build

Can’t Drain the Swamp

Luke 4:21-30; Jeremiah 1:4-10

Pastoral Prayer: Lord God, it is easy for us to get tied to things as they are. After all, it is what we know and have known. We admit that we really like Jesus’ message of planting and building his Kingdom. We do find it hard that Jesus also challenges our idols. We fear what we might lose. Help us, Lord, to see that grace is greater than all our sin. And all God’s people say, Amen.

Ecologists tell us that it is not good to drain the swamp. Plant and animal life need the available water to survive. Remove the water and there is a rupture in the ecosystem. Things die. Rebecca Harrington noted in a piece for the Business Insider, written in 2016, that the practice of draining swamps was popular when malaria was a problem in the U.S. and Europe. Keep the mosquito population down and maybe you could reduce the incidence. 

If there is anything we know, we have not rid the planet of mosquitos. Do you really think we could? 

Human beings cannot drain the swamp, you know, the one Ronald Reagan called for in 1980. Reportedly it had been found that there was $424 billion dollars of waste that could be cut from the Federal Budget. Drain the swamp. Reagan appointed the Grace Commission. After the report was combed through, it was learned that the writers had included in their numbers items that were necessary, not wasteful. The recommendations were never implemented.

The phrase stuck. Anytime you need to rally voter sentiment in one direction or the other, just shout, Drain the Swamp. I suspect that had the phrase not been first used in 1903, it may well have been floated in Israel. Think about it. Over the course of 208 years, Israel, even if divided between North and South, suffered through 38 kings. Of those 38, 33 were considered evil kings and only 5 deserve the description righteous, or good. Human begins can’t drain the swamp.

What is it? Well, Washington, or Jerusalem, seem like handy scapegoats. Blame those leaders for all the ill in their respective countries. But, before you decide to do just that, remember, those swamps are filled with people just like us. Don’t forget, Israel asked for a king. With all the sadness he could muster, Samuel relayed the words from God. He told them what would happen should they get a king,

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers.  He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants.  He will take the tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and to his servants.  He will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men[a] and your donkeys, and put them to his work.  He will take the tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.  And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.

For more than 200 years the people lived most of their time under the rule of kings that gave them what they wanted. Or, maybe it would be better to say, they served under kings that produced for them the sort of leadership that magnified their own faithlessness.

Have we learned much?

Before Israel’s captivity in Babylon, Jeremiah heard a call from the Lord. YHWH, Israel’s God, had given the young man a commission. For 40 years his voice could be heard. Jeremiah describes God’s actions and the content of his message,

Then the LORD reached out his hand, touched my mouth, and told me:

I have now filled your mouth with my words.

See I have appointed you today

over nations and kingdoms

to uproot and tear down,

to destroy and demolish,

to build and plant.

If you are keeping score, that is four verbs that describe demolition and two verbs that paint the picture of renewal. That is a 2 to 1 ratio of words that foretell loss. Some get distracted. They think this is about Jeremiah. What we find in the Scriptures is that Jeremiah is God’s object, not his subject. That is, the story is about God renewing and restoring. He describes God’s activity. Before there is building and planting, those things in the way of faithfulness must be torn down. Focusing on Jeremiah would reveal a prophet of little success. Jeremiah was saddened. No amount of positive thinking would change the very real landscape of a people who could not drain the swamp. They could not see they helped create the swamp. 

Jeremiah is often referred to as the Weeping Prophet for he exclaimed,

If my head were a flowing spring,

my eyes a fountain of tears,

I would weep day and night

over the slain of my dear people.

Compare these words of Jesus,

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her. How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.

Nearly six centuries had passed between the fall of Jerusalem and the time of Jesus. Yet, the message given Jeremiah rings in the words used to describe the Messiah.

He has done a mighty deed with his arm;

he has scattered the proud

because the thoughts of their hearts;

he has toppled the mighty from their thrones

and exalted the lowly.

