Tag Archives: Old Testament

Preaching Brimstone and…. Water?

Out of the Depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

Psalm 130:1-4 (NRSV)

Do you ever hear something that just makes you cringe?

Maybe it’s simply a word that seems vile to your ears. Maybe it’s a harsh truth that stirs up strong feelings when you hear it brought up in casual conversation. Or maybe its a lie; you just get sick at the thought of dangerous untruths digging deeper and deeper into the social consciousness of the people you care about.

I’m not sure which category of cringe-inducing remarks this fits into, but the end result is the same: I can’t help but wince whenever I hear people, especially Christians, talk about the “Old-Testament-god of wrath and vengeance, of fire and brimstone.”

Some people I know who identify God this way are individuals with no real interest in the Lord. They have an image of a God that is cruel and vindictive — often because that is how he has been portrayed by their Christian friends — and they have made up their minds that they want nothing to do with that type of God, so they give up on him all together. My heart breaks for these people. I pray for them, and I hope that I can find a way to show them some portion of the true love that God has for them.

What is more confusing to me is how some Christians talk this way as well. They speak of one god who was legalistic, rigid, demanding and dangerous — an old god who brought down fire from heaven to consume those who displeased him — and another god who is welcoming, compassionate, forgiving and full of love — a Good Shepherd who will leave everything behind to rescue one lost sheep. It’s as if all of a sudden, God changed his mind about how he was going to run things; he changed his mind about how he wanted creation to be ordered; he changed his mind about what kind of relationship he wanted to have with his people, and so he sent Jesus to Earth to give us an update and let us in on the new plan.

This kind of thinking doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe God changed his mind. He has always wanted people everywhere to seek him out, to know him, to live in relationship with him and to build healthy relationships with others in order to honor him. When God revealed himself in the person of Jesus, he gave humanity its clearest and most direct glimpse at himself as part of the ongoing revelation that began at the beginning and is still unfolding to this day. In Jesus, men and women saw better than ever the love, compassion, wisdom and grace that God has for all people. That same love Jesus lavished on those he came in contact with, and the same desire he showed to live in intimate relationship with his followers, was not anything new — it had been God’s will all along, but somehow the message kept getting misunderstood; it still does today.

To be honest, not that long ago I had conflicting images of God’s judgment and God’s grace. I had a hard time reconciling the God that created the universe, that preserved Noah’s line in the flood, that lead his people on an exodus out of Egypt and established a line of priests, prophets and kings in Israel with the God who was born in a manager, lived as a homeless wanderer, built relationships with people that crossed all racial, economic, social and religious lines, and then died on a cross to demonstrate his own steadfast love for mankind. The Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament seemed so far apart in my eyes.

Then I decided to read the Old Testament; Not just the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses, but the sacred writings of God’s prophets and priests. Imagine my surprise when I saw the love of Christ embodied in these ancient scriptures.

If any preacher epitomizes the “Fire and Brimstone” style of homiletics, Amos is the man. The book of Amos begins with harsh words for Israel’s neighbors, who have attacked their distant cousins living across the border and pillaged cities that were living in peace. Amos declares God’s judgment will literally be demonstrated by fire raining down from heaven and consuming these people. Then he turns his sight on Israel. Because God’s people have traded in real justice and loving relationships for hypocritical religion and shrewdly-amassed wealth, they also will reap their just rewards. Yet the book of Amos isn’t all doom and gloom. It is a desperate plea to the people. Amos, again and again, calls for his listeners to turn back to Yahweh, to repent, to denounce their greedy lifestyles, to stop paying lip service to God and start living in community with one another as God intends.

The first several chapters of Amos seem to be all judgment with no hope, but don’t give up! Keep reading, and you’ll learn that even when God’s people have utterly disregarded his word and turned their backs on the needs of their neighbors, the Lord is still waiting with open arms to take them back, to call them his own children again, to forgive their sins and guide them into a better life.

Listen to this funeral song I am ready to sing about you, family of Israel:
“The virgin Israel has fallen down and will not get up again.
She is abandoned on her own land
with no one to help her get up.”
The sovereign Lord says this:
“The city that marches out with a thousand soldiers will have only a hundred left;
the town that marches out with a hundred soldiers will have only ten left for the family of Israel.”

