Monday, November 23, 2009

Hope for a Ghost Town

"How lonely sits the city that was full of people. She has become like a widow who was once great among the nations." This is how the first verse of Lamentations describes Jerusalem after the destruction resulting from Babylonian exile. The city that had once been the center of a great kingdom, a city that had been full of people, commerce, and life, a city that was the envy of neighboring nations was now desolate and lonely. I imagine that Jerusalem must have been something like the ghost towns that speckle the western portion of our own nation. They were towns that sprang up rapidly, often due to natural resources such as oil, gold, or silver that were found in the area. However, once those resources dried up the towns that had sprang up around them often did as well.

According to Jeremiah, Jerusalem's problem was not a drying up of natural resources but it's failure to tap into its spiritual resources. Judah had turned its back on the God who had delivered them despite the fact that He had been their most faithful resource. As a result, God used Babylon to destroy Judah and its capital city, Jerusalem. Much of the city was razed to the ground and many of the inhabitants had been taken into exile . Jerusalem had become a ghost town with little hope of recovery or chance for a future.

Into this desolate situation, God speaks the words of Jeremiah 33:14-16 through the prophet to this lonely, helpless city. God promises that Israel and Judah's days are not over. Jerusalem will not be a ghost town forever. God will raise up a king from the line of David who will reign with righteousness and justice. This king will restore Jerusalem's fortunes so that it dwells in safety and prosperity once again. In fact, God says that this king will bring such great restoration to Jerusalem that the city itself will be called the "the Lord is our righteousness"; that is, the city itself will become a symbol of God's great care and covenant faithfulness to Israel.

As we enter the season of Advent, we remember that we await the restoration of our world as well. All of creation exists as a sort of ghost town, left desolate by the sin, violence, and pain that has rendered our world less than the rightly ordered, peaceful, abundantly life-filled world that it was created to be. We too wait for the arrival of our king who will restore our world so that all of creation becomes a testament to the Lord who is our righteousness.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009


I’ve honestly never been much of a TV junkie but it seems that the constant attention needed by two young children has made that quiet time at the end of the day in front of the TV to be a more appealing form of entertainment in my life. Recently, Jess and I started watching this new show called “Flashforward”. In the very first episode everyone in the world blacks out at the same time for 2 minutes and 17 seconds. Of course, this causes major catastrophes; planes crash when their pilots black out, cars pile up as their drivers lose consciousness, and surgeons black out in the middle of surgeries. Obviously, much of the show is spent trying to figure why these black outs happened and if they will happen again.

But the really compelling and creative part of the story line is that during those 2 minutes and 17 seconds of unconsciousness, everyone who survives has a glimpse of the future. In fact, as the story progresses you find out that everyone had a glimpse of exactly the same few minutes 6 months in the future. Not only that but all of these “flash forwards” correspond so that if you saw someone in your flash forward it means that they saw you in their flash forward. As you can imagine, these glimpses of the future have a great impact on how all the characters in the story behave in the present. Some want to avoid the future they saw at all costs, some desperately want it to come true, others wonder if they have any freedom to change it, and some become so obsessed with what might happen that they have trouble living in the present. Despite the varied reactions to the flash fowards, the one thing no one can do is ignore them. Every decision, though not determined by it, is directly impacted by this collective vision of what is to come. This is a story where the present is being shaped less by the past than by the future.

I find this to be a remarkable metaphor for the Christian life, especially as we enter the season of Advent. We, too, have been given a glimpse of the future. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have been given a vision of the kingdom of God. We have been given a glimpse of how all life will one day be lived; in complete obedience to the reign of God. Of course, this vision has not yet come true; the kingdom has not yet come in its fullness. We have only gotten a glimpse of what to expect and we are left in the present trying to figure out how to best order our lives now according to this future that we await. Some in our world will do everything they can to prevent this future reign of God from taking place. But as Christians, we long for it desperately and we order our whole lives according to this kingdom that is to come but is not yet here.

This Advent season, as we await the return of our King, consider once again what it means to have your life shaped by this hope for the future. How does the glimpse of the future kingdom given to us through Jesus Christ change the way we are to live today? How will the decisions you make today, this week, and this month be impacted by the knowledge that God’s reign is on its way?

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Ideal King

I'm looking at a passage of Scripture this week that I've never given any serious thought to before. Now that I'm confronted with it, I'm realizing what a rare occasion this is for me. Obviously every time I come to my sermon text each week, I know I have a lot to learn about that passage. But it is very rare, if not a completely new experience, to find myself preaching from a passage that I haven't already done some study on or heard something about. I'm sure I've read 2 Samuel 23:1-7 many times before. I've read the Bible cover to cover a couple of times and I read 1 and 2 Samuel through as a whole once or twice back at the beginning of the summer when I knew I would be preaching from both books for a few months. In spite of that, I feel like I've never read 2 Samuel 23 before today.

As a side note, this is probably one of the reasons I'm sort of a Bible nerd; there is just so much there. I think I know the Bible pretty well and yet it is just such a vast and varied collection of literature that you could spend your whole life studying it without exhausting all that God has to offer through it. This is also just one of the reasons that I preach from the lectionary. By following a series of prescribed readings of four passages of Scripture for each Sunday over a three year cycle, I am lead to passages that I would not otherwise preach. This helps our congregation's life together to be shaped by the whole of Scripture, not just my own favorite texts.

