to ‘normal’.

Moses and Elijah are gone and Jesus is back to his usual self. I imagine the disciples are standing there in stunned disbelief, wondering if they just saw what they saw.  As if to assure them it really happened, Jesus tells them not to talk about what they’ve seen until after he rises from the dead. And, lacking any other handle on the events of the day, the disciples start to talk among themselves trying to figure out what Jesus means by ‘rising from the dead’.

And that’s it.

Mark doesn’t tell us what Jesus talked about with Moses and Elijah. But Luke does. In his gospel, Luke tells us they were talking about “Jesus’ departure, which would take place at Jerusalem”.  That’s all Luke says; but it makes sense Jesus would find comfort and encouragement talking with two prophets who understood God’s plan for the salvation of the world and how events needed to unfold.

In the 2000+ years that have passed since then, people have debated what this vision means, and I’m not going to step into those debates. My gut instinct, for what it’s worth, is that this is a sneak preview of what the next life – what eternal life – will be like. It makes sense that our bodies will go through a metamorphosis similar to what Jesus’ body did.  It makes sense that in God’s kingdom we will see and talk to people who have already passed, who (as scripture says) are always alive to God. It’s too much for us mere mortals to take in; but someday, like Noah, like Israel, we will pass through the waters and arrive at the mountain-top in God’s eternal kingdom.

Until that day comes, God’s message to the disciples on the mountain is the one we need to take with us: Jesus is God’s son, deeply loved by God, and our job is to listen to him.

Like the disciples, we’re still trying to figure things out.  We’re still trying to make sense of what happened.  We hear Jesus’ words, but we don’t fully understand.  And that’s OK.  Our understanding is in part, for now. Jesus doesn’t scold the disciples for not getting it all right away.  Understanding will come. For now, the best we can do is listen to him, and follow.

With that in mind, we leave the mountaintop of Transfiguration and head down the mountain – into Lent,  and Good Friday… and Easter. Over these next 40 days, listen to him, and follow. AMEN.

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2 Kings 2:1-12  Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal.  2 Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel.  3 The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

 4 Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho.  5 The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

 6 Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on.  7 Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan.  8 Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

 9 When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.”  10 He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.”  11 As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.  12 Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

Mark 9:2-9  Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them,  3 and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them.  4 And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus.  5 Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  6 He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.  7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!”  8 Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.  9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.

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Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 2/12/18

 

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The word of the LORD came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. […] When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. – Jonah 3:1-5, 10
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Now after John [the Baptist] was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”  As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”  And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. – Mark 1:14-20

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Welcome to Week Two of our series on The Wesley Challenge!  In case anybody missed the first message of our series last week, let me just say The Wesley Challenge is not just for Sunday mornings but is meant to be dug into more deeply in small groups.  To that end, there are three small groups meeting in the Partnership: one at Hill Top on Monday nights, one at Spencer on Thursday nights, and one at Carnegie on Wednesday nights, all of these meeting at 7:00PM.  If you haven’t already done so, make plans to join one of these groups.  And if you aren’t able to come out at night, meet up with us on Facebook, on the Wesley Challenge South Hills Partnership Facebook page.

The main reason we’re getting together on weeknights is because The Wesley Challenge is not just about “learning stuff”.  It’s about taking what John Wesley did 350 years ago and adapting it to our own time; and in order to do that, we need to put our heads together and discuss.

I also wanted to lead off with a few comments I shared with Fairhaven and Spencer last week, just by way of background.  I started out last week by quoting page one of the book, in which Adam Hamilton writes in the Foreword that the intention of The Wesley Challenge is “to shape the souls of the participants so that their everyday lives are changed…”.

The longer I live, the more I think the word “change” should be a four-letter word!

I never used to feel that way.  And in some ways I still don’t – I mean, variety IS the spice of life.  But, like, for example, I used to work in an office typing on a computer all day. And every now and then I’d come in, in the morning, and discover… my computer had been changed! Overnight the tech guys snuck in and installed an upgrade, and left the employees a note saying why this change was a good thing… and all it meant to us, was it was going to take us twice as long to get our work done! Change meant major frustrations and missed deadlines.

And then about ten years ago I ran for tax collector in Carnegie. So I went door to door talking to people and I campaigned on a platform of ‘change’ and why change was needed in our town – until I realized every time I said the word ‘change’ people’s eyes would glaze over! Because we’ve heard it too many times. Politicians promise change, but if they ever deliver it, they do it badly.

