Saturday, May 26, 2018

“In the Year that King Uzziah Died” - May 27, 2018

Isaiah 6:1-8

            The death of kings makes a big difference sometimes.  When Solomon died, the kingdom that David and he had built up split into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, with Judah keeping Jerusalem as its capital.  From there on, the Old Testament tells the story of those kingdoms in parallel, kind of going back and forth as they weave together.  It also goes back and forth between describing good kings, who held to the worship of God alone, and bad kings, who worshiped pagan gods, with a handful of kings who went with whatever was politically convenient.  On this scale, Uzziah’s grandfather was a bad king.  His father was one of the wishy-washy ones.  Uzziah was good.

            Not only was Uzziah good from the standpoint of his faith, he was militarily and politically effective.  He operated at a time when the most powerful states of the Middle East were in disarray and used the time that their disorganization bought him to strengthen the defenses of Judah and regulate its economic life.  One historian points out that in his day agriculture was healthy and even the southern wilderness shows signs of more intensive settlement than ever before.  “It was, superficially at least, a time of great optimism, and of great confidence in the promises of God for the future.”[1] 

            Now, the good old days aren’t always the good old days for everybody.  Prosperity didn’t reach everyone in Judah.  Isaiah would have a few choice words to say about that once he got going.  Nor were things always so great for Uzziah himself.  At the end he developed leprosy.  He was cut off from human contact.  He had to leave the palace and II Kings 15:5 says that they built a separate house for him and his son acted in his name.  Still, he had come to the throne at the age of sixteen and reigned for fifty-two years (for comparison, that’s eleven less than Queen Victoria), and his death meant a real crisis in leadership, and put real grief in people’s hearts.

            The poet Robert Graves wrote a poem for Elizabeth II when she became queen, and it was about how his father had reacted when Victoria had died.  It says, in part:

“My mother sought to comfort him, leaned closer,
Whispering softly: ‘It was a ripe old age. …
She saw her century out.’  The tears still flowed,
He could not find his voice.  My mother ventured:
‘We have a King once more, a real King.
“God Save the King” is in the Holy Bible.
Our Queen was, after all, only a woman.’

At that my father’s grief burst hoarsely out.
‘Only a woman!  You say it to my face?
Queen Victoria only a woman!  What?
Was the orb nothing?  Was the sceptre nothing?
To cry “God save the King” is honourable,
But to serve a Queen is lovely.  Listen now:
Could I have one wish for this son of mine…’”[2]

There is a connection between a loved and trusted ruler and the people that is not to be discounted.

            So, when that ruler is gone, what happens?  Isaiah felt acutely the grief of Uzziah’s death and with it the fear that, with him gone, there would be no one able to rein in the abuses of power that were showing up among the rich and influential people of Jerusalem.  There was no one there to keep them mindful that faith is more than words and ritual.  There was no one to prevent them from giving in to the idolatry that was demanded as part of the politics of the day.  All that was most important to Judah’s core being, all that set them apart from the nations around them and marked them as a people dedicated to God and God alone was endangered.

            When Uzziah died, it was a crisis of the spirit, not just a matter of succession.  King Jotham followed his father on the throne, but Isaiah was not satisfied, and he was convinced that God himself was not satisfied. 

“In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.’ 
The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’
 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: ‘Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.’ Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
            God had put Isaiah on the spot.  It was not enough to mourn the loss of a good leader.  God asked for someone to take up the work that needed to be done.  Isaiah could say, “I’m not good enough.”  God said, “I’ll take care of that.”  There is no getting away with saying, “The people around me aren’t going to pay attention.  I am going to be a failure.”  God says, “I know they won’t listen, but when you take them my message, that is success whether or not they pay attention.”

            Since this is Memorial Day weekend, I’ll use an analogy that honors the people whose memory we call to mind.  It was clear that people in the first landings on D-Day would die without establishing a beachhead.  It was clear that the first soldiers to put their feet onto sand in the South Pacific would get no further.  Without their attempt and their sacrifice, however, others would never have gone on to complete the work of liberation, and for Eastern Europe that work wasn’t finished until 1989.  So, too, as we are all called to the work of God’s kingdom, the battles to which we are sent may seem lost or pointless, but may open the road for others in ways we will only find out in God’s time.

            Who knows what task, large or small, known or unknown, recognized or thankless, God is preparing for you or me or the guy who changed your tires last week?  There are words in the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus (not to be confused with Ecclesiastes) that speak to that.