The Lord says this to the family of Israel:
“Seek me so you can live!
Do not seek Bethel!
Do not visit Gilgal!
Do not journey down to Beer Sheba!
For the people of Gilgal will certainly be carried into exile;
and Bethel will become a place where disaster abounds.”

Seek the Lord so you can live!
Otherwise he will break out like fire against Joseph’s family;
the fire will consume
and no one will be able to quench it and save Bethel.

The Israelites turn justice into bitterness;
they throw what is fair and right to the ground.

(But there is one who made the constellations Pleiades and Orion;
he can turn the darkness into morning
and daylight into night.
He summons the water of the seas
and pours it out on the earth’s surface.
The Lord is his name!
He flashes destruction down upon the strong
so that destruction overwhelms the fortified places.)

The Israelites hate anyone who arbitrates at the city gate;
they despise anyone who speaks honestly.
Therefore, because you make the poor pay taxes on their crops
and exact a grain tax from them,
you will not live in the houses you built with chiseled stone,
nor will you drink the wine from the fine vineyards you planted.
Certainly I am aware of your many rebellious acts
and your numerous sins.
You torment the innocent, you take bribes,
and you deny justice to the needy at the city gate.
For this reason whoever is smart keeps quiet in such a time,
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil so you can live!
Then the Lord, the God who commands armies, just might be with you,
as you claim he is.
Hate what is wrong, love what is right!
Promote justice at the city gate!
Maybe the Lord, the God who commands armies, will have mercy on those who are left from Joseph.

Because of Israel’s sins this is what the Lord, the God who commands armies, the sovereign One, says:
“In all the squares there will be wailing,
in all the streets they will mourn the dead.
They will tell the field workers to lament
and the professional mourners to wail.
In all the vineyards there will be wailing,
for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.

Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the Lord’s day of judgment to come?
It will bring darkness, not light.
Disaster will be inescapable,
as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear,
then escaped into a house,
leaned his hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a poisonous snake.
Don’t you realize the Lord’s day of judgment will bring darkness, not light —
gloomy blackness, not bright light?

“I absolutely despise your festivals!
I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies!
Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied;
I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves.
Take away from me your noisy songs;
I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments.
Justice must flow like torrents of water,
righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.”

Amos 5:1-24 (NET)

What do you read there?

Amos reminds me, first of all, that God is inescapable. Whether we acknowledge him or not, trying to hide ourselves from God is as futile “as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake.” Sounds like a scene from a movie, doesn’t it? We cannot hide our actions, or even our motives, from the one who made the stars in the sky and the hairs on our heads. This brings us to the next point, that even if God’s big plan for the world, and for my life, seems hard to decipher, it’s important to remember that the most important task he has called us to is to live honest lives, to practice social justice, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in so doing, honor and worship him with our lives — not just with our organized religious services. “Seek good and not evil so you can live! Hate what is wrong, love what is right. … Justice must flow like torrents of water; righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.” This is the faithfulness God demands from us! This is the type of faithfulness he tried to communicate to his people through the law given to Moses, it is the type of faithfulness the ancient prophets tried to call the Israelites back to, and it is the type of faithfulness perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus.

Then there is the prophet Hosea. Working through Hosea, God took another unique approach to getting his message across to the people. While Amos courageously proclaimed God’s truth to the people until they couldn’t hear it anymore, Hosea modeled the steadfast love and forgiveness God shares with us in his own family relationships. Apparently, at the Spirit’s guidance, Hosea was lead to marry a local prostitute. After the honeymoon period, he continued preaching, and she continued plying her trade; yet Hosea was more than ready to take her back, never hesitated in forgiving her infidelity and always offered unfailing love — even to one who spurned him again and again! When the prostitute is so buried in her life of sin that she is taken into slavery, Hosea goes into town and buys her back. He pays for his own wife, like any other man in the street could, so that he can take her back home with him, forgive her once again, and try, one more time, to begin building an intimate relationship based on love, not selfish pleasure.

This is the type of enduring love the God of the Old Testament has for his people — for all people — even in the darkest of times. The writings of Amos, Hosea, Jonah and the other prophets speak of painful things — suffering, poverty, slavery and death. These hard things are a part of life, often brought into being by our own hands. These things are not God’s will for our lives, but he is committed to finding a way to work through them for the good of creation.

