Psalm 118: “A King to Follow”

Psalm 118 begins with a call for the community of faithful to worship.  “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good; His steadfast love endures forever!”  The worship of the community is grounded in the covenantal, everlasting, ever-enduring love that God has demonstrated to God’s people time and again.

From the formation of Creation, to the promise and covenant with Abraham, to the deliverance from Egyptian bondage, to the renewed call given to the freed slaves, God has tangibly demonstrated love by taking the “least of these” and weaving them into the fabric of God’s redemptive purposes for the whole Cosmos.  Worship begins in the recognition that God first loved us.

“His steadfast love endures forever” is repeated four times by the various persons gathered together in adoration of the Lord.  “The different groups of those who take part in the offering of thanksgiving are called upon in turn to join in singing the refrain attached to the testimony: first of all ‘Israel’, the people of the Covenant, then ‘the house of Aaron’, that is, the priesthood, and finally ‘those who fear God’, that is the proselytes of non-Israelite origin… By their testimony they set themselves without distinction under the everlasting grace of God of which they have once more been able to gain assurance in the celebration of the festival” (Artur Weiss, 725).

This love they proclaim is so profuse, so abounding, so overflowing that it cannot be mentioned only once.  It must be recounted… again and again and again.  God’s love poured out upon God’s people reminds us of Psalm 23’s remembrance of God’s blessing: “My cup overflows.”

As the old hymn’s poetry aptly captures:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky (“The Love of God”).

Even after all of these centuries of life as the Church, we still have not exhausted our communication, reflection, remembering, and embodying the love of God which has changed us and our world.  We still find ever new ways to give voice to the affirmation that “His steadfast love endures forever.”

This statement is the greatest theological ground upon which we wrestle.  We may disagree about the various nuances of what God’s love means.  But, this theme has been the central theological truth that God’s people have continued to reflect upon, to sing about, and to conform their lives around.  “His steadfast love endures forever.”

The Psalm shifts in perspective, recounting a king’s march into battle.  The nations have rallied against him and his city.  The foes are many and vicious.  Bloodthirsty and vengeful.  The enemies surround him on all sides.  The night is falling, the light is fading.  To any onlooker, all hope appears lost.  The enemies swarm like bees that have had their nest disturbed.  Like a torrent of fire, swept along by the wind in the brambles, the enemy threatens destruction.

The imagery brings to mind a scene from the book, Lord of the Rings.  King Theoden is trapped in his mountain fortress with his people, where they have been forced to flee for refuge.  The hordes of evil minions stand outside their gates, crashing against the gates and walls like a surging ocean tide.  King Theoden looks upon the scene, despondent.  “What can man do against such wreckless hate?” he questions.  I can imagine the king in the Psalm understands these kinds of odds stacked against him.

Yet, the king does not fear what any mortal can do to him.  Fear, which would surely be the most natural response to being surrounded by impending doom, is not his response.  Ironically, and against the evidence, the king voices hope.  The king holds on to trust.

It is noteworthy that the king does not place his hope and trust in mortals or princes.  Hope is not directed at his own power, or the power of his army, or the power of a political alliance.  In fact, the king does not arrange his vision on anything in the Creation with which to combat the enemy.  Instead, he proclaims that it is better to take “refuge in the Lord” than to misplace one’s trust in nations, political parties, military might, financial systems, or anything else that might take the place of God – in one word, idol worship.

Artur Weiser writes, “Genuine faith can grow only where man has completely ceased to trust in men and hanker after earthly power and temporal means of power, only where every human support has broken down and trust in God has become the only living force.  This is the spiritual atmosphere in which the courage and the clarity of such an attitude of faith can be gained and preserved” (The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, p. 726).

Despite the king’s affirmation of trust, he teeters on the edge of oblivion.  Destruction looms near, even after proclaiming his hope in God, the king seems precariously and dangerously close to failure.  The Psalm says that the king was “pushed hard, so that he was falling.”  The king even admits that the nations rising against him has been the means by which God is punishing him.

It is this recognition of his own sin and brokenness before God that the king is also able to see God’s salvation open up to him.  “Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord.  This is the gate of the Lord; the righteous shall enter through it.  I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation.”  The king’s repentance, by God’s gracious act, has restored to him righteousness by which he (and the community) may enter into the presence of God, may pass through the “gate of the Lord.”

The king further acknowledges that it is all God’s doing.  God is his “strength and might.”  It is God who works salvation.  The king’s deliverance spills out and over into the “tents of the righteous.”  It is personal deliverance for the king, yes.  But, it is also deliverance for the community of the faithful.  Much like Moses had experienced God’s salvation in the desert, the same salvation becomes the experience of Israel being brought out of Pharaoh’s land and into a new place of promise.  The faithful know the power of God because they have experienced God’s deliverance first hand.

The king promises to recount the deeds that God has done in and for them.  “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”  The king calls for others of the faith community to join him in telling the story.  As they remember God’s saving deeds, they are re-membered, put back together as God’s covenantal people.  They shout, “This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes!”

The worship even recalls the king’s diminished state.  He was “the stone the builders rejected.”  He was disdained and with no honor.  The king was a “stone” unworthy to hold the building together.  The king was a “stone” that was better tossed in a ditch than used for a more glorious purpose.  And, yet, what the world would discard, God uses to build upon as the cornerstone – the chief cornerstone.  That which seemed worthy to be thrown in a rubble heap would be the very means by which God will rebuild God’s people.