So when Adam Hamilton writes in the foreword of our book that the intention of The Wesley Challenge is to inspire change, I wonder if he’s wise to tell us that!

And yet at the same time he’s speaking the truth, and we know change is needed.  We know without change, the future of our churches is uncertain at best.

I also want to say – the kind of change The Wesley Challenge is talking about is NOT one more program, one more meeting to go to, one more thing on the to-do list. The Wesley Challenge is not that.

When John Wesley began leading his first group, the Church of England and the nation of England were at a low point, morally speaking.  Church attendance was down, people who were spiritual were held up to ridicule, and the nation itself was leading the world in the slave trade… while on the home front people in prisons were suffering horribly – many of whom were in prison simply because they were in debt or mentally ill, not because they were criminals.

Wesley believed that, as the apostle Paul said, faith without works is dead. So with that in mind, Wesley’s group met to read God’s word together, to pray together, to encourage each other in the Christian life, and to find ways of loving God and others.  And in the process they came up with a list of questions they would ask each other, to help each other grow in the faith, which became the Wesleyan ‘method’ – from which we get ‘Method-ism’.

Wesley knew that meaningful change starts in the hearts of individuals, when people’s hearts get close to God. Wesley also knew when people’s hearts are filled with God’s love, that love spills over into daily life. So Wesley’s goal was, basically, to change the nation, one person at a time, by bringing God’s love into everyday life.  Wesley was not so much teaching people about God as he was helping people to discover a life with God.

And even though people in Wesley’s time made fun of the “Holy Club” (as they called it) they began to see Wesley’s group serving the poor, and giving to the needy, and visiting prisoners, and praying together… and the Christian faith began to look real to them, and to look attractive.  Wesley’s ‘Holy Club’ was one of the foundations of a revival that spread across all of England in the 1700s.

So the goal of this book is to begin to bring Wesley’s practice into our own time.  America today, like England in Wesley’s day, is in moral crisis. Church attendance is down, people of faith are held up to ridicule, and the nation is being rocked by one scandal after another. We may have ended slavery in this country, but race relations are still far from what they should be, and our prisons still contain many people who are simply in debt or mentally ill.  And people across the nation are angry and afraid.  We need a course of action.  And that’s what John Wesley gives us.

The other thing to keep in mind is that the change brought on by taking part in the Wesley Challenge is not a huge effort on our part.  Change happens because we get close to God. Whenever people get close to God, change happens. That’s the nature of a relationship with God.

I’m reminded of the story of the young grape who wanted very much to grow up and turn purple and be made into grape juice. But as a young grape, he was hard and green and not very juicy.  So what did the little grape do?  Did he work himself up and say “Turn purple! Turn purple!”?  Of course not.  The grape naturally gets bigger and turns purple over time, so long as he stays connected to the vine.

We are like that grape. Jesus said, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Abide in me… and you will bear fruit.”  If we stay connected to Jesus, change happens naturally, the way it’s meant to. Our part is just to show up and be a part of the life of the vine.

So with that in mind, the authors of The Wesley Challenge took the questions John Wesley asked his people, and organized them into three categories: questions having to do with our relationship with God, our relationship with ourselves, and our relationship with others.

So last week Pastor Deb talked about our relationship with God.  This week our focus is on part two – our relationship with self. And having given all this background, let’s take a look at our scriptures for today.

The first scripture reading, from Jonah, is a small part of a larger and very familiar story.  Jonah was called and sent by God to preach to the people of Nineveh. And Jonah didn’t want to go – in fact he took a boat and went in the opposite direction.  But after some persuasion from God, involving a large fish, Jonah decided to do what God asked him to do.  And the message God told him to preach was a simple one: “In 40 days the city of Nineveh will be overthrown!”  And Jonah went all through Nineveh proclaiming this message.

Of course Jonah doesn’t have an army to overthrow the city.  He just had God’s message, which was really a call to change, to repentance, which was exactly the way the Ninevites took it.  “…they proclaimed a fast, and… put on sackcloth.”  Everybody in the city did this, great and small, even the king.