He has satisfied the hungry with good things

and sent the rich away empty.

And these words,

Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed – and a sword will pierce your own soul – that the thoughts of many hearts many be revealed.

A sign that will be opposed – the hearts of many will be revealed.

Uproot. 

Tear Down. 

Destroy. 

Demolish.

Jesus had just stood to proclaim the very words spoken about him by his mother had come to pass,

Today as you listen, this Scripture has been fulfilled.

Quickly the crowds buzzed with enthusiasm. The idea that the LORD had sent someone to change the system, topple the institutions of oppression, to break up the monopoly of power energized the crowd toward Jesus. Luke records, 

They were all speaking well of him and were amazed at his gracious words that came from his mouth;

Even in their praise of Jesus, the witnesses to his work in Capernaum, and the way he handled the Scriptures, they could not get beyond what they saw,

Isn’t this Joseph’s son?

Firmly stuck in the world as it is, the people poured cold water on their own enthusiasm. Did you get that? Gracious words of deliverance. Amazing words of promise. Despite the hope in Jesus’ words, they built a wall and dared Jesus to scale it. And just like that, Jesus did not opt for positive thinking. He began to uproot their ideas of what is. He called attention to the sort of thinking that needed to be destroyed. He spoke in such a way as to demolish their dependence on more than the very words of God. Jesus demolished their reliance on their own judgement. He exposed the swamp.

And to be a sign that is opposed – that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.

We not only hear the themes of Jeremiah’s words in Jesus’ preaching, we witness the living out of those words in the life of Jesus. Rather than evoke images through words, God made clear in Jesus what filled the hearts of people. Try as we might to paint a better picture by downplaying the walls we build and emphasizing our confidence in human potential, human history does not lie. 

And that is what Jesus does. He tells them history does not lie. When the people were faithless, God sent the prophet Elijah to a foreigner, some outsider, a widow. When people were faithless, God sent Elisha to Syria, to an outsider. Plenty were hungry in Israel  during famine and many were afflicted by leprosy in Israel, but their lack resulted in God showing up elsewhere. Lest we think God only shows up among us, that we can wall God into our tribe, our group, these stories demonstrate how God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.

Telling the people their story did not convince them. Instead it exposed them. Rather than own their faithlessness, they became engaged at Jesus. They drove him out of the synagogue – for us the church – and brought him to the edge of a cliff and intended to hurl him over the cliff and be rid of him. 

But, it was not his time.

Hear me please. Jeremiah was given words that pointed to the creation of a new community – one built upon the faithfulness of God amidst the faithlessness of people. Jesus embodied those very words and plants a new community built upon his faithfulness to do for us what we cannot. We don’t rely on human beings to drain the swamp, we trust in Jesus who by his death and Resurrection drain the swamp of its power and influence over us. In fact, if you like a more vivid picture of the Gospel, Jesus entered the swamp and took all of its infectious parasites that represent the Power of Sin that build walls, structures and institutions that keep us sin sick, to borrow from the old evangelists. In his body he bore the disease that kills us and suffered death that comes from our exposure to those parasites. Then to demonstrate the power of God over our disease, in the Resurrection, Jesus tore down, uprooted, demolished and destroyed our enemies so that in us He may create a new community of hope.

Often I take a manuscript into the pulpit. The preached sermon will vary. Here is a link to the preached sermon.

Kings Do What Kings Do: Temple, Church, People and Housing God (Pt.2)

When I think of other reasons to consider choosing someone else to build God a house I think, “Why no mention of his indiscretion with Bathsheba? Why no reference to the murder of Uriah? No inner turmoil for ignoring the rape of his daughter?”

You may need to pick this up by reading, or re-reading Part 1.

It sure seems a case could be made, and in modern times by Christians is regularly made, that killing in war is justifiable. We still get incensed at the killing of innocents, the mistreatment of the powerless, and the abuse of others. At least that is our claim. Telling the leaders it was because of his military service and the accompanying shedding of blood that kept him from constructing the temple sounded better than admitting his own egregious actions. But, kings do what kings do.