“Let us now sing the praises of famous men,
our ancestors in their generations.
The Lord apportioned to them great glory,
his majesty from the beginning.
There were those who ruled in their kingdoms,
and made a name for themselves by their valor;
those who gave counsel because they were intelligent;
those who spoke in prophetic oracles;
those who led the people by their counsels
and by their knowledge of the people's lore;
they were wise in their words of instruction;
those who composed musical tunes,
or put verses in writing;
rich men endowed with resources,
living peacefully in their homes-
all these were honored in their generations,
and were the pride of their times.
Some of them have left behind a name,
so that others declare their praise.
But of others there is no memory;
they have perished as though they had never existed;
they have become as though they had never been born,
they and their children after them.
But these also were godly men,
whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”

            The year that King Uzziah died was also the year that Isaiah’s work was born.  What, even now, is God bringing to light?  This year, so far, we have lost Harry Anderson.  Who now will make people smile and laugh?  We have lost Roger Bannister.  Who will push the human body to go faster or farther than we were taught to expect?  We have lost Barbara Bush.  Who will stand up to politicians and presidents and tell them to mind their manners?  We have lost Stephen Hawking.  Who will point out the wonders of the stars and of pure mathematics?  We have lost Billy Graham.  Who will proclaim there is a Savior and that his name is Jesus?

[1] John Bright, A History of Israel, third edition (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1981), 259.
[2] Robert Graves, “Coronation Address” in The Poems of Robert Graves (Garden City, NY: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1957), 230.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

“You’ll Know When” - May 13, 2018

Acts 1:1-11

            If I ever get the chance, by God’s grace, to sit down in heaven and talk with Luke, who wrote not only the gospel but also the book of Acts, I am going to point out that he caused – inadvertently, I’m sure – a whole lot of trouble when he included one little detail in his account of Jesus’ ascension.  It appears in Acts, but not in Luke. 

“While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”  [Acts 1:10-11]

That has fed into a ridiculous branch of pseudo-scholarship that really took off in the nineteenth century, where people get totally hung up on trying to figure out when Jesus will return. 

There was an Irishman named John Nelson Darby who takes the credit for developing an itinerary for the Lord to follow, by grabbing a verse from Daniel here and a passage from I Thessalonians there, pouring on a few cups of Revelation, heating it over fire and brimstone until it turned into a system called Dispensationalism.  It was popularized by Cyrus Scofield, the founder of what we used to call the Philadelphia College of Bible, currently Cairn University.  The Scofield Reference Bible was a regular King James Version, but with marginal notes referring to Darby’s theories.  All of that has been continued, first on radio, then on television, and all over the internet, by people who will tell you (whether you ask them or not) that they have discovered a secret code that unlocks the mysteries of Jesus’ plans.

I guess they never read the passage at the start of Acts where Jesus’ disciples ask him about when and how God’s kingdom will come in its fullness, and Jesus tells them not to bother about that.

“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’” [Acts 1:6-7]

We can be sure that God does have his plans and does have the ultimate end of things under control.  Trust him with that, as with everything else.  The process is underway already.  It’s not something future to plan for.  It’s something present, to experience. 

The fact that God sent his Son as a Savior who cherishes each of his children, even going to the cross for us, rather than sending him as a tyrant or as a cosmic policeman to arrest us, who have all broken God’s law – that shows us that God’s will is not to destroy, but to redeem.  There is nothing hidden about that.  It’s not a puzzle to figure out.  Ephesians says that

With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  [Ephesians 1:8-10]

In the fullness of time that will happen.  Redemption has already begun, and will come to completion in God’s time.  You cannot rush the appearance of cherry blossoms in the spring or the cherries in the summer.  In God’s time, they appear.  You cannot force the tide to come in early, or to stay longer than it ever does.  You cannot rush it.  Neither can you stop it.

            As Jesus went into heaven, he prepared his followers to expect that moment.  On the one hand, it’s possible to look at that moment with fear.  I get that feeling whenever I hear someone say that “we’re living in the last days”.  Maybe it’s just me.  But when I read this part of Acts, I hear him say to wait less for his return than to be ready for the presence of the Spirit in the meantime, and to wait like a racer waits at the starting line, not like a runner looking for the race finally to be over.  He said,

“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]
And they did just that.

            So, how do we – who are also disciples – know when the moment is right?  It isn’t by calculating years from obscure verses, but by listening to the living Word.  We don’t always get the unmistakable signs that the first disciples got, as when at Pentecost

“there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting.  Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” [Acts 2:3]
Sometimes what we get are gentler hints, sort of Spirit-nudges.  I’ll just speak for myself here, since that’s how it works for me.  I confess that I ignore them sometimes, thinking I’m just being silly or imagining something, and later on find out that I should have paid attention.  On the whole, though, when I do pay attention to that little voice that says, “So-and-so sounded a little quiet the other day,” or maybe, “Why don’t you go down this block instead?” or “Send a copy of this cartoon to So-and-So”, it may very well open the door to a moment when God’s grace enters unexpectedly into some situation.  Jesus told Nicodemus,

“The wind blows where it chooses” or “The spirit blows where it chooses”
 (the word is the same in New Testament Greek).  Let’s go with

“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:8]
We may not know, and are not meant to know, the great and overarching plans of which our own lives are just one small (but necessary) part.  We can know, and deep down I think we do know, when there are moments that matter more than others, when one word fitly spoken or one deed of kindness or courage is asked of us, that we may be

“witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]
If we faithfully attend to those, the rest will be in God’s hands, who knows better than any of us do with the big stuff.

“Be still, my soul.  The Lord doth undertake
To guide the future, as he has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake.
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul.  The wind and waves still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.”