The gathered faithful sing: “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord.  We bless you from the house of the Lord.  The Lord is God, and he has given us light. Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar.”  The king, the one that the world rejected and scorned, is now called the “blessed one of the Lord.”  Celebration ensues and breaks out because if God can take a broken king and restore him to blessing, then it surely can happen for the community, too!  If God can take the rejected stone and restore it to a place of honor, then it is possible that God’s people will also be restored.

Psalm 118 hangs thick over the air during the Jewish Passover week.  It is suggested by most scholars that this Psalm would have been sung during the week of the Passover.  The king, the lineage of David, they prayed, would be restored.  There was no king of Davidic lineage now.  Psalm 118 points to a messiah, the blessed one, who would come and restore the future of God’s people.  Psalm 118 is the community’s prayer that reaches back to the Egypt exodus and hopes for God’s deliverance in a similar fashion now.  No more Egypt, no more Babylon, no more Rome.

Rumors and stories and hopes swirl around Jesus.  He is a man of many talents.  One who teaches with authority, not like their scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus heals the sick, restores people back to life from the dead, gives sight to the blind, binds up the  broken hearted, forgives sins, calms storms, changes water into wine, and enacts justice and hope for the needy in society.  Surely this is the messiah, the one sung about in the Psalms.  Surely this is the anointed one of God come to restore the fortunes of Israel.

The festival of Passover week is nearing upon them.  Jerusalem is packed with those observing this holy week, preparing for the most holy time of the Jewish calendar – a time for remembering the deliverance of God’s people from Pharaoh.  Whispers reach the corners, vendors, and street urchins.  Jesus is riding into town.  This can only mean one thing… deliverance!

Caesar’s armies would march into the city on occasion to display their military might and remind the people, by sheer force of numbers, who was in charge.  Caesar is king.  Any opposed to him will meet untimely deaths.  The Maccabean family had once overthrown Rome, but those days were long gone.  Now, moving Rome out would be like trying to remove a full-grown oak tree by hand – impossible and futile.  The parade of military might would stream through the city to serve as a visible reminder to all of Jerusalem that they may worship Yahweh, but they served Rome.

Jesus enters the city atop a donkey.  The crowds begin to swell around him.  One cannot miss the counter to Caesar’s power that Jesus is enacting.  Those gathered along the street corners grab their coats and palm branches, laying them on the ground before Jesus.  It is a red carpet for royalty, of sorts.  The people yell and shout with glee, waving their giant, foam fingers that sport the words: “Jesus is #1.”  They can almost taste the freedom that will come from the ensuing revolt.  Perhaps Jesus will march straight into Pilate’s home and kick him out right now.  Tears stream from faces, happiness bursts into dancing and song.

They sing together:

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord—
the King of Israel!

Do not be afraid, daughter of Zion.
Look, your king is coming,
sitting on a donkey’s colt!”

They are ready, anticipating the inauguration of their king, the branch of David.  Finally, God’s salvation has come into their midst.

Jesus has in mind deliverance as well, but not what the people imagine.  The parade does not go to Pilate’s palace, nor does it turn to overthrow Herod’s household to enthrone Jesus as the proper king.  Rather, like Psalm 118, the palm branches lead Jesus to stand before the altar in the Temple.  Jesus begins the work of deliverance and the reign of his kingdom by cleansing the Temple, overturning money-changer tables and scattering worshipers with corded whips.

His words ring with condemnation: “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations’; but you have made it a den of robbers” (Lk. 19:46; Mk 11:17; Mt. 21:13).  In other words, Israel has failed to live out its call to be the means by which God will make God’s Self known to all the nations.  It has faltered in demonstrating God’s way of living in the world so that the world might know God.

Artur Weiser comments about the scene of palms around the altar in the Temple: “The phrase ‘Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar’ probably means that as the festal bouquets and branches of palms or willows touch each other, as well as the horns of the altar, its quality of holiness will be imparted to the dancers; other commentators translate ‘ropes’ instead of ‘branches’ and see in this the widespread custom of using ropes to mark the congregation off as a holy people, thus separating them from what was regarded as profane” (The Psalms, The Old Testament Library, p. 729).

Jesus triumphal entry, which brings him into the sanctuary, is a call to holiness for God’s people.  They are to be set apart for God’s purposes.  This means not merely being set apart from the world, but set apart for the sake of the world.  Jesus’ kingship calls into question Caesar’s claim to authority, yes.  But, more importantly, it enacts judgment upon God’s people for their willingness to settle for the gods of Roman power and economic security.

Jesus drives out those gathered for worship because they have excluded the poor, the vulnerable, and the nations from gathering to worship Yahweh.  Jesus denounces the kind of worship that understands itself as the exceptional recipients of God’s blessing but refuses to extend that same blessing to others.

What started out as a grand ticker-tape parade ends with questions about what kind of king Jesus is going to be.  The people hope for deliverance, but they didn’t expect judgment.  They rejoice in the messiah who comes to reign as sovereign, but they didn’t think their power would be compromised in the process.  They sing songs of exaltation about God’s rule, but they thought they would be the lone recipients of that kingdom come.  They never dreamed they might be the ones to come under God’s judgment… that they might be left standing outside the gates.

The parade ends with one man in the midst of a sea of enemies, surrounded on all sides like the king of Psalm 118.  Rome and Caesar will not tolerate another claim to kingship.  The Sanhedrin and Jerusalem won’t abide a challenge to their power.  The powers that be surrounded Jesus to silence him, to put out his light.  Yet, Jesus did not despair of life nor place his hope in mortals or princes.  His hope remained in the God whose “steadfast love endures forever” and is able to deliver from death and destruction.