When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them.

They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent! A sword will flash in their cities, it will destroy the bars of their city gates, and will devour them in their fortresses. My people are obsessed with turning away from me; they call to Baal, but he will never exalt them!

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
I have had a change of heart!
All my tender compassions are aroused!
I cannot carry out my fierce anger!
I cannot totally destroy Ephraim!

Because I am God, and not man — the Holy One among you — I will not come in wrath!

Hosea 11:1-9 (NET)

The way I see it, God hasn’t changed at all.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that we have changed much either.

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Waiting on God

My sermon from this morning:


1 Kings 19:11-18

The Lord said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Yahweh, for Yahweh is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for Yahweh, God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

Yahweh said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Mehola to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel — all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”

NIV


No one likes being told what to do. We all want to find our own way, make deals on our own terms, and build lives that reflect our individual concepts of success. Self-sufficiency is a heavily lauded virtue in the 21st century. The great American dream maintains that anyone, willing to work hard and think a step ahead of the masses may find wealth, success, and comfort, so long as he sticks to his guns and doesn’t let the whining voices of naysayers distract him from that purpose.

Today, however, it seems harder than ever to avoid the cackles and hollers of the crowd. We live in a world where everyone seems to be an expert on everything. Parents are being constantly drawn into magazine articles and books written by experts who all claim to have the key to raising good children; the only problem is, most of those experts have never raised any children of their own, and none of their methods seem to match up. Any hour of the day I can turn on CNN and listen to four self-proclaimed experts breaking down the critical issue that’s crippling our government today. They’ll tell me what I need to do about it, who I need to vote for and what club I need to join to fix the country; it all sounds great until I realize if I heeded their advice, I’d have to run in four different directions all at once. Go strolling through the grocery store on a Tuesday evening and chances are you’ll run into a friend and find yourself caught up in conversation about the week. Let a concern about a budding conflict at work slip out, however, and you’ll likely find every shopper within ear shot, whether they have a clue about your life or not, has a piece of advice to offer that will surely clear up the matter once and for all.

There is no end to the “expert” advice available today. New philosophies on living are a dime a dozen; most of them seem so blatantly ridiculous on their face, you just can’t help but say, “Come on man, are you really serious Joe? Can’t you see that listening to that crackpot is just a waste of your time?” But you can’t say that. You try to get the words out, to steer your friend down the right path, but your voice is overpowered by the excited shouts and fury of the crowd, and before you know it, Joe has jumped onto the next bandwagon that just came into view. At the same time, your friend is still firmly parked right where he’s always been: Lost in a sea of noise.

This is the situation the prophet Elijah found himself in as he tried to remain faithful to God amidst a people who proudly clung to an “anything goes” way of life. At the urging of their crooked queen and her puppet husband, King Ahab, the people of Israel began to worship Baal alongside Yahweh. They didn’t want to sever their ties with the Lord completely — you never know when a second opinion might come in handy — but just to keep their bases covered, they figured it would be alright to follow the trend and pay homage to Baal as well. To Elijah, the absurdity of this line of thinking made it laughable on its face. The people couldn’t see it that clearly though. The noise of the crowd, the pressure of the experts, was simply too great. The prophet’s voice, and the people’s reason, were lost in the chatter. So what did Elijah do? How could he show this people the error of their ways? You know what happened next. Elijah proposed a test. He had the people build an altar for Baal while he straightened up the neglected altar of Yahweh. Sacrifices would be made for each god, and which ever god acknowledged the sacrifice by consuming it with fire — proving his deity with supernatural power — that was clearly the god to follow. The people agreed. They built their altar to Baal, but crying out to the phony god didn’t seem to be working. Elijah, being the human that he was, couldn’t help but rub it in their faces a little. “Maybe Baal is sleeping. Or maybe he’s relieving himself,” Elijah teased. “Shout louder, then he’ll hear you!”