And, kings say what kings say. When David concludes his speech to the leaders about the future, legacy-marking event in the temple, the leaders pledge their money. I do not mean to be crass, but this sure sounds like a good fund raising campaign. “Here is what I am setting aside for the building.” Implied, at least in how we practice it, is the expectation that those under the king would follow the king’s lead. And they did.

How does the story function? Why did the narrator not give us Nathan’s words as to why David was denied the privilege to build the temple? Please engage in something more than, “because it is there in black and white.” Doing so ignores the complexity of the story. A reason coming from the prophet would give the reason more credence. Maybe this is David’s version. Invoking the language of Divine sanction continues to this day. Sometimes it has been used to justify a position or an action that is really exposed to be our position or an action resulting from our agency, not God’s. That the Scriptures may include illustrations of this sort of thing for us to be wary of should not be surprising.

Dare I suggest that during my conversation with Guy yesterday he pointed out that we might miss some levity in the story? That is, knowing there would be readers of the story, the details may be intended for us to find humor in David being the one to offer the reason for his denial and that it was his military background not his moral fiascos. This should not be lost on us as a possibility lest we make the same mistakes. Can you think of a few?

What lies beneath? Consider the conversation between Samuel and YHWH. The pattern is established. The people observe the way others order and structure themselves and believe the material reality of a king is more to their liking than a spiritual reality only heard from via a prophet/priest. It is not that they really want to shun God’s presence. But, to gain standing among all nations they believe, or so it seems, a comparable order must be established for them to be taken seriously. “Give us a king.”

Follow that pattern and re-read God’s response to Nathan when the matter of a temple, a house, comes up. YHWH needs no house. How do you house a presence so ubiquitous as to be everywhere? God replays his interactions with his people. It is as if to say, “I need no house. It is you who think I need a house.” And, in similar fashion, God gave them instructions for a temple as he did in giving a king. What if God gives us what we want even if what we say we want we already have? Is that not Israel’s dilemma? They wanted a king – they had one. They wanted a temple – they had one.

Where would David have gotten the idea to house God? He saw them in the places he conquered. What would happen when the people determined to house God? Presence is consolidated and controlled. By the time Jesus stands in Luke 4, preserving the house and its accompanying ritual and rigor become the means of honoring God rather than what Jesus would propose and later Paul would radicalize. Déjà vu?

“But the time is coming – and is here! – when true worshippers will worship in spirit and truth.” Not on this mountain or that. Not in this house or that. Paul extends the thought. People are the house of God’s dwelling. “Don’t you know your body is the temple of God?”

Nevermind that Jesus talks of the destruction of the temple, the building or his body, we miss that we cannot house God in a temple or in a church. We say we know this but then fight tooth and nail to keep the constituency happy enough to contribute and maintain our own structures and systems.

These attempts to house God miss that the language of the Sacred Text. People house God’s presence. The implication is two-fold, at least. First, the mission of God then becomes incumbent on the person(s) who lay claim to being Christian. By mission I do not mean the narrow vision of personal evangelism. I mean participation in the multi-faceted mission that at its core is the agenda of Jesus to reconcile the world to himself. Second, if Christians ever hope to offer a hopeful call to the Nones, the de-churched, or post-churched, the skeptic and the cynic, it will come when we discontinue our efforts to take back perceived places of Christian privilege wherein we house God in our structures and institutions and instead illustrate how God is housed in us.

For, even to Jesus’ critics he says, “the Kingdom of God is within you.”

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Kings Do What Kings Do: Temple, Church, People and Housing God (Pt.1)

It all started with a question. That a pastor gets asked a question about the Bible is not uncommon.

Reading through the Old Testament prompted a young lady to wrestle with the exchange between David and Nathan over David’s desire to build God a house. The narrators of 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles recount the tale. In fact, reading the account in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17 reveals nearly a word for word telling of the same story.

