Tag Archives: New Testament

los vivos y los muertos

And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets — who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, and won strength out of weakness … Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus — the pioneer and perfecter of our faith — who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Hebrews 11:32-34, 12:1-2 (NRSV)

Tuesday was a busy day. For anyone following the classic Christian calendar, November 2 was celebrated as All Souls Day — a day of remembrance and prayer for all of the saints who have gone before us. For those of Mexican ancestry, Tuesday was the final day of celebration for Día de los Muertos. Contemporary symbolism associated with the Day of the Dead draws on mixed traditions, but the key focus is to celebrate the lives of family and friends who have finished their mortal journey, offering prayers of thanksgiving and blessings on their behalf. And of course, for those of us in the United States, six-times-out-of-seven, the first Tuesday in November means Election Day.

Kristen and I have always been intrigued by the colorful decorations and beautiful art that comes along with Día de los Muertos, but beyond that, I’ve never really given much thought to either religious celebration. Voting, on the other hand, is something I’ve taken very seriously ever since 2004 — the first election I was eligible to vote in. This year, however, being aware of all three events, I was struck by the serious juxtaposition of these very different activities.

Honoring deceased loved ones, celebrating life with friends and family and praising God for the gift of grace that leads to eternal life is a very corporate experience. Whether it’s done in Spanish or English, with dancing skeletons and paper flowers or with fragrant incense and solemn liturgy, prayer and worship are acts that compel us to join together, offering the best of our community up to God.

Voting is done in private. It is uncouth to talk about who or what you voted for. Whenever political ideas are shared with a gathered group of people, division, frustration and contentious arguments are not far behind. Voting is also a symbol of personal power — and rightly so! Each person has the right to cast a vote for the candidate or issue that she believes is best. Each person’s vote is weighted equally: the voting booth knows no economic class and has no bias towards race, gender or intellectual ability. Voting reminds us that each individual has the power to enact real change in the world. Of course, for our votes to hold on to that power, they must be joined with the votes of thousands of other individuals — but standing alone in a voting booth, its easy to feel like my vote is the one that really matters. It’s easy to be consumed by the lure of individual power.

I’m afraid that this fever of individualism isn’t confined to the voting booth. It permeates every aspect of our culture — even our religion. We use words like “personal Lord and Savior” to remind others, and maybe ourselves, that we have been chosen to be among God’s elect. It is a wonderful truth, revealed in the first two chapters of Genesis and affirmed throughout scripture, that the almighty Creator of the universe is also a deeply personal God that calls each of us by name. But we must never forget that it is God who first called us, and not the other way around. When we move into relationship with him, we are doing it on his terms, not so that we can have him at our disposal like a personal assistant, but so that we can fit into the specific place made for us in his creation. I’m afraid that sometimes we may shout out “I am a child of the King!” so boldly, we forget that every man, and every woman, and every child has been crafted in the very image of God.

Individualism has no place in Christian community. We may have unique gifts that enable us to work towards the specific tasks God has set before us, but we are really not living for God if we’re living in isolation from his people. We may do great things tomorrow, but let’s not kid ourselves; we are, indeed, surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, and we wouldn’t be able to do much of anything without their support.

As you seek to serve God today, take the time to remember those who have gone before, and be sure to spend every opportunity you get celebrating life with those who walk beside you.

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Healers and Hoarders

I don’t make a habit of starting up, or even joining in on, political discussions nowadays, but that doesn’t mean I don’t believe good discussions aren’t important. They are. It just seems harder and harder to have a good, honest, respectful talk on controversial issues with any depth. It seems like so many people are quick to make up their minds on the best course of action, either to one extreme or the other, and thus, debate and discussion becomes futile at best — and aggressive shouting matches at worst.

I hate the fact that the word “politics” in our culture has come to mean something along the lines of professional networking, image-crafting, backstabbing, people pleasing and basically anything else that will advance a politician’s idea of personal success. Politics, at its core, is about making policy. Families make policies — whether they know it or not — for how the household will be run. Businesses make policies for how they will operate. Societies make policies for how citizens and aliens should be treated, how justice will be administered, what services should be provided for the community and what should be the responsibility of the individual. Crafting these policies is a never-ending process; it is a process that each person should take seriously, contributing in whatever way he or she can.