Then Yahweh showed up. He lit up his altar with a fire and heat the people hadn’t known before. Scripture tells us that the flames licked the water out of the moat Elijah had built around the altar. If that wouldn’t get the people straight, what would? The people believed all right, at least the ones who were there, at least for a little while. Elijah had done it. He had given the job his all and he had made good on his claims. The prophet was a model of success. But his troubles were just beginning. Queen Jezebel didn’t take Elijah’s rebuke sitting down. She wanted his head, and normally what Jezebel wanted, Jezebel got.

So Elijah, the great model of success — the symbol of a job well done; the man who had all the answers — very quickly found himself in a place where he needed some help. Elijah needed some good advice.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because we have an abundance of cheap, one-size-fits-all advice floating around in the world today that good advice has become a relic of the past, or that quality guidance isn’t worth the trouble often required to find it.

John D. Rockefeller, the famous oil tycoon of the 19th century who still, all things considered, holds claim to the largest fortune amassed in a single lifetime, wasn’t above heeding good advice. Of his wife Laura, Rockefeller once said “Her judgment was always better than mine. Without her keen advice, I would be a poor man.”

A modern-day tycoon, Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google, told CNN Money in 2009 that one of the keys to his success was hiring a coach to guide him through the murky waters of business dealings. Schmidt didn’t come to this realization easily though. “Why would I need a coach? Am I doing something wrong?” Schmidt thought to himself when the idea was first proposed. “My argument was, how could a coach advise me if I’m the best person in the world at this?” Then Schmidt realized a coach doesn’t come in to take over the game for you. A coach doesn’t even play the game. A good coach gives you the advice you need to be the best you can be at the game you play.

Abraham Lincoln, faced with the most difficult circumstances a president could imagine, also knew where to turn for advice when all other options seemed bleak. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, considered by most historians to be the turning point of the Civil War, Lincoln spoke with Gen. Dan Sickles, who had witnessed the travesty and successes of that pivotal moment first hand: “Well, I will tell you how it was,” Lincoln, always the statesman, began. “In the pinch of the campaign up there (at Gettysburg) when everybody seemed panic stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told him that this war was his war, and our cause his cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. … And after that, I don’t know how it was, and I cannot explain it, but soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business into his own hands and that things would go right at Gettysburg, and that is why I had no fears about you.” ¹

Elijah also knew where to turn for a word of guidance when all other voices rang hollow. Elijah needed to hear God’s voice! Elijah needed to hear the Lord say that everything would be all right! Elijah needed someone to tell him “get back on your feet and get back to work!”

Elijah knew he needed to hear God’s voice. He wanted to hear God so badly, but he wasn’t ready to listen. He wasn’t in a place where he could pick God’s voice out from the noise of the world. So, Elijah left. He left the place his own work had brought him to and he went looking for God.

Elijah already knew he needed to stay away from his enemies. He was steering clear of Ahab, Jezebel and any others who obviously meant him harm. But Elijah also needed to get away from his friends, from his helpers, his supporters. As encouraging and well meaning as they were, Elijah’s friends were still not the ultimate authority for him, and they were not the ones he had to answer to when his work was done. So Elijah went off, alone, to find a quiet place. Finding peace wasn’t easy though. Elijah didn’t walk into a quiet office and find God sitting in an easy chair ready to hand over the plan. Scripture tells us Elijah spent an entire day in the wilderness, where he became so discouraged he simply wanted to die. He asked God to let him give up, to let him quit. Elijah cried: “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” But despite his frustration, his emotional emptiness, and the scattered, distracted state of his own mind, Elijah still wanted to hear God’s voice. So he continued in the desert for 40 more days, each day getting a little further from the things that had been distracting him.

When we’re tired of listening to the dull drone of this world, or when the sweet words of our companions just don’t have the kick we need anymore, we have to be willing to put ourselves in a place where we can hear God speak. We have to be willing to take the time to search for a spot where we can clear our minds, where the distractions that keep calling out to us can’t reach us anymore. Sometimes trying to ignore the world around us simply isn’t enough. Sometimes turning off the t.v. and putting up a mental wall to protect us from the noise on the street just doesn’t cut it anymore. We must be able to recognize that. If we truly believe the message God has for us is worth listening to, we must be willing to go through the trouble of finding a place of quiet solitude; A place where we can hear him speak.