Most evangelists would be thrilled to get a 100% response to their preaching!  But Jonah was miserable.  A little further on in the story we see Jonah sitting under a tree waiting for God’s judgement to fall on Nineveh, and getting ticked off when it doesn’t happen.  The Ninevites were enemies of the people of Israel, and Jonah just can’t understand how God could have mercy on Ninevites and forgive them.

This story tells us that God’s salvation is not just for any one nation but for all nations… not just for one people, but for all people.  It tells us God loves every person God has created, regardless of where they live or what language they speak.

But Jonah doesn’t like that, so he sits under the tree and pouts. And that’s pretty much where the book of Jonah ends – with Jonah sitting under a tree, pouting.

The story of Jonah is proof that God can use just about anybody! So was Jonah a man of faith?  Did he ever come around to God’s point of view? Only God knows.

One thing’s for certain: Jonah could have benefitted from some of the questions Wesley asks in this book:  questions like “Do I grumble and complain?” or “Am I self-pitying or self-justifying?” Jonah could have been an even better preacher than he was, if he could have found it within himself to be happy for others when God showed them mercy.

Of course Jonah is an extreme example.  Most of us aren’t quite that grouchy! But all of us have things about ourselves that we’d like to change, or at least improve.  And before I continue with that thought, I should mention: this book is not meant to be a self-help program.  The Wesley Challenge is not about making us into the people we’ve always wanted to be.

The Challenge is about becoming the people God designed us to be.  It’s about living into what God calls us to. And that does involve change.  In scripture, inner change is often described by the word repentance: and this is what Jesus preached in our second lesson for today.  Jesus traveled around Galilee saying, “the time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.”

The word repent has gotten some bad press over the years.  What the word means in Greek is to change course or change direction. It implies that we can see the course we’re on is one that’s going to have unfortunate consequences – and we want to avoid those consequences – so we turn and change direction.

So the questions Wesley asks us have to do with shining light into the dusty corners of our lives; rooting out those areas where things tend to sneak up and sabotage us.  They involve examining our attitudes, looking at how we take care of ourselves physically and emotionally, and looking at how we spend our time.

And remember as we talk about these things, God is at work – as we read the scriptures, as we pray together – God is at work, developing in us the wisdom and the character we will need as we go forward together in his service.

Our own efforts will be focused in one direction: to put God on the throne of our lives.  Jesus preached the kingdom of God – not just as a future promise, but as a present reality.  The aim of Wesley’s questions is to take our ‘selves’ off the throne of our lives and to put Jesus on the throne. That’s what the Wesley Covenant Prayer is all about: “I am no longer my own but thine; put me to what thou wilt…”

And so we are asking everyone during this Wesley Challenge to pray the Wesley Covenant prayer every day during our personal time with God.

And if you haven’t yet started having a daily time with God, where you read scripture and talk with the Lord, start now – maybe just 15 minutes a day, but start now.  Just yesterday I heard the Anglican Bishop of Pittsburgh giving a teaching on growing in the faith and he said – and I quote – “The one thing that makes the most difference (in spiritual growth) from beginning to end is daily Bible reading and reflection.”  We need to be in the word, every day, every one of us. John Wesley knew that, and that’s why he included Bible reading in the Wesley Challenge.

And where it comes to making Jesus king of our lives: as Americans, we’re not entirely comfortable with the idea of a king. Generally speaking we’re not into royalty.  It’s great for other countries, but not for us, thankyouverymuch.

The problem is, is that all we know is human royalty, and human royalty are not perfect.  But God is perfect. Jesus is the only king who, when He rules our lives, we flourish.  We become what we were meant to be.  Wesley knew this, so he taught his people to put Jesus on the throne of their lives.

And when we do that, people will notice. And our churches will become what they were always meant to be: beacons of hope in world of pain; beacons of compassion in a world that only seeks after its own.

So for those who have been with us for the Wesley Challenge already – keep on coming back.  And for those of us who haven’t been to a meeting yet – choose a night, and plan to join us.  The Wesley Challenge doesn’t work with just one person and a book.  It needs to be shared together.  Whether in person or online, join us.  Get connected to the vine, and let God work in us, together.

Let’s pray.  Lord, most of the time we don’t like change. But we want to see our church connected to you, growing in wisdom, growing in courage, and growing in our ministry to the community around us. Help us to find, as we follow John Wesley’s teaching, a closer walk with you, and with each other; and guide us in reaching out to our community with your love. For your name’s sake, AMEN.