What stirred the question was the oft-told reason why David was not allowed to build the Temple – “you are a military man and you’ve shed blood.” You may recognize this from later in 1 Chronicles. But, let’s stay with the sequence.

Reading the conversation between Nathan and David indicates that the prophet told the king he should do what he desired, “the Lord is with you.” Kings do what kings do. Samuel told the people the same. They had asked for a king. Samuel told them they would receive a king. He also included the dark side of having a king – the king will do what kings do.

Troubled by the missing reason for denying David his desire to build a temple in the immediate text, the young lady asked, “I have heard this all my life, that David could not build the temple because he shed blood. But, it is not in the narrative where you would expect. What to make of that?” I told her I would revisit those two passages. Sure enough her concerns were legitimate. Nathan told the king – “You are not the one.” This is the same prophet who told him, “You are the one.”

Accompanying the words given Nathan to tell David was an aggrandizing of David, a lionizing of his name. “Your dynasty and your kingdom will be secured forever before me.” But, no reason was given for denying him his aim to build God a house. None.

The matter settled for a period. I have wrestled with this for some time. Time and circumstance let it lie. I concluded that we really do not know why. That is, until Sunday evening.

Several of us were having a conversation about the genealogy of our understanding of the Bible. We are working through Gordon Fee’s, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. We have explored context – historical and literary. We looked at how our understanding is enhanced when we get a better picture of the period in which the Text was written. Separation and lift damages the Sacred Text. 2013 is not the same as the period the Chronicler is covering. That we have the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles covering and overlapping the same time frames should give us pause to consider the way history is told and re-told. I digress.

We finished some very good discussion. My Dad, who is part of our church, approached me. I had used the illustration of my conversation with the young lady and how we do not always hear or read critically. He opened his Bible, a habit I have observed since I can remember. He said, “I think you will find your answer here.” He pointed to 1 Chronicles 28. Sure enough, there it was, “you are a military man, you’ve shed blood.” The narrator decided to hold in reserve the reason for the denial of David’s desire. He gave it to us in David’s speech. I called the young lady and suggested she take a look at 1 Chronicles 28. Case closed.

Not so fast. Kings do what kings do. And, kings say what kings say. Those who view David’s words as the words he was supposed to say, stay with me for a moment. That David’s words are here and have become inscripturated is not my concern. I believe what we have is intentional.

The questions the personal episode have generated turn on the matter of how the story functions. I am wondering about larger themes. Particularly whether or not it could be argued the story functions as the first tragic move to house God. If so, then our continued attempts to house God become a farce. Or in simpler terms, we have not learned anything from the past. Worse, our feverish attempts to keep God housed in institutional frameworks provide the energy for the ongoing support of an empty ideology – that we have God. God may not be housed.

Kings do what kings do. Samuel said they would. David wanted to build a house for God. He planned it and he led the fund raising campaign for it. Is it not a bit ironic? David gathers the leaders to tell them of this future, legacy-marking event. He tells them God denied him the joy of building the temple for his military lifestyle.

Have you ever considered the irony? At least I find it odd. God leads the charge in David’s kingdom expanding exploits. David references God who gave him victory. The people exclaim that David has “slain his ten-thousands” in euphoric hyperbole. Remember the refrain came after Goliath’s death.

In an admittedly odd sense, you have the temporal illustration of the Divine promise, “sit here while I make your enemies your footstool.” David simply works to eradicate Israel’s enemies from the Land of Promise. This is the land God gave them. God, according to David, sanctions his military exploits. The enemies of Israel are now under their footstool. Why would that be cause to keep him from building the Temple? Blood letting and sacrifice run deep in Israel’s history. Keeping a central location helps the community. Correct?

Reading David’s speech left me wondering. There seem to be other, better, reasons more fitting to keep David from building God a house. Was a house even necessary? Have we ever asked where the desire derived?

To Be Continued . . .

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