Elijah found his place in an empty cave, on a desolate mountain in the middle of the wilderness. The Spirit of God had led him there. Elijah knew it was the place he needed to be, and he was willing to go through the trouble of clearing off his agenda, of rescheduling his appointments and going to this place where he could meet with the Father.

Still, the voice of God didn’t ring out loud and clear. The account of Elijah’s encounter with God is one of the most poetically moving stories in scripture:

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.”

How often do we want God’s guidance to be as clear and obvious in our lives as a hurricane. There isn’t much anyone can do to deny a hurricane. Caught in the middle of a storm, the reality of the situation is all around. The fallen trees, the ruined houses, torrential rivers running down city streets, overturned cars and broken power lines — everything declares the truth of the situation. This is a hurricane. But that would be too easy. God doesn’t typically speak that way, and Elijah knew it. He knew that God’s fiery, undeniable message to the prophets of Baal was not something he could expect every time he needed a word from the Lord. Elijah knew he would have to be patient, and he would have to listen closely to what was coming next.

“After the fire came a gentle whisper.”

Other translations describe this word of the Lord coming as “a sheer silence.” Either way, it was something Elijah would have likely missed had he not been deliberately, patiently waiting for it.

A reading of this text begs the question “How did Elijah know what to listen for?” How do we distinguish the voice of the Lord from the other unexpected storms that come our way? Elijah knew what to listen for because he had heard God speak before. Long before God brought down fire to consume Elijah’s sacrifice at Mount Carmel, Elijah had seen the way God spoke through scripture. Elijah knew the stories of Moses, of Joshua and Gideon, of Samuel and David. Elijah knew the scriptures and the stories of his people. He had heard them, and studied them and told them so many times, that the God they described was not just a character in a book. The God they described was a real deity, who loved his people and cared for them. By the time Elijah had a personal encounter with God, he already knew the sound of God’s voice, he knew the rhythm of the stories God told and he knew the purpose God had in mind for his people, for his world. When God spoke to Elijah, he didn’t have to bring him up to speed on the mission, on how the world had gotten to the point it had or why he cared enough to reach out to the people of Israel — Elijah already knew all of that, so God could get on to the details of the day, of the present assignment and the immediate obstacles that needed to be overcome.

If Elijah knew God’s voice from his study of scripture, how much more prepared should we be to listen to God today! We have nearly four times the sacred texts that Elijah had at his disposal. We live in a world that has not only experienced and recorded the messages of God’s prophets and kings, but we have a record of the life, the teachings, and the Word of God’s very son! We have the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Are we any better off for it? Do we study the scriptures to understand God as Elijah surely did? Studying the scriptures is not a task reserved for pastors and scholars; It is the first step Christians must take toward knowing God.

After Elijah received his message, he didn’t keep it to himself. He went right away and confided his experience with other believers. He took his interpretation of God’s message and went to find out what other, trusted believers thought about it. The prophet went, as God had commanded, to anoint a young man, Elisha as his successor. Elijah shared his vision with Elisha. He didn’t force it upon him as a decree, but he confided it to him in an effort to seek confirmation. Elijah found his successor ready, and most importantly, willing, to step into the role God had prepared him for. Elijah found confirmation of God’s directions in his relationship with other believers. God had told Elijah to find these three young men — Elisha, Hazael and Jehu — and set them to work. All along, though, God had been leading these other faithful Israelites toward the same goal. Their life experiences and their relationships with God confirmed Elijah’s interpretation of God’s message for him, and it was only after confiding in them, and listening to them, that the instructions God had given Elijah began to make sense.

Picking God’s voice out from the crowd isn’t always easy. It certainly wasn’t easy for Elijah. With so many voices competing for our attention today, we must strive to be evermore diligent as we seek to follow his will for our lives. Finding a time and a place to be still and listen for God’s voice is essential for anyone hoping to draw closer to him. Living lives that put us in constant fellowship with the scriptures and with other believers is key to staying within the boundaries of God’s will, and a sure way to find yourself growing into the Christ-like servant each of us longs to be.


1. Gordon Leidner, author of Lincoln on God and Country, and many other works concerning the nation’s 16th president, reports this conversation took place on July 5, 1863.

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.


Why Samuel?