Politics are important, but still, I tend to be silent. I have found that the more I learn, the less I know, and the less prepared I feel I am to make a black-and-white decision on a technicolor issue. So I listen, I learn, and I think. I think about when it will be appropriate for me to lend my voice to the discussions. Should I speak up for what I believe is right if I find myself working as a pastor in church one day? As one charged with mentoring and shepherding the flock, should I weigh in on the real issues of the day? Should I write letters to the editor of the local newspaper, speak at community meetings, and explain my views to my parishioners? Or should I be silent? If I find myself working as a reporter again, should I write editorial columns aimed at persuading my readers to join me in advocating the policies I see as most beneficial to society? It would mean harsh letters back; it would mean every news article I write from that point forward would be taken with a grain of salt, or simply disregarded, regardless of how hard I work to present a fair and balanced perspective. If Kristen and I are blessed with the opportunity to serve as international missionaries, should we limit our work to preaching the gospel and sharing with those in our small circle of friends, or should we become vocal advocates for the real needs of the people we are serving? Would we even have a right to an opinion on national policies in a country we live in, if we are not citizens? Would we have a right to share our opinions on policy in the United States if we no longer spend our lives here, no matter how passionately we might care for the land and people of our native country?

I think about these things, but right now, I mostly stay silent. That doesn’t mean I don’t wrestle long and hard with the issues of the day though. One of the things I find myself swinging back and forth on all the time is the increasing role government plays in health care. There are hard feelings on both sides of this debate. I believe that although the health care reform bill passed in Congress during this last session, and it is already in the process of being phased into effect, the policy making on this issue is far from over. It will continue to be controversial, and will continue to be a topic of debate, as it should be, probably for as long as our society exists. Regardless of which side of the debate you find yourself on, I have found nearly everyone — whether they admit it in as many words or not — agrees that changes need to be made in the health care policy of our government. Either insurance companies have too much free range and it is too difficult to get the basic health care a person needs in our country, or else government is already shelling out way to many tax dollars to people who only abuse the Medicaid and Medicare systems, encouraging personal irresponsibility and destroying the hard work of the very people who drive progress in our world.

One way or another, something has to change.

When I hear stories of how, just in North Carolina in the past few years, billions of dollars of government money have been siphoned off by phony mental health providers who claim to be serving the poor, but are actually only lining their own pockets, using fraudulent Social Security Numbers and stolen credentials to bill the government for services to people that don’t even exist, I nearly cry when I think of the percentage of my family’s income — not even a drop in the government bucket though — that we pay in taxes each year. When I walk down the street in Raleigh and I meet a woman who has fallen through the cracks in the system, who lives on the streets, who has been overlooked all of her life and doesn’t even have the interpersonal skills necessary to apply for help, if help was available, then I wonder how we let that happen.

I hear doctors tell stories about patients that play the game and milk the system for everything they can get. A woman comes to the hospital emergency room, without fail, each month, bringing in one of her children with a cold or coming alone when she has a sore throat. She parks her new Mercedes at the curb. Walks up to the receptionist with an air of entitlement, flashes her gold bracelet and diamond ring in the poor nurse’s face when she doesn’t get service fast enough, pulls out her iPhone to call her friend and complain about the poor state of things in the emergency room, and then walks out the door with a bag of free medicine, having stuck the taxpayers with the entire bill. Stories like this are endless.

Then there’s the poor single mother of three. She dropped out of college to raise her kids. She works three jobs. Her young children ride the bus back and forth to school, come home, fix their own dinner, don’t get any help with their homework, go to bed, wake up and start all over again, all without seeing their mother because she’s working around the clock just to get enough money to pay the rent and keep the water turned on. She doesn’t have a dime left to spend on health insurance, and she certainly can’t pay a hospital bill. But then her 7-year-old boy gets sick. He needs a blood transfusion and a heart transplant. Does he have any less right to it than the child of a stay-at-home mom who spends her days trying out new recipes and swapping parenting tips with her friends while her lawyer husband — who, by the way, worked hard and made it through law school on a scholarship because his parents were able to tutor him three nights a week from the time he was four-years-old until he graduated from high school, number one in his class, thank you very much — pays the bills?