 

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Hill Top United Methodist Church, 1/21/18

 

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[Jesus said] “For it is as if a man, going on a journey, summoned his slaves and entrusted his property to them;  15 to one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.  16 The one who had received the five talents went off at once and traded with them, and made five more talents.  17 In the same way, the one who had the two talents made two more talents.  18 But the one who had received the one talent went off and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money.  19 After a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them.  20 Then the one who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me five talents; see, I have made five more talents.’  21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  22 And the one with the two talents also came forward, saying, ‘Master, you handed over to me two talents; see, I have made two more talents.’  23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and trustworthy slave; you have been trustworthy in a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’  24 Then the one who had received the one talent also came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed;  25 so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’  26 But his master replied, ‘You wicked and lazy slave! You knew, did you, that I reap where I did not sow, and gather where I did not scatter?  27 Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and on my return I would have received what was my own with interest.  28 So take the talent from him, and give it to the one with the ten talents.  29 For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.  30 As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’” – Matthew 25:14-30

[The apostle Paul writes:] “Now concerning the times and the seasons, brothers and sisters, you do not need to have anything written to you.  2 For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.  3 When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them, as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and there will be no escape!  4 But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day to surprise you like a thief;  5 for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness.  6 So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober;  7 for those who sleep sleep at night, and those who are drunk get drunk at night.  8 But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.  9 For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,  10 who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep we may live with him.  11 Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” – I Thessalonians 5:1-11

 

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Well today is kind of a weird Sunday. We’re at the end of Fall but not quite at Christmas. Next Sunday we celebrate Christ the King and the week after that Advent starts. This week is Thanksgiving, and that’s sort of today’s theme, but there are no turkeys in Scripture, and our readings for today talk about Jesus coming back to earth at the end of time, which is usually something we hear about in Advent.

So we could consider today a sneak preview of Advent.

So at this time of year, when the days are getting shorter and the weather is getting colder, I think a message of encouragement will be a good thing. And of the two readings for today, Paul’s words in I Thessalonians are more encouraging, so I’m going to leave Paul for last, and we’ll start with the story from Matthew.

Our reading in Matthew is a familiar parable. Jesus told this story to the disciples a day or two before he died on the cross, so in a sense, these are a dying man’s last words. (There are actually three parables in Matthew 25, and together they make up Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples – and to us – on how to live a life of faith when Jesus is no longer here on earth in the flesh.)

Just to kind of fill in the rest of the chapter briefly – the first parable is the story of the wise and foolish bridesmaids, five of whom took extra oil with them and five of whom did not – and when the groom (who was late) finally arrived, the five who weren’t ready ran out of oil, and had to go get more, and they ended up being locked out of the wedding feast. The moral of the story being, stay awake and be prepared.

The third parable in the chapter is the story of the lambs and the goats on judgement day. The King says to the lambs on his right hand “welcome into my Father’s kingdom – for I was hungry and thirsty and naked and sick and in prison and you took care of me…”.  And then he says to the goats on his left, “depart from me, evildoers, because you didn’t do these things.”  And both the sheep and the goats reply, “when did we ever do this (or not do this) for you?”  And Jesus answers, “just as you did it to one of the least of these (or didn’t do it), you did it (or didn’t do it) to me.”

Both stories tell us that what we do with our lives matters.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith.  Salvation is totally a gift from God; but as Martin Luther pointed out, faith without works is dead.  If we really believe, what we believe in will show up in how we live.

Today’s parable about three servants and their talents reinforces this point. So turning to the story…

There’s a rich man – a very rich man – who is going away on a long journey. While he’s away he wants his servants to take over management of what he owns. The rich man of course represents God, and the servants represent us – not just us present here today, but all people.

As for the talents – in Jesus’ day a talent was a measure of weight that was used to weigh things like gold or silver or bronze.  We don’t know exactly how much a talent was worth (depending on which book you read, a talent may have been worth anywhere from tens of thousands to 1.5 million), but the point is: each servant was given, basically, a lifetime’s wages. And that amount would be somewhat different for each person, just like it is for us.

The talents, then, represent what God has given us: our bodies, our minds, our hearts, our souls, our families, our abilities, all the things that make up who we are. These gifts are all God’s, but he hands over to our care.  He gives one servant five talents, another two talents, another one talent.