As one of my good friends wrote today, “It was easy for the people of Jerusalem to welcome Jesus, but not so easy for them to follow him.”  The crowds began the day by singing: “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord – the King of Israel… Look, your king is coming sitting on a donkey’s colt!”  By Friday, the crowds will scream: “We have no king but Caesar!”

Should the king ride into our midst, we may pick up the palm branches to welcome him.  But, the better question is whether or not we are willing to follow him to the tree on Friday.  We may celebrate the king of glory coming into our world to reign, but are we willing to submit to his authority – even when all of our allegiances are brought under question.  We may sing songs that tell of God’s deliverance, but are we willing to receive God’s judgment and discipline that is meant for our own benefit.  Would we be willing to give up those idols, those powers, those hopes and dreams that vie for our loyalty to Jesus?  Would we follow the king riding in on a donkey?

ISIS, Franklin Graham, and Christian Freedom

Mass murders, gruesome decapitations, and bombings mark headlines seemingly non-stop.  ISIS and other Islamic extremist groups have made it clear that they want nothing but the destruction of Western civilization and the implementation of Sharia law.  It is an aggressive and violent program to bring others into submission, to assert control and power over their enemies.  Christians have been no strangers to the persecution that follows groups like this.  Many have lost their lives because they refused to bow the knee and denounce Christ.

Seeing this reality has caused many Christians to be alarmed at any and all Islamic groups, painting them as a homogenous group with the same agenda.  Influential voices, like that of Franklin Graham, have communicated concern for the future if Islam is allowed more power and Christian influence in the American culture continues to wane.  In fact, Franklin Graham recently said, “I believe it’s going to get worse, and we see no question gaining influence in Washington by those that represent the Islamic faith.  We do have a problem in this country and we are losing our religious freedom and we’re losing it a little bit day by day.”

Let us pretend for a moment that Islam is a homogenous group (a very unfounded claim) and that Graham’s concern for our religious freedoms in this country are being attacked, diminished, and eradicated.  Let us imagine that all of Islam has the same goal and that goal is domination of Western culture, elimination of Christians, and the imposition of Sharia law on all peoples.  That is a legitimate claim for at least some Muslims, but let us assume for the moment it is true of all Muslims.

It is ironic that Graham denounces the imposition of another religion’s system of laws while lobbying for Christians to employ the same tactics to ensure our power and our rights.  The jihad-like call to return to a “Christian nation” resound from many Evangelical leaders, including Graham.  If we can only get enough voter turnout, then security and the maintenance of our “freedom” will be ensured.  While Islamic extremist groups evangelize at the point of a sword, Graham is calling for a Crusade of his own.  The methodology between the two isn’t extremely different because they are both based on a will to power and a hope in political systems to achieve their goals.

As a pastor, I find it deplorable that so many of people within the Church have given ear to this kind of thinking.  It isn’t inherently Christian.  The will to power, the desire to protect our rights, and the perception that freedom is achieved through a political process is misguided and misplaced.  If Christian still means to follow the life and example of Jesus, then we need to reconsider again what it means to be the imago Dei (image of God).

First, how we use power is of great importance.  God demonstrates the way power is intended to be used.  It is not through domination but through humble obedience and kenotic (emptying) service to others.  This is the way of the Cross and the Kingdom of God.  Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king.  Jesus is cryptic, but says that if his Kingdom was like that of Rome and others his followers would defend it with the sword.  But, that’s not the kind of politics Jesus is enacting.  Jesus doesn’t make the move to will power.  Instead, he gives it away.  Ironically, in giving it away Jesus receives all power.  But, again, it is not a power to dominate but a power of dominion (proper ordering), stewardship, holy-love, and compassion.  That is power.

Second, I find the use of “rights” language problematic.  “Rights” are assumed to be something that I possess, own.  This language tends to revolve around the individual, thus denying our need for the social.  And, where my “rights” are in conflict with another’s “rights,” they must be defended at all costs, lest I be trampled under foot by the world.  Because it isolates the individual as the sole possessor of these particular rights, we also negate our contingent and dependent nature.  Not only are we social creatures, but we are also not the Creator!  Our life is not a “right.”  It is a gift.  And, should we lose our life, the One who gives life is able to restore it – even from the depths of Sheol.

We are reminded in Philippians 2 that Jesus empties himself, not considering equality with God something to be grasped, and humbles himself unto obedience – even to death on a cross.  His very death that does not grasp and cling to his own life is what brings life to us.  As the Christian community, we are constantly called to “daily pick up our cross and follow Jesus.”  If we have any “rights,” they are not to be grasped and held onto with such tenacity and fear.

Finally, the idea that freedom is dependent upon a political process is sadly mistaken.  The reality of persecution is all too real for many in the world.  I don’t diminish the sacrifice that many make by giving their lives while giving faithful witness to Christ.  However, these martyrs demonstrate what freedom in Christ really is all about!  Paul and Silas sing in prison after being beaten!  Peter testifies to Jesus’ work and ministry before being crucified upside down.  John is exiled to the island of Patmos because he proclaimed Jesus is Lord, not Caesar.