Or how about the young college grad. She comes from a pretty well-off family, not rich, of course, but they’ve worked hard and never gone without much. Growing up, she was the model student and model daughter. She worked hard in high school and got into a good college. Then she got sick. As it turns out, she has a rare disease that makes it excruciatingly painful, if not impossible, to move through the activities of a normal day. She get’s the latest medicines and has to have frequent surgeries, but she always maintains a good spirit and pushes through. She draws strength from her illness and wants to learn more about what has happened to her. She goes to medical school. She misses class all of the time because of her disease as her minor surgeries become more and more frequent. To make up for it, she works three times as hard as the other would-be doctors, and graduates at the head of her class. Then she finds out, while all of her medical expenses and surgeries were covered under her parents’ insurance plan before, now that she is out of school, she is no longer covered. No health insurance provider in his right mind would offer her a policy. She can’t get insurance — she has a pre-existing condition. She can’t get treatment — paying the bill is simply impossible. She made all of the right choices and gave it all she had, but now, she is out of luck.

The anecdotes are endless.

One way or another, change needs to happen. What kind of change, though, depends entirely on your perspective.

Politics are never black and white. Do we extend generous resources and care to help those who need it, even when we know people are abusing the system and stealing from the community chest to fund their own personal frivolities? Do we stop offering handouts and encourage people to take personal responsibility, to prove their worth first, to work hard and give back to society before expecting to get something for nothing?

What is the Christian response to this? For people of faith, making the right decision doesn’t often seem easy either. Jesus told his disciples to “Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you,” and “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing back.” The same Jesus warned his followers not to “give what is holy to dogs or throw your pearls before pigs; otherwise they will trample them under their feet and turn around and tear you to pieces.” So what is a Christian supposed to think about health care reform? The great thing about looking at Jesus’ as our example is that he didn’t just tell us how to live, or tell us how we should treat people. He showed us. He wanted to make the right course of action perfectly clear, even in the hardest of times, so he lived life as God intended each of us to live — and, as it turns out, he also took health care pretty seriously.

Now on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. As he was entering a village, ten men with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance, raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.”

When he saw them he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went along, they were cleansed. Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. He fell with his face to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. (Now he was a Samaritan.*)

Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to turn back and give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to the man, “Get up and go your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Luke 17:11-19 (NET)

Abundant thanks didn’t come back to Jesus for his healing work. The vast majority of those he served were too focused inward to even acknowledge the gift they had received; none of them really seemed concerned about paying back the favor. Yet Jesus keeps on doing this kind of thing again, and again, and again.

Politics are never black and white. Understanding what Jesus would do, however, is often crystal clear. That doesn’t make following him any easier though.

* That is, he was an alien in Judah; An outcast, no doubt hanging around town looking to steal work from the poor Jews who have lived there for generations. He even tricked Jesus into healing him just like he was one of the native, legal Judaeans. It’s a good thing he came back to thank Jesus, huh? Who knows what Jesus would have done if he would have known the truth about this guy.


Faith Enough to Forgive

Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin.”

“Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

So the Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this black mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Luke 17:1-6 (NET)

I came across this passage from Luke during my devotional time this weekend. I’ve read it and heard it so many times before, the temptation is to let my eyes glaze over it without really listening. But I did listen, and I heard something I have missed all those times before in my haste to move through the book and get on to something fresh.

Normally, my mind is drawn to the serious warning Jesus gives to anyone who might lead another into sin. This business about the millstone around the neck is tough stuff; it’s hard to get past that.

“Could Jesus be talking to me about this?” I’ll think to myself. “What if I don’t mean to lead anyone else to sin, but it happens anyways? Am I still responsible? This is kind of a scary lesson. Maybe following Jesus isn’t really for me after all; it sounds pretty risky.”

This is where my mind usually stops, but for the Christ, this is only the beginning. As if this grim admonition wasn’t enough for one day of contemplation, the lesson moves on to another tough subject — forgiveness.

Offering true forgiveness is rarely an easy thing to do, but here Jesus is making it the explicit responsibility of his disciples to hold one another accountable, and, when the time is right, to eagerly offer a warm embrace and a full measure of forgiveness. It’s as if failing in these two charges could push us down the dangerous path the Teacher first alluded to. Repentance, and then forgiveness, are the markers believers must use not only in their own quests after God, but also in any efforts to lead others to Christ as well.

Then, before anybody (I’m looking at you, Peter) can second guess what Jesus means by forgiveness, the Master tells his disciples: “Even if a man wrongs you seven times — that’s seven times in a single day — you must be ready to offer him forgiveness as soon as he comes to you. Don’t put it off! Forgive him, just as your Father has forgiven you.”