Is God playing favorites here? No. God knows each person, and gives what’s appropriate to each person.  Having more talents doesn’t make someone a better person – it just means that person has more work to earn!  And having fewer talents doesn’t mean a person’s efforts are less important. Remember the story of the widow’s mite: Jesus said the poor widow who gave two pennies gave more than anyone else because she gave all she had.  So it’s not about how many talents we have – it’s what we do with what we’ve been given.

So the first and second servant go out and trade with their master’s talents, and they double what they’ve been given: the one with five talents makes five more, and the one with two makes two more.  But the third servant… I’m going to come back to him in a moment.

Up to this point the story reminds me of Shark Tank on TV. Shark Tank is a reality show about rich investors (called “Sharks”) and average people like you and me who go to the Sharks with business proposals. And if the ideas are good a Shark will invest, giving the business owner money and advice on growing their business, and in a matter of years (or sometimes just months) an investment of a few hundred thousand dollars turns into millions. And both the Shark and the business owner are thrilled!

Of course God doesn’t need money, but God is an investor.  God invests in us!  And our job is like those business owners on Shark Tank: to take the talents God gives us, and the guidance God gives us, and make a profit with it.

So what would a profit look like in the kingdom of God?  It could take on many forms. Winning souls for Jesus, perhaps. Providing food and clothing to people after hurricanes. Building friendships between people from different countries. Bringing justice into an unjust situation. Welcoming strangers. Could be any number of things. Through prayer God guides us in investing the talents we have been given.

And imagine the joy of standing before God on that day and saying, “Look, you gave me these gifts and I made more!” And hearing God say, “well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master!”  No matter how many talents we’ve been given, the reward is the same: “Well done!”

So what’s up with the guy with the one talent? I could never figure out where he’s coming from.  Look at the things he says to God: “Master, I knew that you were a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matt 25:24-25)

Where does he get this? How does his brain get to the point of saying to God, “you’re a hard man” when God is neither hard nor a man?

For those of us who know God, this guy sounds completely out in left field. So where are his words coming from?  One theologian makes a good point when he says (paraphrasing) “one way or another, every stubborn sinner ends up blaming his sins on God.” In other words, what the man is saying is what psychologists would call denial and projection: looking at someone else and seeing a reflection of himself instead of what’s really in front of him.

So servant number three blames God for his own shortcomings, insults and falsely accuses God to his face, and then hands him one lousy coin covered with dirt. Is it any surprise the master says, “you wicked and lazy servant! The least you could have done was earn some interest! Take away his talent and give it to the one with ten, and throw him out into the darkness!”

Bottom line, we do not want to be this guy. We want to see God as God is: the loving Lord, the gracious God, the source of all good things, who wants us to do well and wants us to enter into the joy of our master.

And at this point, then, we turn to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians.  Paul and his hearers would likely have been familiar with this story Jesus told here.  And Paul picks up the theme, saying, “you know the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.”  Paul writes, “When they say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them” (I Thess 5:3).  (I think the “they” Paul is talking about are those guys with the one talent. “They” are false prophets.)

Paul continues: “But you, beloved, are not in darkness” (I Thess 5:4)  Darkness may represent lostness, confusion, lack of direction, lack of meaning, lack of purpose, lack of knowledge, lack of connectedness with God. Darkness is where people hide when they don’t want to be seen.  And darkness is where the guy with one talent ends up living.

But Paul says, “you belong to the day.”( v. 8)  Therefore, he says, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” (I Thess 5:8)

Look at that equipment for a moment: faith and love, as a breastplate, to protect our hearts… and the hope of salvation as a helmet to protect our minds. And faith, hope, and love, these three (the greatest of which is love) which will direct us in investing our talents.

Paul adds, “so awake or asleep we may live with him.” (I Thess 5:10)

Therefore encourage each other. Encourage each other to good works, to investing talents wisely, to investing ourselves in God’s kingdom.  And likewise encourage the church to good works, and to faith and hope and love.

And I would add, when you see something, say something.  If you see someone using their talents, or see the church using its talents, say so.  Spread the good news! Give thanks to God, and give thanks to the people involved.

See… I knew we’d get around to Thanksgiving somehow.  Thanks be to God, who gives us the talents, and who gives us the hope and the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. AMEN.

 

Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip, 11/19/17

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