Well anyway, on to the actual passage. I'm not sure yet how all of this will coalesce into a sermon but for now this is what I am noticing about 2 Samuel 23:1-7.

My Bible titles this section "David's last song". As such, it appears to be a summary of what David hoped that his reign as king was or what he hopes that the reign of future kings will be. It's almost like David's farewell speech or a final will and testament: his last chance as king to influence the course of Israel's history with a few final words. Perhaps, in this way it is similar to the book of Deuteronomy which is a sort of farewell speech from Moses as the Israelites are poised to enter the promised land but Moses knows he will not accompany this new generation in that joyous journey. So he does all that he can to set them on the right path since he can no longer lead them; he reminds them of what God has done and how they should continue to be faithful to God as a result.

Similarly, David holds up a vision of what Israel's king should be even after he is gone. He gives this vision of the king's role authority by saying that the Spirit of the Lord has spoken through him. At the center of this kingly ideal is righteousness; that is, the king must be one who rules justly and fairly out of reverence for God. David says the king who does this will bring life to his kingdom in the same way that sunlight brings life to the grass after the rain.

Then David says in v. 5 "Truly is not my house so with God?". This seems to be an odd question since David and the writer(s) of 1 and 2 Samuel know that David's house has not been this way with God. There were times when David had abused his power as king rather than reigning righteously and David was still reaping the consequences of that action through the misconduct of his children. David himself did not live up to the ideal portrait of kingly rule which he paints in this song.

But the very next line of the song puts a different spin on things. "For He (God) has made an everlasting covenant with me (David), ordered in all things and secured; for all my salvation and all my desire, will He not indeed make it grow?" David's house being right with God doesn't seem to depend so much on what David has done as it does on what God has done. David's house is not "so with God" because David was perfect but because God has chosen David and his descendants. It is God's sovereign choice and not a mere accident of human history which has made David and his descendants to be the kings of Israel. Because of that, David holds out hope that despite his own household's imperfections, his descendants will still be "as the light of morning" to the kingdom of Israel. On the other hand, "the worthless" (a term used earlier in 2 Samuel to describe Sheba, a man who rebelled against David's reign as king) are thorns that have to be handled carefully but will be thrown out and burned up.

In short, this song is a reaffirmation of the kingly ideology that is prevalent throughout the story of David. It expresses the deeply held belief that David was not just a king but a righteous ruler put in place by a righteous God who would be faithful to Israel by keeping a descendant of King David on the throne forever and seeing to it that any who rebelled ("the worthless") against God's anointed king would be defeated.

Undoubtedly, the lectionary editors have chosen this passage for this final Sunday before Advent because it is Christ the King Sunday. Just as this passage expresses the ancient Israelite hope of what Israel's king would be, so it expresses our hope as followers of Jesus that he is God's true anointed, that he speaks for God, and that one day he will indeed reign in righteousness and that all the worthless powers that have threatened his reign as king will ultimately be defeated.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Gift of a Future

Hannah's husband, Elkanah, was a man with a proud past. At least, that's the feeling I get from the beginning of 1 Samuel. Why would you mention four generations worth of ancestors unless some kind of pride was attached to that ancestry? Despite marrying into this proud past, however, there seems to be little hope for Hannah's future. In a world where women are valued by the children they provide, Hannah is barren. To be sure, Elkanah loves her deeply in spite of her barrenness but the story seems to indicate that even Elkanah's love is not enough to overcome Hannah's hopeless situation. (When Elkanah asks his wife "Am I not better to you than ten sons?", Hannah gives no answer and continues to pray for the Lord to remember her and give her a son.) To make matters worse, Elkanah's other wife, Peninnah, provoked and tormented Hannah over her lack of children.

Hannah's story is a microcosm of the story of Israel, particularly the place where Israel finds itself in Hannah's lifetime. Israel too has a proud past. They still remember the days that God delivered them with a mighty hand from slavery in Egypt. Israel has seen God do tremendous things in the past. But Israel's situation is now bleak and there is little hope for the future. The reactions of Eli the priest to Hannah's prayer is telling of the situation in Israel. When Hannah comes to the tabernacle to pray, Eli sees her lips moving but doesn't hear her speaking and assumes that she must be drunk. Was prayer in Israel so rarely seen that even a priest had to assume someone who was praying had just had too much to drink? Furthermore, Eli's sons offer no hope of better spiritual leadership in the future. And just as Hannah was mocked by Peninnah, so Israel was mocked by its rivals and their greater power, especially the Philistines.

Into this bleak narrative with no future and no hope, God breathes new life through the birth of a son. Samuel is the answer both to Hannah's prayer and to Israel's problem. Samuel is not only the overcoming of Hannah's barrenness. He is also the future leader of Israel; the one through whom Israel will have a hope and a future once again. Hannah and Israel both had a proud past and heritage but as great as that heritage was, it was not enough to make for either of them a future. Only God, by his gift to Hannah, could do that.

Our local congregation has a proud heritage dating all the way back to the 1920's, a long time for a Church of the Nazarene. Just a year ago our denomination celebrated its proud heritage of 100 years of holiness mission. And the Church around the world has seen God do many tremendous things over the last 2000 years. But no matter how proud we might be of our past, God's grace is still our only way into the future.