Forgiving an abstract sin in the name of Christ to help your brother or sister move forward in faith can be a great joy, but forgiving another person who has seriously wronged you personally is much harder to do. Forgiving someone time and time again, over the course of a lifelong relationship that just never seems to fall into sync is one of the most difficult tasks we can deal with — one that never gets any easier as we get more and more opportunities to practice it — but still, it can be done. But forgiving someone for a serious wrong, and then to be injured again by the same person a moment later, only to forgive him again, and then to have the cycle repeat itself seven times in one day? How can I possibly do that? The best effort I think I could muster would be to just stay away from the offending party so that I don’t lose it altogether and go off the deep end.

But that’s not the action Jesus has called us to. We can’t just sit idly by while another person flounders in a sea of ever increasing sin. We have a responsibility to reach out a steady hand and offer quick forgiveness.

I’m sure my feeble response would echo that of the other disciples: “Lord, increase my faith! I know I can’t do this without you.”

Increase my faith!

That is a prayer I have voiced many times before, though not usually in this context. Typically it is connected with another clause, such as “Increase my faith so that I can be patient and trust you, God, to show me the job opportunity you have for me.” Or “Increase my faith so that I can stop stressing over my financial situation and believe in your promise to meet my needs.” Or even “Jesus, please increase my faith so that I can step into this ministry opportunity you’ve set before me; give me the words to say, and the courage to say them, so that you may be glorified. Increase my faith!”

I’m not sure that my prayers have ever been in line with this teaching. I don’t think I’ve ever said, “God, increase my faith so that I can learn to forgive as you do. Increase my faith so that I might know, as you do, that my brother isn’t going to be a slave to this cycle of sin forever. Increase my faith so that I can understand how each small act of love chisels away a piece of the chain that’s keeping him, and me, from living in the fullness of your kingdom. Please, Lord, increase my faith.”

I have often prayed for a stronger faith to help me climb the mountains I have set my sights on. Perhaps a better place to start, if I’m really serious about growing in my faith, is here, at the place where Jesus has pointed me to. Maybe it’s best to start here, with the faith necessary to forgive; or maybe, as far as faith goes, forgiveness takes everything we have.


Living in the Light

Not content to let two months go by without making a little headway on my M.Div degree, I signed up for two courses this summer — the first course is really a practicum project related to my ministerial internship, while the other is a pretty intense introduction to urban and social ministry; in fact, that’s the name of the course: Introduction to Urban & Social Ministry.

Each week we spend several hours visiting a multitude of ministry sites and service agencies, listening to staff, asking questions and talking with the people they serve. Though each organization has a unique mission statement and a slightly different target group of clientele, I think it’s fair to say that all of them are focused on making the world, and specifically central North Carolina, a little better representation of the Kingdom of God.

Several of our visits have been incredible, eye-opening experiences, but this week was particularly meaningful for me. We didn’t have a regular class session this Monday because of the holiday, but we were still assigned independent visits for the week. So Saturday night I found myself sitting in the back row of my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I needed to attend the meeting for class, but apart from school, this was an important moment for me as someone I am close to was celebrating a new Spiritual Birthday — the one-year anniversary of an addict’s last commitment to get clean and stop using. It was much more exciting, and more important, than celebrating a biological birthday.

“I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

—Jesus

As I sat through the meeting listening to speaker after speaker giving personal testimonies, reading passages from the NA book and encouraging one another through their struggles, I was struck by the simple honesty that pervaded the group. Every time someone stood to speak, whether it was to deliver a keynote speech or to ask a short question, the first words to come out were always “I’m David (or Charlie, or Bobbie or Rachel) and I’m an addict.” It didn’t matter if the speaker had gotten high that morning or if he had been clean for 30 years. There was not a stigma of shame or embarrassment associated with the label — something I’m sure takes many, many meetings like this to overcome — it was just the simple truth. “I’m a human, and I’m an addict.” These were authentic people.

I left the meeting that night wondering what the world would be like if everyone was as honest with themselves, and as authentic with others, as this group of humble addicts. I went home. I went to bed. Then I went to church.

Our Sunday school passage that day came from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. So then, we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, our hope for salvation.

For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him.

Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:5-11 (NET)

Paul is writing to the church in response to questions the believers had about the Parousia, but his instructions are meant to be a guide for daily living at all times, not just in the final days.

The metaphor of light and darkness is an oft used one. In my experience, Christians like to think of living in the light as leading a righteous life; that is, avoiding the major pitfalls of sin and obeying God’s law to the letter. In contrast, being a child of darkness implies living a life marked by sin, day-in and day-out; a life totally separate from God and the law.