The early Church, and many since then, have been those that did not have “freedom” in the political sense, yet demonstrated profound freedom in Jesus to love as Jesus had loved them.  Their lives proclaimed forgiveness, healing, mercy, and love that even extended to their enemies.  After Christians became a separate movement outside of Judaism, they experienced intense suffering and persecution.  They often did not have political or social clout or power.  They were branded atheists and threats to national security.  Yet, the Christians persisted in loving those society did not deem worthy.  They served the poor, the sick, and the hungry.

They embodied a new social ethic that enacted peace, extended mercy, and manifested love in tangible ways to friend and foe alike.  Few can deny the profound impact the Church had on its surrounding world, even while they had no power or freedom of which to speak or protect.  We can learn a great deal from our heritage on the means for engaging the world as cross-bearers embodying a new way to live in the world.  The freedom to love, pray for, and do good to our enemies is also freedom from a life entrenched in fear of the future.

Works Cited

You may find the above Franklin Graham quotes here:

Idols That Won’t Stand – 1 Samuel 5:1-12

Israel had marched out to war against their foe, Philistia.  The Philistines routed them, killing four thousand troops.  Israel retreated and re-grouped.  What could have gone wrong?  Why were they defeated?  Hophni and Phineas, Eli’s sons and fellow priests, surely gathered the army leaders together to instruct them on warfare.  They had neglected to bring the Ark of the Covenant with them.  That was why they tasted the bitter sting of defeat.  After all, if “God is for us, who can be against us?”

The troops run and grab the Ark.  As it enters the camp, the Israelites are thrown into a Pentecostal frenzy.  Victory is in their grasp now that they have God there.  With God on their side, victory is sure to come.  The hollering is deafening, so much so that it travels to the Philistines’ nearby camp.  Fear grips their hearts because “gods have come into the camp.”  The Philistines recall the stories of Egypt’s destruction by these gods.  The “gods’” might had been displayed against the greatest military might in the known world.  It seemed the writing was on the wall, but it was better to go out and die like men than run like cowards and become slaves to Israel.

They clash on the field of battle.  But for Israel the battle is no closer to victory than it was before.  In fact, many more of their soldiers fall to Philistine blades.  Hophni and Phineas are killed and the Ark is carried off into Exile, into Philistine territory.  The glory has departed…

The Philistines march home, carrying on about their feats of strength and courage.  When faced with the terrible god of Israel, the future looked bleak and grim.  Yet, they had emerged the victors and heroes.  They pat each other on the back and laugh at their good fortune, toting home their trophy of conquest – the Ark.  They had captured the gods of Israel.  The only appropriate way to celebrate was to give offerings to Dagon, the god of grain, and to place YHWH in Dagon’s house as a servant god.  Thus, the Ark came to rest in the presence of Dagon, lord of the Philistines.

The irony of this story is that Israel, due to its disobedience, has forgotten the story of its salvation and rescue from Egypt by YHWH.  It is the Philistines who are able, more or less, to recite the story of Israel’s “gods.”  The theologians, those who speak of God, are not God’s people.  Instead, they are the outsiders to the covenant community.  It’s sad to think that outsiders might know the story better than those whom God has redeemed and saved.  The response of the Philistines is one of fear and respect (even if misguided).  The Israelites have become flippant, assuming, and proud.  Their pride results in their destruction and the glory departing.

Of course, we noticed last week that even the “glory” is misunderstood by Israel.  Ichabod’s mother names him “glory departed” because Eli and his sons have died.  In other words, the reign of greed, lust, and abuse that has lined their pockets and brought them power ended decisively.  That is what Israel understands “glory” to entail, but now it’s gone.

As the market crash of 2008 demonstrated, it is easy to get wrapped up in a society that worships security, power, and money that is so fleeting.  The market crash of 2000 and 2008 were often couched in terms that bemoaned the “glory” departing our systems of governance and commerce.  Gone were the glory days.  It seems Israel is not the only one to misunderstand the nature of glory.

Israel has treated the Ark, and by extension God, as a piece of “spiritual technology,” as Eugene Peterson calls it.  God becomes a tool that we manipulate to get what we desire while tagging God’s “approval” on our agenda.  Israel marches out to war backed by the Ark, but never actually addresses God.

God is reduced from being a Person (Subject) who has called Israel into being and transforms God into an Object that Israel can control: God-in-a-box, like a personal genie.  It is the subtle move of talking with God to talking about God.  When God ceases to be Subject and is made into an Object, we have effectively silenced God.

Well, God may speak, but it tends to be our words in God’s mouth.  In essence, we have made God in our image rather than remembering that we are made in God’s image.  And, as such, a God that we have objectified (made into an idol) cannot make demands upon us; only we can make any such demands.

The Philistines march YHWH into the city of Ashdod and into the Temple of Dagon.  They seem to have little more understanding than Israel, even though they do recall the story of Israel’s Egypt exodus.  YHWH is treated like a trophy displaying Dagon’s power over the gods and his favor upon Philistia.  YHWH becomes another magic talisman or god-in-a-box which will bolster their power and help them maintain the security of the nation.  They have no problem with YHWH being a part of Dagon’s retinue, as long as, YHWH does not take the place of Dagon, the god of grain.

Dagon is the god of economic security.  He is the one, according to the Philistines, that keeps the market economy flourishing, as demonstrated in their military conquest of Israel and other surrounding neighbors.  It is an economy based upon power and competition.  Limited resources can only be stretched so far.  The market demands that those resources be hoarded so the Philistines have plenty.