People have asked and I haven’t given a good answer yet. A comprehensive explanation is probably not possible, but I hope to begin to answer this question for myself, my son, and anyone else who may be curious.

While it was one of the most significant things we have done as a family, naming our firstborn was quite possibly the easiest decision Kristen and I have ever made together. Samuel just fit. We both thought of it independently. We had joked about other names before, but when it came time to make a list, there was only one boy name on it.

There are several reasons why we settled on Samuel, not the least of which is the fact that it’s simply a fine sounding, timeless name.

Samuel became especially significant to me early last year when my position was cut at the newspaper I had been working at and I found myself with an abundance of time on my hands. I began focusing on developing a more disciplined daily routine and one of the big elements in this new routine was an increased level of scripture study, in addition to devotional readings. The first book I decided to explore, for no particular reason at the time, was Samuel. If I want to be honest (and I do) then I have to admit that up until this point, my knowledge of the Old Testament was hazy at best. I knew all of the key stories and characters, but really understanding how those stories fit together and what drove those characters to act like they did had been left out of my Sunday school lessons.

Samuel made the biblical narrative real to me.

First and Second Samuel document the history of the early Israelites during the time of Samuel — the prophet, priest and final judge of Israel — continuing through the rise and fall of the nation’s first monarchs, Saul and David. Reading these stories of Samuel, Eli, Saul, David and Jonathan, I was struck by how very real these men were. These were the great characters of the Bible, the pioneers of our faith, but understanding their journey means understanding that they were not much different from you and me. They were very real men with very real flaws, yet they loved God with all their might and wanted desperately (with a few exceptions) to serve him. Samuel was a great leader and a devout man of God, but he wrestled with the same problems I face today: pride, fear and frustration constantly threaten to hold him back from the tasks God has set before him; he wants his own sons to know the Lord and seek him, but he understands that ultimately he cannot be responsible for their choices; he has trouble reconciling the ideal community of fellowship God has called his people to with the reality of their situation and the desires of the nation. Samuel, David and Saul may have moved in the upper echelons of society, they may have had personal encounters with God too intense for us to possibly imagine and they may have lived in a radically different world 3,000 years ago, but they were still more down-to-earth than most of the people I come across at church, at school or on the street.

Samuel helped make God real for me. My most ardent prayer — my greatest hope and strongest desire — is that he will be real for my Samuel as well.

Another lesson that I learned from Samuel came from a simple phrase often repeated by the biblical author: “Do what seems best to you.” This phrase is repeated, with some variation, throughout the story of Samuel. Elkanah says it to Hannah once it is revealed that she has pledged Samuel to a life of temple service; Saul’s soldiers offer this affirmation to their leader; David uses the phrase as he heeds the advice of his generals; Mephibosheth uses it to express humility before the king

When Eli receives a prophecy of God’s displeasure with him and his sons, he simply concedes: “It is Yahweh; let him do what seems good to him.” When David decides to begin construction on a new temple at Jerusalem, Nathan tells him, “You should go and do whatever you have in mind, for the Lord is with you.” Once Samuel has established Saul as the nation’s first king, the judge leaves the young man with a final word: “When these signs have taken place, do whatever your hand finds to do, for God will be with you.”

When the prophet’s announced “God is with you” to David and Saul, they were speaking to the kings in a particular context. Still, as Christians, we know that God has sent us his Counselor to guide us as we make our way through life. If our desire is to live within the Lord’s will, his desire for us will become clear.

It may be dangerous to simply say “Do what seems best to you,” especially if there is a possibility that our bad choices may be interpreted as God’s bad guidance. An important part of maturing is accepting responsibility for our actions; an important part of growing as a Christian is trusting God to guide us when we seek to make responsible decisions. This lesson from Samuel came to me at an important crossroad in my life, a time when I had to make a responsible decision but no choice seemed absolutely clear. Finding this balance between freedom and faith, between personal responsibility and surrender to the universal, is a constant struggle for me, and I’m glad.

My first wish for my son is that he may come to know God in a real way; to love him and seek him out, just as the prophet, the king and the shepherd boy did many years ago. My second wish is that he may have the faith to trust God with his hard decisions; to have the humility to know that, even if he is a king on Earth, he will never be able to walk the journey alone, but he does need the courage to act in faith — to “do what seems best” — because after all, as Samuel so eloquently said, “God will be with you.”