I think there may have been a little more depth to the “light” Paul spoke of than we tend to acknowledge; we have a way of trimming God down to size when he gets too big for our tastes. From time to time, we may fool ourselves into believing we are living righteously, pleasing God with our good works and outdoing those poor fools who still choose to walk around in darkness. I heard it said today that there are really only two kinds of people in the world: Baptists, and sinners. I’m afraid a handful of people from my own faith tradition aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap of ignorance. Such thinking proves at least one fact with absolute certainty — those who call themselves righteous have yet to stumble out of the dark their religion has pulled them down into.

I think the “light” Paul spoke of is best described not as righteousness, but as truth. Truth with God, truth with others, and especially truth with one’s self. Jesus has called us to live our lives within the truth of his Creation, of his Divinity, of his Humanity. We must accept the truth that we will never measure up to the righteousness of God, but we can accept his Grace and continue striving to live within his will for our lives.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that doesn’t put much value in authenticity or in truth. We put on different facades when we go to work, when we go to school, when we go to church, when we’re out with our friends and when we’re at home with our families. It’s expected of us, and those who don’t follow the status quo are often penalized for their lack of conformity.

“A time is coming — and now is here — when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers.”

—Jesus

What would happen to our world if our churches began to live and breath with the same spirit of honesty and truth that pushes that group of recovering addicts to better themselves, to value true fellowship over fleeting pleasure and to walk together on the journey that leads them closer to God? What would happen if before I got up to deliver the invocation this Sunday, I felt compelled to tell the congregation that “I’m David, and I am a sinner,”?

I think we would begin to see the light of Christ a little more clearly.


A Tale of Two Kings

This is a manuscript of the sermon I preached earlier tonight. As I said in an earlier post, one of my great challenges in sermon writing has been seeing the sermon as more of a conversation than an essay. With this goal in mind, most of my sermons have ended up being perhaps too colloquial in order to break away from the routine of essay recital. While I don’t want to tout this sermon as a wonderful example of homiletics, I do feel like it represents the best balance between the colloquial and the reverent that I have yet come up with.

Let me know what you think.


First Scripture Reading:

Some time later there was an incident involving a vineyard belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. The vineyard was in Jezreel, close to the palace of Ahab king of Samaria. Ahab said to Naboth, “Let me have your vineyard to use for a vegetable garden, since it is close to my palace. In exchange I will give you a better vineyard or, if you prefer, I will pay you whatever it is worth.”

But Naboth replied, “The LORD forbid that I should give you the inheritance of my fathers.”
So Ahab went home, sullen and angry because Naboth the Jezreelite had said, “I will not give you the inheritance of my fathers.” He lay on his bed sulking and refused to eat.

His wife Jezebel came in and asked him, “Why are you so sullen? Why won’t you eat?”
He answered her, “Because I said to Naboth the Jezreelite, ‘Sell me your vineyard; or if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard in its place.’ But he said, ‘I will not give you my vineyard.’ ”
Jezebel his wife said, “Is this how you act as king over Israel? Get up and eat! Cheer up. I’ll get you the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite.”

So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name, placed his seal on them, and sent them to the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city with him. In those letters she wrote: “Proclaim a day of fasting and seat Naboth in a prominent place among the people. But seat two scoundrels opposite him and have them testify that he has cursed both God and the king. Then take him out and stone him to death.”

So the elders and nobles who lived in Naboth’s city did as Jezebel directed in the letters she had written to them. They proclaimed a fast and seated Naboth in a prominent place among the people. Then two scoundrels came and sat opposite him and brought charges against Naboth before the people, saying, “Naboth has cursed both God and the king.” So they took him outside the city and stoned him to death. Then they sent word to Jezebel: “Naboth has been stoned and is dead.”

As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth had been stoned to death, she said to Ahab, “Get up and take possession of the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite that he refused to sell you. He is no longer alive, but dead.” When Ahab heard that Naboth was dead, he got up and went down to take possession of Naboth’s vineyard.

Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: “Go down to meet Ahab king of Israel, who rules in Samaria. He is now in Naboth’s vineyard, where he has gone to take possession of it. Say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: Have you not murdered a man and seized his property?’ Then say to him, ‘This is what the LORD says: In the place where dogs licked up Naboth’s blood, dogs will lick up your blood—yes, yours!’ ”

Ahab said to Elijah, “So you have found me, my enemy!”

“I have found you,” he answered, “because you have sold yourself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD. ‘I am going to bring disaster on you. …’”

I Kings 21:1-21a (NIV)


Second Scripture Reading:

When Uriah’s wife heard that her husband was dead, she mourned for him. After the time of mourning was over, David had her brought to his house, and she became his wife and bore him a son. But the thing David had done displeased the LORD.