Of course, the Philistines’ plenty is the absence of basic necessities for their neighbors, but that’s the name of the game.  Dagon is the god of commercial and economic success, achieved through the power of politics and military might, but always at the expense of the neighboring communities.  YHWH is placed next to Dagon, symbolizing the Philistines’ hope that YHWH would bless their enterprise though remaining subservient to Dagon, to the economy.

Although the Philistines seem to be more adept theologians than the Israelites in this story, it is obvious that they still lack clarity.  The story of the Exodus is remembered, but it is also quickly forgotten by the Philistines.

God had dethroned Pharaoh, a proclaimed god, whose economic practice made slaves out of people.  Pharaoh’s insatiable desire for more created an environment of amassing great wealth at the expense of the poor and the weak – in this case, the Hebrews.  Pharaoh did not allow anyone to challenge his system, his kingdom.  Pharaoh represents a system of scarcity that must always build more storehouses for his grain and do so by demanding more “bricks” and more productivity from those who do not enjoy the benefits of their labor.  The Philistines neglect the story of Pharaoh, failing to recognize their own similar practices of oppression, dominance, and extortion.  And, as such, they fail to remember the radical call of YHWH to cease the economics of scarcity that grasp and hoard YHWH’s abundant provision in the Creation for all.

The next morning the Philistines go to worship Dagon but find him face down before the Ark.  Thinking that it was merely a fluke, an accident, the people raise up the idol to its proper standing position.  Notice the god cannot help himself.  The people prop up Dagon, expecting him to stand – this god is too big to fail, after all.

The next morning the people return to the Temple of Dagon.  Again, they find Dagon prostrate before the Ark.  This time, however, Dagon’s head and hands have broken off.  Dagon is dead.  YHWH will not play second fiddle, nor be coerced into blessing that which is counter to God’s character and nature of Holy Love.  Dagon, patron of manipulative economic practices, falls apart before a God of abundant generosity.  Dagon is found to be no god at all, but a visible reminder of a broken system of exploitation that results in death and destruction.

Chaos breaks out in the community of Ashdod.  Their practices of taking advantage of their neighbor now comes back upon their head.  Just as Pharaoh’s attempt at genocide by waters comes crashing down upon him and his army, now, the Philistine’s practices of greedy grasping through any means necessary implodes.  To their credit, they recognize that God is acting against their way of politics and economics – represented by Dagon.  God’s “hand is heavy against them.”

But, instead of ridding themselves of Dagon, they rid themselves of YHWH.  They oust YHWH from their halls and send YHWH on “down the road.”  If YHWH cannot be controlled and part of their way of life, then they don’t need to change but must send God away.  God is too dangerous because God might very well expect us to live differently… there’s just too much to lose by leaving Dagon on the floor.  To leave Dagon on the floor might mean changing the way we treat our neighbors.  It might require that we don’t exact violence against them or compete against them.  It might honestly require that we live on less so that others can share in the bounty of Creation.  But, following Dagon is just so… well, it’s just so comfortable and we can’t forsake “the Dream.”

So, regardless of how patched up Dagon looks, we brush him off, pick him up off the floor, and try to cement him back together as much as possible.  It’s easier to ignore what has happened than to truly consider that we have misplaced our hope.  We like the idea of YHWH being in our house… so long as YHWH doesn’t shake things up too much.  But, as soon as YHWH begins to challenge our allegiances… “That’s it, YHWH, please leave!”

Ashdod and its inhabitants aren’t sure where to send the Ark.  The city of Gath decides to give the Ark a try.  Perhaps Ashdod simply was ignorant and didn’t understand how to properly use YHWH.  After all, you can’t use a hammer like a screwdriver.  YHWH, in the proper hands, could be wielded as “spiritual technology” to champion the nation’s cause.

Try as they might, Gath discovers the same thing that Ashdod did.  YHWH will not be “boxed in.”  Tumors and something like the plague breaks out in Gath.  The people are in panic.  Gath plays “hot potato” with the Ark and sends it to Ekron.  But, Ekron doesn’t want it for long because they have seen the devastating effect of allowing YHWH to come into their midst.  YHWH is far too disruptive of their lives to be welcome there.

The five Philistine lords convene to decide what to do with the Ark.  They conclude that it would be best to “’Send away the ark of the God of Israel, and let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.’ For there was a deathly panic throughout the whole city. The hand of God was very heavy there; those who did not die were stricken with tumors, and the cry of the city went up to heaven” (1 Sam. 5:11-12).

God’s judgment falls upon the nation of Philistia, as it had upon Israel, due to its economic, political, and military practices that preyed upon vulnerable neighbors.  One can recall the story of Gideon threshing grain while hiding out of fear that the Philistines would attack and take what little food they had.  Now, those very systems that live off the backs of those it has enslaved (namely, the poor and those without power) are brought under judgment.  The walls erected by practices of greed and competition buckle, crumbling down.

The Ark is packed up on a cart pulled by two heifers.  The collective sigh of relief by the Philistines can be heard as the Ark disappears over the ridge, headed back to Israel.  YHWH proved too difficult to control and unwilling to bend.  It was too risky for YHWH to remain where YHWH might disrupt life as it was.  The Philistines were relieved when the glory departed.

The glory of God was something that would not be compromised for any nation.  It was a glory that demanded entire allegiance – nothing else was to be in the place of honor that belonged to God.  God would not be used, coerced, or manipulated as a seal of approval for systems and politics that created death and destruction for the weak and needy of those societies.  God’s glory would not bow before the market.  Rather, it was the economic system of grabbing and grasping that finally had to prostrate itself before God.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes: “The good which God does to us can only be experienced as the truth if we share in performing it… we must do the truth in love… not only in order to perceive the truth of the good but, equally, in order to embody it increasingly in the world… This is possible because it is already a reality for God and through God” (Theo-Drama: Prolegomena, 20).