Lessons on Love

I simply can’t believe I’m already approaching mid-terms during my first semester of divinity school. My classes have challenged me academically and spiritually, but most of all I’ve come to a fuller appreciation of God’s love for us. I’ve especially enjoyed my studies of the Old Testament with Dr. Tony Cartledge. In my experience, Christian devotions and church studies tend to focus almost exclusively on the New Testament, relegating a few key passages from the Old Testament into children’s Bible stories. While Christians rightly look to the teachings of Jesus, Peter and Paul as the latest revelation of God’s truths, an unfortunate side effect is a trend toward a lack of biblical knowledge among adult Christians.

The Old Testament still has much to tell us about human nature and our relationship with the Eternal God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jesus was a student of the Old Testament. He diligently studied the stories of Moses and the prophets, meditated on the word of the Lord and used the scriptures to proclaim his message of salvation in the synagogues and side streets. Had he simply been born with a photographic recall of the scriptures, he would not be able to sympathize with us as we struggle through our studies today. Likewise, a solid understanding of the Old Testament scriptures is imperative to fully understanding the teachings of Jesus. The conversation between Jesus and the Pharisee Nicodemus recorded in the Gospel of John is probably the most oft-quoted passage in Christian circles, summing up the core message of salvation in a single verse or two — we are redeemed by the sacrifice of Jesus alone, the ultimate example of God’s love for creation. All we have to do is have faith.

“Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
John 3:14-16, NIV

Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, who, as a member of the Jewish ruling council and a student of scripture himself, already knew something of the power of faithful obedience to God. The other members of the Sanhedrin felt threatened by Jesus and had begun plotting against him, but Nicodemus recognized something very special about him. (Their entire conversation can be read here.) This reference to the Old Testament story of the Nehushtan may have seemed baffling at first, but Jesus mentions it for a specific reason.

The Nehushtan, or snake-on-a-pole, was a symbol of God’s healing grace, of his mercy and love for his people. With images of God’s miraculous show of force against the Egyptian Empire still fresh on their minds, the Israelites were wandering in the desert, under the guidance of Moses, in search of the land YAHWEH had promised them. They had had ups and downs, but time and time again, God had proven that so long as they remained obedient and fearful of him, they would be protected and provided for. In fact, the Israelites had just won a tremendous victory over the hostile Canaanites who had been terrorizing them. Appropriately, the Israelites gave YAHWEH the credit for their victory. While their shouts of victory and praise were still hanging in the air, however, the Israelites began to grow discontent, speaking out against God, complaining to their leader Moses and reminiscing about the good-ole days when they were content and happy slaves in a foreign land.

Then the snakes came. Slowly at first. Slinking out from under the desert rocks and leaving their mark on the careless men who got too close. Then more came. They were everywhere. It seemed no one could avoid being bitten.

Perhaps they shouldn’t have been so quick to turn their backs on the Lord who had delivered them from Egypt, cared for them in the desert and thwarted the attacks of the Canaanite king. What to do now? Would the Creator of the Universe take them back under his wing, yet again?

They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!”

Then the Lord sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.”

So Moses prayed for the people. The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.

Numbers 21:4-9, NIV

So once again, God’s people recognized their own insufficiencies and turned to him. Once again, he redeemed them.

He didn’t do all they asked for, though. The people wanted God to remove the snakes from the land. They wanted him to eliminate pain and suffering from their world; To give them a carefree life. God knew if he simply took away the snakes — if he removed the cause of hurt and trouble in the world — he would also be taking away the freedom of his people. He would be infringing on their freewill and they would no longer be able to turn to him and seek him out of their own volition. No. That was out of the question.

What he did do, though, was provide a way to ease their suffering. He offered them a way out, but they would have to choose to accept it individually, and on faith.

The Messiah, Jesus, understood his mission was to become a similar vehicle for God’s love, but in a much more profound way. He must still be shamed and put on display for the people to see, but when we look upon him in faith, we are healed completely. We are made new. He doesn’t just remove physical toxins and pain that would cause us harm; he purges the blemishes of our soul, forgives us our sins and gives us new life, eternal life, in him.