The LORD sent Nathan to David. When he came to him, he said, “There were two men in a certain town, one rich and the other poor. The rich man had a very large number of sheep and cattle, but the poor man had nothing except one little ewe lamb he had bought. He raised it, and it grew up with him and his children. It shared his food, drank from his cup and even slept in his arms. It was like a daughter to him.”

“Now a traveler came to the rich man, but the rich man refrained from taking one of his own sheep or cattle to prepare a meal for the traveler who had come to him. Instead, he took the ewe lamb that belonged to the poor man and prepared it for the one who had come to him.”

David burned with anger against the man and said to Nathan, “As surely as the LORD lives, the man who did this deserves to die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity.”

Then Nathan said to David, “You are the man! This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘I anointed you king over Israel, and I delivered you from the hand of Saul. I gave your master’s house to you, and your master’s wives into your arms. I gave you the house of Israel and Judah. And if all this had been too little, I would have given you even more. Why did you despise the word of the LORD by doing what is evil in his eyes? You struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword and took his wife to be your own. You killed him with the sword of the Ammonites. Now, therefore, the sword will never depart from your house, because you despised me and took the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your own.'”

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Nathan replied, “The LORD has taken away your sin. You are not going to die. But because by doing this you have shown utter contempt for the LORD, the son born to you will die.”

After Nathan had gone home, the LORD struck the child that Uriah’s wife had borne to David, and he became ill.

II Samuel 11:26-12:10, 12:13-15 (NIV)


A Tale of Two Kings

We all love heroes. As children, our heroes are always the clear good guys — Superman, Batman, Spiderman and Wonder Woman. We look to our heroes to see what we like best about ourselves. Our fictional heroes often personify this goodness. When we see them on the streets fighting the good fight, living honest lives and helping others, it makes us feel better about ourselves because we see a little bit of our own desire in them.

From time to time, though, even the strongest heroes stumble. Every other movie or so, Spiderman seems to stray off the straight and narrow path for a bit, only to recognize he’s not really himself unless he’s there, fighting on the side of good. Every now and then the egotistical, slightly conceited Bruce Wayne leaks through into Batman’s persona.

We turn a blind eye to these flaws in our childhood heroes. Maybe it’s because we’re still so pleased with the overwhelming number of good things they do that we let them off the hook. Or maybe it’s because we see ourselves in their failures too; we understand what it’s like to be human.

Of all the shining heroes of the Bible, perhaps David is the brightest.

David, Israel’s best king, established the temple at Jerusalem, led the people to live within God’s law and brought prosperity to the nation. He would forever be known as “A man after God’s own heart.”

In contrast, Ahab, Israel’s worst king, disregarded the Lord and condoned the worship of Canaanite gods. Ahab ignored the law Yahweh had given to the people of Israel and oppressed the nation. “Indeed,” scripture says, “there was no one like Ahab, who sold himself to do what was evil in the sight of the Lord.”

At first glance, David and Ahab are polar opposites. Yet both of these men have committed grave sins — conspiracy to murder and steal

David’s story is a familiar Sunday school lesson. He has fallen into a trap of ever-increasing sin, beginning with his lust for Bathsheba and ending with the conspiracy to murder her husband, one of David’s own top warriors. The prophet Nathan tells David a story about a rich man who takes something that doesn’t belong to him. David regains his moral compass, his sense of what is right and what is wrong. He repents, and God forgives his sins. There are still consequences to his actions, but David’s humble confession allows the Lord’s grace to move into his life, washing away the sin. He will go on to be Israel’s greatest king.

Ahab’s plot to steal Naboth’s vineyard is the final episode in a long series of bad decisions and sinful acts. Honoring God was never a priority for Ahab. At the beginning of his reign, Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of a rival king. He built temples and altars to honor Baal, the god of Jezebel’s homeland, while neglecting the altar of Yahweh. He oppressed his people. Ahab valued building projects more than the lives of his citizens. At the request of the queen, he had the prophets of God murdered. Even when the Lord continued to bless Ahab, giving him a military victory in what seemed to be a hopeless situation, Ahab disregards God’s instructions about dealing with the enemy king in order to gain a little praise and flattery for himself. We have no trouble understanding how this corrupt king could stoop so low as to plot against an innocent man for a few acres of choice farmland — land the king doesn’t really need at all. It’s simply in his nature. He’s that kind of guy, and Elijah is ready to give him what he deserves.