Saturday, May 5, 2018

“Faith Is the Victory” - May 6, 2018

I John 5:1-6

            World conquest isn’t something I have thought much about since the occasional Saturday afternoons I spent playing “Risk” when I was in high school.  In fact, we tend to make fun of anyone who gets it into their head.  Maybe you never saw the cartoon series “Pinky and the Brain”, where the typical opening showed two mice, Pinky and the Brain, sitting around and Pinky says, “Gee, Brain, what are we going to do tonight?” and the Brain answers, “The same thing we do every night, Pinky.  Try to take over the world.”  Of course, his schemes always go off course in a big way.

            The Romans, on the other hand, at least those who have left a record of themselves, took the idea of world conquest seriously.  The Emperor Augustus, who ruled at the time of Jesus’ birth, left behind a summary of his accomplishments where, like any good megalomaniac, he refers to himself in the third person and as a god.  It begins,

“Below is a copy of the achievements of the deified Augustus whereby he subjected the world to the empire of the Roman people, and of the expenditures he made on behalf of the country and the Roman people.”[1]

He speaks very highly of himself.  He notes,

“I often waged wars on land and sea, both civil and foreign, in the whole world, and as victor I spared all the citizens who asked pardon.  Those foreign people who could safely be pardoned I preferred to preserve rather than exterminate.”[2]

I guess he was just a big softy inside.  I’ll spare you the endless recitation of his honors and achievements, the list of offices he held and buildings he put up, and how many times the Senate sent him a vote of thanks.  I only want to emphasize the difference between the official and public outlook of the Romans and the thought of the upstart Christians, whose views and attitudes the Romans and their successors have never been able to comprehend.

            Christianity even means something different when it speaks of “the world”.  To Augustus, conquering the world meant expanding his territory. 

“I enlarged the territory of all the provinces of the Roman people that neighbored upon people that were not subject to our empire. …At my order and under my auspices two armies were led almost at the same time into Ethiopia and Arabia… I annexed Egypt to the empire of the Roman people.”[3]

To the Christians, “the world”, as John wrote about it in his letters to the believers, was not a geographical term but referred to a mindset and the actions that flow from it, the mindset and deeds of people like Augustus and his successors, but also anyone who gets caught up in the cycle of power games and pride.  The poet William Butler Yeats spoke of

“The noisy set of schoolmasters, bankers, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.”[4]

John’s notion of success was not the same as Caesar’s.  In fact, to John, success meant finding a way out of that endless cycle and stepping away from the game of gimme-gimme, I-me-mine.

            He wasn’t alone in that.  Christians in general saw that to be puffed-up and jealous and ego-driven set the course for great troubles.  Jesus’ own brother, James, wrote to the Church, which has never been immune to the world’s ways:

“Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from?  Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you?  You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.  And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” [James 4:1-2]

How many arguments and even fights, maybe, have you seen because somebody who is eager to let everyone else know how important they are comes up against someone else who is just as self-important?  How much time and money and energy are wasted in a group where everybody has to do everybody else one better?

            But if your worth is not connected to things of no ultimate value, if your success is not measured by the clothes you wear or whom you know or where you vacation or how often your name is spoken, or anything like that, then you have begun to step outside the arena where the silly and dangerous games are being fought.  In fact, if your dignity and honor are tied not to what you’ve done but to what God has done for you, then you are in a good place.  If you have placed your entire trust in Jesus, so that you know your place in the universe and in eternity is secure, then you don’t need to play any of those games at all, and the amazing thing is that means you win.

“And this is the victory that conquers the world, our faith. Who is it that conquers the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?” [I John 5:4-5]

            I learned a lot from people I have worked with while they were in prison.  Some had learned to use a kind of religious slang to describe themselves, and that was never very convincing.  Others, though, would tell their stories with real conviction (pun intended), able to say what it was within themselves that had drawn them into trouble, and they would say it not in a way that sounded like an excuse, but that was more of an explanation.  It wasn’t: “I stabbed the guy because I was on drugs and not thinking clearly,” but more like, “I thought I could get away from my pain by using the drugs, and next thing I knew, I was inflicting my pain on everyone around me.”  Then they would say how they had found someone whose love and caring was able to address the deepest hurts, and his name was Jesus.  And sometimes the group would start singing,

“What a friend we have in Jesus,
All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry everything to God in prayer!”

And there would be a time of prayer, of course.  Then at the end, somebody would start a little song that’s really a great song,

                        “for whatever is born of God conquers the world.” [I John 5:4]

The song says,

“In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus,
We have the victory.
In the name of Jesus, in the name of Jesus,
Demons will have to flee.
Tell me, who can stand before us
When we call on that great name?
Jesus, Jesus, blessed Jesus,
We have the victory.”

[1] Augustus, “Res Gestae” in Meyer Reinhold, The Golden Age of Augustus (Sarasota: Samuel Stevens & Co., 1978), 92-93.
[2] Ibid., 93.
[3] Ibid., 99-100.
[4] from “Adam’s Curse”.