Both Israel and Philistia fail to comprehend the good God is doing because they refuse to live out God’s way of being in the world, which is about life-giving, life-blessing, and life-sustaining.  To live otherwise is to create an environment of death, both for our neighbors and for ourselves.

To hold tightly to our idols is to hold tightly to our own lives.  Jesus cautions that “those that hold onto their lives will lose their life.”  Eli’s empire crumbles under the weight of its own greed (1 Samuel 4).  Now, the Philistine community is rupturing from its oppressive economic practices.  If we believe that we can bring YHWH into our lives without also cleaning house, we will be extremely surprised when YHWH begins to shake things up.  YHWH will not turn a blind eye to the idols that we continuously erect.  We very well might find them smashed, laying on the floor in a rubble heap.  God desires our entire lives, our entire devotion, all of our love.  Holding onto “God and (insert any name)” is idolatry that betrays where our hope really lies.

We can respond as the Philistines, though they know the story of YHWH, and try to prop Dagon back up on his feet.  We can ignore God’s claims as the rightful King that calls for our loyalty and love.  Or, our response might be to sweep Dagon up off the floor and throw him in the trash bin where he belongs.

A young man that was a little troubled attended church one morning.  The community was a little wary of him because you never knew what he was going to do.  The pastor preached a powerful sermon on smashing the community’s idols.  That’s all that idols are good for – smashing them!  The church service ended and everyone went home.

However, the young man took the sermon quite literally.  Idols should be smashed.  He later returned to the church with a sledge hammer and destroyed a statue of an angel sitting in one of the flower beds.  The young man had lived out the sermon.  The pastor had figuratively meant that idols should be smashed, but one could hardly say that the young man had not live out the sermon – even if misunderstood.  It may have appeared wild and crazy to the church-goers, yet the young man had demonstrated in a tangible way what it means for us to smash those idols that we hold dear.

The community of faith has time and time again been tempted to follow the gods of economic prosperity.  We have been tempted to bow the knee at the shrine of personal gain at the expense of our neighbor.  We have even willingly validated violent means for holding on to our economic and political security, sometimes while naming God as the one who goes before us to fight our battles.

Would it be fair to say that like Gath, Ashod and Ekron the divisive, destructive nature of politics in our culture might actually be God’s hand against us?  Might we have mistaken just how much God is on our side when we fail to live out God’s call to be a “blessing to all nations?”  Has the death and destruction, blaming and fighting among us sufficiently demonstrated that God will not be pressed into service for any nation or system?

The Scriptures remind us that there will come a time “when every knee shall bow in heaven and on earth and below the earth and every tongue shall confess that Jesus is Lord.”  There will come a time when we will “cry out to heaven” in recognition of the part we have played in living counter to God’s Kingdom.  But, I pray that we will not wait until we are watching the presence of the Lord disappear over the horizon beyond our sight, saying “the glory has departed.”

Lent is a time of repentance, turning away from our broken and sinful ways.  It is a time of recognizing our idolatry, the things that we worship beside God.  And, it is a time of dying to our selfish desires and practices and replacing them with God’s love that overflows as love to our neighbors.  In other words, we pick up our cross and follow Jesus.

We crucify the deeds of the flesh that are death and receive the Spirit of life while we “work out our salvation.”  Lent calls for us to smash our idols and give singular focus to God as the only One worth giving honor, praise, and glory forever.  It is the call to embody God’s holy love, for that is the only way to comprehend God’s good truth.  It’s time to recognize that our idols won’t stand.

Practice Makes Perfect: Ritual, Routine, and Rites

There seems to be a great amount of distrust in the Evangelical church of anything that resembles ritual.  I’ve grown up in that tradition and for many years had the same assumption.  Repeated exercises robbed the exercise of its power.  In psychology, that is known as the Law of Diminishing Returns.  As the novelty wears off, the activity seems to produce less response in our brains.  This is usually understood when it comes to things like addictions, in particular.  But, it can be applied to other areas as well.

Our aversion to ritual is not only found in this notion of diminishing returns.  We have a history connected with the Protestant Reformation that saw the abuses of a Church that had become so enamored with rituals that it seemed to walk away from its Christological center.  Thus, we conclude, rituals are to be avoided because they might somehow compromise what is most important.

Here, it might be helpful to move to a different realm of life to explore this idea.  Every year my wife and I celebrate each other’s birthdays.  We celebrate holidays (i.e., holy days) with family and friends.  We tell each other “I love you” every day – sometimes even when we don’t “feel” it.  We both show each other love by doing things the other loves, sharing time with each other, and talking about things we’ve talked about together a million times before.  If ritual and routine were seen as something less than genuine, we might conclude that we don’t have a relationship at all.  But, then again, that would be silly.  Our love is demonstrated to one another through the traditions and routines we have constructed together and some that we have inherited together.  Love is played out in the routine, normal, everyday occurrences that make up our lives.  It is the mundane moments of our routines together that continue to shape our love for one another.  If either one of us were to stop these routines in our relationship, it would communicate something less than care for the other.  It might even be received as rejection.