In “The Message” Eugene Peterson provides a little bit of color in the dialogue between the corrupt king and faithful prophet. Ahab’s “greeting” — if it can be called that — is characteristic of his relationship with the prophet. “My enemy! So, you’ve run me down!” “Yes, I’ve found you out,” said Elijah. “And because you’ve bought into the business of evil, defying God. ‘I will most certainly bring doom upon you, make mincemeat of your descendants, kill off every sorry male wretch who’s even remotely connected with the name Ahab. And I’ll bring down on you the same fate that fell on Jeroboam and Baasha — you’ve made me that angry by making Israel sin.’”

Confronted with the harsh reality of his sin, of what his life has become, David says “I have sinned against the Lord.”

Ahab says “So you have found me, my enemy!”

David confesses his sins because he comes to recognize them as evil.

Ahab admits his sins because he knows he has been caught.

Without hesitation, Nathan offers history’s great king a word straight from heaven: “Your sins are forgiven. The Lord has taken them away.”

Your sins are forgiven.” Is it really that easy? For God it is. For Nathan it was. For David, it had to be.

Elijah’s answer to Ahab’s confession is just as quick, but not quite as comforting. “’I will destroy you,’ says the Lord. ‘I will bring disaster on you. I will consume you.’”

On second thought, maybe Elijah’s judgment is just as comforting as Nathan’s. Don’t we want a God who delivers swift justice to the evil ones? Don’t we want a God who can look into the hearts of men and separate the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the rebellious, the penitent from the insolent? Don’t men like Ahab — men who let selfish ambition and reckless greed — need to get what they have coming to them? It’s only fair.

David understood this. He knew what was fair and what wasn’t. His strong sense of right and wrong is what ushered Israel into its greatest period of prosperity.

David also understood that he couldn’t do it alone. David’s relationship to Nathan is one of the best prophet-king partnerships in scripture. David appreciates having someone he can trust hold him accountable. He is always willing to listen to what Nathan has to say and considers his advice.

Ahab’s relationship with Elijah is likely the worst prophet-king relationship in Israel’s history. Elijah’s confrontations with Ahab get more and more heated as time goes on, to the point that Ahab seeks to have the prophet killed. Why is it so hard for some people to take good advice, or even to listen to someone who may come from a different perspective?

David also understood that he needed God. Hear the good king’s own words, recorded in Psalm 5:1-8:

        Give ear to my words, O Lord;
                Give heed to my sighing.
        Listen to the sounds of my cry,
                my King and my God,
                for to you I pray.
        O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice;
                In the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

        For you are not a God who delights in wickedness;
                Evil will not sojourn with you.
        The boastful will not stand before your eyes;
                you hate all evildoers.
        You destroy those who speak lies;
                The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty, and deceitful.

        But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
                will enter your house,
        I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.
        Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
                because of my enemies;
                make your way straight before me.

NRSV

We may say we want a god of justice; a god who punishes evil and destroys liars. It’s true that God hates evil. David told us “The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.” But thank goodness he didn’t stop there. Our God is not a simple God.

In 1787, the Constitution of the United States marked the beginning of a new era in human society. It set a precedent for how government should be run and how justice should be administered. It has been replicated throughout the world and has withstood the test of time largely because of its revolutionary simplicity. For many people, justice and government, right and wrong, evil and righteousness, are simple things.

Fortunately for David, and for us, our God is not quite that simple. If he was, David would be right there with the worst of them. David’s sins put him in the same class as Ahab. Ahab conspired to murder a man because he wanted to steal his family farm. David conspired to murder a man because he wanted to steal his wife.

“The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful.”

“But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love,
        will enter your house;
I will bow down toward your holy temple in awe of you.”

History might record David as the great king, the righteous ruler of Israel, but David wasn’t quite so proud of himself. He knew that no matter how good he was, no matter how bad he was, it was ultimately God who had the power to save, and it was only through God that he, the king of Israel, could be redeemed.

From time to time, we may ask God for justice, but I for one am glad that what he offers is not justice, but grace; not judgment, but an abundance of steadfast love.

What, then, is to become of our friend King Ahab? How does he fit into God’s order of things? If there is a limit to this abundant love David spoke of, surely Ahab found it. Let’s go back and listen in a little more on this scene between Ahab and his “enemy,” the prophet Elijah. Elijah has pronounced his sentence on Ahab: total destruction. This is the justice man seeks. This is the justice Elijah cries out for with every ounce of mortal passion within him. This is the justice Ahab deserves.