Now, there can come a moment when those “rituals” that construct our lives as a married couple cease to be heartfelt or genuine.  They can become opportunities to go through the motions.  But, that does not mean, again, that we should conclude that the rituals are bad.  I will continue to tell Becca I love her because there is value in that routine.  As such, the routine may not need to be discontinued.  Rather, it may need to be re-engaged with intentionality on our part.  The attitude with which we act upon those routines can make a significant difference.  And, in addition, I will find that those routines help continue to shape my love in tangible ways – even if, as I mentioned before, my heart is “not in it” at the moment.

When it comes to the traditions, rituals, routines, and sacraments of the Church, it’s important to remember that not every ritual is worth reviving.  However, many of the traditions that we have in the Church have been passed down to us because they have demonstrated their capacity, through the work of the Spirit, to shape our lives in helpful, healthy ways.  They have been valued been many generations of faithful because they have experienced these disciplines as great means by which God works in the lives of the faithful.

It is unusual that in a tradition that has sometimes warned against traditions and rituals that they are the most vehement about maintaining regular practices of church attendance, Bible reading, and prayer.  Whether they do that or not remains to be seen.  They recognize the value of rituals and routines, although they would debate as to which are important and necessary.  But, I think it’s a good start to recognize that EVERY church has routines and rituals – some good, some bad, some ugly.  The question is to then discern which traditions, rituals, and routines are true “means of grace.”

We also should address the Law of Diminishing Returns for things like the sacrament of communion.  Many fuss over the loss of meaning if one should take communion too often.  If the sacraments are something that we do, then I would agree that is correct.  Our experience would diminish given enough repetition.  However, if the sacraments are something that God gives and imbues with God’s grace and something that we receive, then the argument doesn’t hold much water for the very simple reason that we cannot exhaust God’s grace!  This is the very basis of the sacraments and the means of grace.  They are God’s gift to the Church as ways of growing in grace.

John Wesley often encouraged his parishioners and ministers to take communion as often as possible.  Sometimes he took it multiple times a day because he understood it to be a means of grace and not something that we accomplish.  Wesley recognized that it was a practice that shaped us in profound ways, even if one could not “feel” or “sense” a difference in that moment.  Yet, even in the mundane moments of communion, Wesley believed God was at work.

Practice makes perfect, not because we are achieving something, because we are cooperating with the grace that God is giving us.  Practice makes perfect for the very reason that we are equipped by the Spirit to be what God calls us to be (this is the Aristotelian over the Platonist view of perfection), not because we are without flaw.  Further, practice makes perfect because we are being trained to love God and neighbor with a greater depth than we could before.

I once heard a story, although I cannot recall where I read it, about a man that came to fully appreciate the practices of the Church.  Every Sunday that church he attended would receive communion.  It is the sacrament that constantly reminds us of the forgiveness which we have received and also of the ways that we participate in the very life of Christ as His Body.  This man’s son began to act out and in ways that were damaging and detrimental to his life.  It went on for some time and there was nothing the man could do but watch the destructive path his son had decided to take.  However, there came a moment where the son came and asked forgiveness from his father for all the things he had done to him.  The father recalled all the times he had taken communion and how he had received God’s grace and forgiveness at the Table.  Those times of practice and routine now shaped his loving, forgiving response of reconciliation with his son.  Practice made perfect.

The Church as Rat Race

Anxiety.  It presses in on you in nearly imperceptible ways.  You don’t always notice that you’ve been caught up in the cycle.  Your best intentions were to never get caught up in the rat race.  But, there you are, sitting there trying to figure out a way to squeeze every bit of efficiency you can from people and the organization.  Productivity, quantifiable productivity, is generally the measure of success.  We may say that’s not true, but one need only look at the end of year reporting to see what’s really valued – numbers.  We are told that a truly gifted leader knows how to achieve the numbers.  The implied logic says that those who don’t achieve, well, they probably never had the vision to begin with or lost it along the way.  That’s the power of numbers.

Numbers can be helpful.  We’ve learned that much.  Numbers can tell us a story.  But, in order to arrive at that story, the numbers must be interpreted.  What do they REALLY mean?  Rob Staples gave insightful counsel when it comes to measuring growth.  He essentially remarked that many things grow quickly, not all of them helpful.  He continued by saying that cancer grows quickly but we wouldn’t think that a good thing for the health of the body.  Numbers may tell us a story about our lives together, but it must be discerned with wisdom.

But, therein lies the problem: wisdom.  In our lust for growing the organization, we have often sacrificed our relationships, our calling, and our ecclesiology (our understanding of the church).  We have created CEO’s, not pastors, that were great at running church like a business, hitting milestone after milestone of growth.  But, when it comes to spiritual depth in the church, we are severely lacking.

Now, we have become concerned about a shrinking Church.  More and more people, it seems, are leaving our doors.  The blame is placed on those leaving or the pastors that seemingly fail at “leadership.”  Rather than learning from our past mistakes, we have only intensified the call to LEAD.  Be better managers.  We haven’t stopped to consider that shrinking congregations may be a symptom of our own discipleship efforts.  Our people are living out their discipleship, which sees the Church as unnecessary or as another entertainment among many options.

Leadership based on “quantifiable growth” does damage to the Body of Christ for it treats pastors and people as commodities.  The people in the church then become expendable.  (Again, growth isn’t necessarily bad, but it is not the goal of the Church).  If they aren’t “producers” adding to the numeric growth, then they are seen as hindrances to the “vision.”  This is where the anxiety is created.  Pastors and churches are weighed and often found wanting when this is the criteria.  This creates an environment that is unable to value other things that are significant in the life of a congregation.