“When Ahab heard those words, he tore his clothes and put sackcloth over his bare flesh; he fasted, lay in sackcloth, and went about dejectedly. Then the word of the Lord came to Elijah: “Have you seen how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days, but in his son’s days I will bring disaster on his house.”

I Kings 21:27-29 (NRSV)

This business of the son being doomed for the father’s sin is confusing at first, but rest assured that Ahab’s son gets a fair chance as well. This line tells us more about how each person is responsible for their own choices before God, that is, each child has to seek out God’s grace on his own, not ride into heaven on the coattails of his parents. But that’s another sermon for another day.

What’s important here, is Ahab doesn’t get what he deserves any more than David got what he deserved. They are both helpless victims of God’s abundant, steadfast love. They are two of Israel’s most notorious kings — David is notorious for his general goodwill, his desire to serve his people and to please the Lord; Ahab is notorious for the way he oppressed his people and spent most of his life scorning Yahweh and all those who called on him. They are both great sinners. They are both helpless to save themselves, and, in the end, they both turn to the God of Creation, the God of Love, the God of Mercy, the God of Grace, to redeem them. And he does.

God is still able to redeem us today. He sent his son, Jesus Christ, to demonstrate his love for humanity. Confronted with this desperate need for salvation above and beyond the power of men, the world responded in much the same way Ahab responds to Elijah. “So, Jesus, you have found us out. “

Jesus was scorned, attacked and brutally murdered so that shameful men might not have to deal with their own shortcomings, with their own sins. Even this was not enough to test the limits of God’s abundant, steadfast love. To make his point once and for all, the Lord Jesus rose from the grave. He went back into the world of men — the world that had beaten him away in an effort to beat back it’s own sin. Jesus’ message to us is the same message Nathan took to David, the same message Elijah took to Ahab. “You can’t do it on your own. Admit it. Believe it. And then, once you’ve found your limit, believe in me. Believe in the God of all Creation. Believe in my power to save you. To wash away your sin and give you new life, abundant life, in me.”

This is the message everyone — humble fishermen, sun-burnt farmers toiling away at the family vineyard, and even the world’s mightiest kings — everyone, needs to understand.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul writes:

We ourselves are Jews by birth [you and I, we are already members of God’s family]¹ and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. … For through the law I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

Galatians 2:15-16,19-21 (NRSV)

1. My interpretative addition.


Feed My Sheep

After these things, Jesus [who had been crucified and resurrected] showed himself to the disciples by the Sea of Tiberias; and he showed himself in this way:

Gathered there together were Simon Peter, Thomas (called “the twin”), Nathanael (of Cana in Galilee), the sons of Zebedee and two others of his disciples. Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will go with you.” They went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.

Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, you have no fish, have you?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved [the ever-modest John] said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the sea. But the other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, only about a hundred yards off.

When they had gone ashore, they saw a charcoal fire there, with fish on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them; and though there were so many, the net was not torn. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared to ask him, “Who are you?” because they knew it was the Lord. Jesus came and took the bread and gave it to them, and did the same with the fish. This was now the third time that Jesus appeared to the disciples after he was raised from the dead.

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him “Feed my lambs.”

A second time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Tend my sheep.”

He said to him the third time, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter felt hurt … and he said to Jesus, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.” (He said this to indicated the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God.)

After this, Jesus said to him, “Follow me.”

Peter turned and saw John following them … When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about him?”

Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? Follow me!”

John 21:1-23, NRSV

This passage has inspired me several times over this week. Jesus’ repetitive command gives Peter an opportunity to make up for his earlier denial of Jesus, but dealing with old failures can still be painful. How ironic that Peter was the one to initiate the fishing trip, yet he was the first one out of the boat, abandoning it altogether to seek after Jesus, just as he did at the beginning. Why were the disciples fishing anyways? And why would Jesus meet them with a simple breakfast? During times of confusion and turmoil, don’t we all go back to what we’re familiar with, trying to recreate comforting moments from our pasts? Jesus understands that and brings the familiar markers of their shared past — the bread and the fish — but he refuses to let Peter get trapped in a rut; Simply reliving the past is not enough. Like Peter, we each have a unique role to play. Occasional fishing trips are alright, but we can’t let comfortable surroundings, or the desire to be like the people around us, distract us from the assignment we’ve been given.

That’s what I read at least. What do you think?