This “leadership” not only demeans the gift that each person is to the Church, but it also creates a poor ecclesiology that operates from hierarchy.  The priesthood of all believers is given over to the professionals.  Or, pastors under pressure to perform create an environment of anxiety in their own churches so that burnout happens within our people.  Sabbath is denied, scorned.  It’s never a good thing when the Church begins to operate more like Egypt, pushing for a higher quota of “bricks” and productivity.  It becomes oppressive and enslaving.  The result is death.

Death from this kind of leadership has been on full display.  In fact, we may be keeping the Kansas City Star in business with the headlines that have filled their pages.  Leadership looking at the bottom line has silenced the Gospel, been found lacking in integrity, and created chaos that have left families unemployed, people in the Church bickering, and political posturing that undermines the trust that people have placed in their “leaders.”

We don’t need leaders.  We need followers.  Shepherds that are willing to follow Jesus as those who embody the Kingdom.  We don’t need leaders.  We need followers.  Followers who are servants to the flock, who feed the sheep.  We don’t need leaders.  We need followers.  Followers who are walking the way of Jesus, picking up our cross and emptying ourselves for the sake of others.  We don’t need leaders.  We need followers.  Followers that recognize that we are in this together – both in receiving God’s vision for the Church and for living out that vision together.  We don’t need leaders.  We need followers that don’t “lord it over others.”

The Church is longing for those who would help us to keep our eyes on Jesus, not the latest leadership style.  We don’t need more techniques.  We require deeper theological reflection for living as the community called “sent.”  We don’t need to be reminded of all the ways that we are inadequate producers; we need shepherds that help us to collectively confess our sins (it should be modeled).  We don’t need another seminar on planting churches “because that’s the most effective way to grow the Church.”  We desperately desire to see the lives of those in authority authentically following the Master’s cruciform life.


Ephesians 1:3-6 Considered: Chosen and Destined

Here’s the text from Ephesians 1:3-6:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.


This text is a contentious battleground for many within Christian circles.  The tension revolves around the issue of predestination and free will.  More than that, it’s about the way God uses power.  Or, to say it another way, what kind of power is it that God wields?

The predestination camp, if I can call it that,  argument goes something like this.  Even before God created the heavens and the earth (i.e., “the foundation of the world”), God ordained/predestined those who would be saved and those that would not.  In other words, God’s grace is reserved for those that He has chosen to save.  The others are just clay vessels made for destruction.  The whole idea revolves around God’s power – omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence.  This scenario posits that if God has predestined something, and God knows the future, and God cannot lie, then it would seem that the creature really has no say in whether or not they receive God’s grace.  Of course, there are more nuanced arguments from this camp, but I’m wrestling with this basic tenet: God predestines some for salvation

Here’s a basic problem with this idea.  If God chooses those He would save before there is sin (i.e., “before the foundations of the world”), then sin is actually a creation of God.  If God is all-powerful, why didn’t God’s predestination work prior to sin with Adam and Eve?  If it didn’t work, does that mean, since we don’t have free will in this scenario, that God wills us to sin?  And, if God wills us to sin, then isn’t God the Creator of sin?  If God creates sin then sin is actually good and to be lauded.

However, this is not the scriptural testimony.  Scripture tells us that God is good and abhors sin.  Sin is not something God has created.  Rather, to quote C. S. Lewis, sin is the absence of the good, even as darkness is the absence of light.  It is not something that exists, per se.  But, sin is known by that which is absent, namely God’s goodness.  For God to choose for some to choose sin (that which is not God) would be for God to choose that which is not God as well.  In so many ways, this violates God’s simplicity – which is to say that God will not choose something that contradicts God’s character and nature, holy love.

Free will helps us navigate this issue.  I’m aware of issues with free will, but the concept as a whole helps us comprehend this text in a more holistic light.  First, predestination can be seen as God’s love-infused hope for His Creation.  This was the purpose from the beginning, the Creation would “holy and blameless before Him in love.”  I now have a young daughter.  My hope for her is that she will grow up to live this out as well.  Everything that I do for her is to aid in this development.  But, it could be the case that she rejects my hopes for her and wanders toward other things.  If our relationships naturally give space for free will, then it would seem odd that we have no free will.  And, indeed, it would suggest that God has created a deceptive world (another theological problem!).

The issue is one of power for those in the free will camp, just like the predestination camp.  The biggest distinction is the manner in which God uses such power.  For the predestination camp, it is about power that maintains God’s holiness as distinct separation from the Creation.  For the free will camp, God’s power is manifested as holy love, which allows the creature to freely accept or reject God’s love.  (True love requires response, which can easily be rejected.  If there is inability to respond, then it is not love.)

The question that is appropriate to ask at this point is whether or not we believe God set the Creation up for failure.  Or, perhaps, the Creation (via humanity) rejected God’s love.  Yet, in God’s love God did not give up on the Creation but sought to redeem it.  St. Irenaeus of Lyon has a beautiful way of summarizing this picture.  God in Christ Jesus became everything that we are so that through Christ Jesus we might become everything that God is by His very nature.  Or, to put it in the words of Ephesians: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.”


An insightful lecture on the issues surrounding God’s will trumping human will is given by Eleonore Stump at the Los Angeles Theology Conference:  The lecture reflects on atonement and Eucharist.  Some of her framework is enlightening for thinking through this issue of free will.