“Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek.” – John Muir → Once upon a time, there was a man named John. John was born in a small coastal town in Scotland, but when he was 11 years old, his family emigrated to America and settled in one of the wildest, wooliest places on earth: Wisconsin. Portage, to be exact. Being a dutiful son, when he got older, John went to college and began a career in mechanical invention. It was the 1860, and John was riding the powerful, unstoppable wave of the Industrial Revolution … but John got a little too caught up in that wave. Four years after graduating from college and beginning his career, John was involved in an industrial accident that nearly cost him his eye. Instead of returning to such a perilous career, John Muir devoted himself to nature.
Walked from the Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico (wrote a book about it published posthumously: A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf)
Traveled extensively in parts of the southwest (Utah and Nevada) and along the west coast of the U.S. (California, Oregon, Washington, even Alaska) → first to propose theory that the incredible natural Yosemite formations were made by glacial erosion (widely accepted today)
1876: embarked on what would be his most important contribution: advocating for forest conservation
Published myriad of articles in magazines
Differed from his contemporaries who wanted to establish protected land but also utilize the resources of that land → Muir’s approach: lands should be preserved in their entirety and off-limits to development/resource harvesting of any/all kinds
Co-founded the Sierra Club along with Professor Henry Senger (Berkley, CA), an organization dedicated to environmental advocacy and protection to this day
Influential in the establishment of a number of national parks including Yosemite National Park and Sequoia National Park (California), Mount Rainier National Park (Washington), and Grand Canyon National Park (Arizona)
Photography (bulletin cover photo): recognized the impact visual images can have on people’s opinions and decisions → allowed him to share his profound wilderness experiences with a wider audience
“Wherever we go in the mountains, or indeed in any of God’s wild fields, we find more than we seek..” It’s easy to see how John Muir earned the nicknames “John of the Mountains” and “Father of the National Parks.” Clearly, for him, the wilderness was something to be treasured, something to be preserved and protected, something special and sacred. But for so many, “the wilderness” is something intimidating – something vast and unknown where all sorts of scary things could be hiding. Or “the wilderness” is something remote and detached from their day-to-day lives – something “out there,” something reserved for the once-in-a-lifetime family summer road trip to Yellowstone a la Clark and Ellen Griswold. Or “the wilderness” is only a commodity – wasted space to be mined and drained and developed and dominated. And yet, another of John Muir’s quotes resonates: “And into the woods I go, to lose my mind and find my soul.”
Advent = season of preparation and reflection → season meant to mirror the contemplation, self-examination, and even repentance of Lent
Notice the liturgical color for both = purple → purple = color of royalty and also of repentance
Advent = surely a season of spiritual wilderness wandering → something we usually shy away from/try to avoid … But maybe – just maybe – wilderness wandering isn’t such a bad thing after all.
Scripture presents an interesting relationship with wilderness wandering
Now, if the idea of wilderness wandering makes you nervous or uncomfortable, you are far from alone. → certainly have a history of negative wilderness wandering in the Bible
Hagar and Ishmael = forced to wander in the wilderness after Sarah’s jealously compels Abraham to expel them from his home
People of Israel = forced to wander in the wilderness for 40 yrs. when they refused to trust God after being liberated from Egypt
Jesus’ encounters with Satan in the wilderness following his baptism in the Jordan River
And while the wilderness of the Bible definitely looked different than the wilderness that John Muir dedicated his life to, it was just as wild, just as unpredictable, just as simultaneously full of delight and danger, possibility and peril. → more positive wilderness wandering experiences in Scripture
Moses wandering in the desert with sheep and encountering God in a burning bush
Elijah encountering God on Mount Horeb in the utter silence that followed the wind storm, the earthquake, and the fire
And, of course, we have another John of the Wilderness – John the Baptist. – Lk’s gospel: God’s word came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. John went throughout the region of the Jordan River, calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. This is just as it was written in the scroll of the words of Isaiah the prophet, A voice crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way for the Lord; make his paths straight. Every valley will be filled, and every mountain and hill will be leveled. The crooked will be made straight and the rough places made smooth. All humanity will see God’s salvation.” → Sound familiar? That’s our text for today – a text that speaks of wilderness wandering not in a scary sense, not wilderness wandering as a punishment or a consequence, not as something to be feared or dreaded, but as a blessing … as a comfort … as a calling. Wilderness wandering with a purpose.
Today’s text: Comfort, comfort my people! says your God. Speak compassionately to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her compulsory service has ended, that her penalty has been paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins! A voice is crying out: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert! Make a level highway in the wilderness for our God! Every valley will be raised up, and every mountain and hill will be flattened. Uneven ground will become level, and rough terrain a valley plain. The Lord’s glory will appear, and all humanity will see it together.” → Today’s text is actually a call to go out and wander in the wilderness. It’s a call to find those wild places, those rough places, those places that pull you so far outside your comfort zone you can’t even see the borders of that comfort zone anymore. Because that’s our “wilderness wandering” today, isn’t it, friends?
Wilderness wandering today = intentional time in uncomfortable spaces
Situations that tug at our growing edges
Places that look nothing like our norm
Relationships that challenge us to more clearly understand both ourselves and the other person
IMPORTANT NOTE: not dangerous places – not places/situations/relationships that put your physical, emotional, mental, or spiritual health in jeopardy
But at the same time, wilderness wandering isn’t supposed to be easy and carefree. It’s not supposed to be something taken lightly. It’s not the kind of experience from which you emerge exactly the same as you were when you went in. Wilderness wandering is supposed to both challenge and change us.
Implied in the Heb.: “Clear the Lord’s way in the desert!” → “clear” (translated “prepare” in many texts) = expectation of work and effort attached to it but also expectation of a change of course
= “turn away/turn around/turn aside”
= “concern yourself with”
= “clear up/clear away”
= “pay attention”
When you swirl all these ideas together – all of these layers of meaning – into one word, you’re left with an intentional experience that changes both the world around you and the world within you. You’re left with wilderness wandering.
Eagle Rock School outside Estes Park, CO – school that combines standard learning with wilderness experiences → from their website: “Eagle Rock School serves adolescents who are not thriving in their current situations, for whom few positive options exist, and who are interested in taking control of their lives and learning.”
Documentary follows one “patrol” (group of 9 new students) as they embark on their very first course/experience at Eagle Rock: a 24-day wilderness excursion meant to test them and encourage them and help them build relationships with each other and confidence in themselves
These students all choose to come to Eagle Rock. They recognize that the situations they’re living in at home – whatever those situations may be – aren’t the best for them, and so they apply to Eagle Rock hoping for a change. Not just a simple change. Not just a slow and easy, comfortable, nearly-undetectable change. They apply hoping for a drastic change – a change in their circumstances, a change in their outlook, a change in themselves.
You see, friends, that’s what wilderness wandering is all about – recognizing the need for something different, something new, something out-of-the-ordinary. And taking that first step – that first step into the wilderness, that first step into the unknown. Because you know what? That’s where God is.
No matter whether it was a positive wilderness experience like John the Baptist’s or a more distressing wilderness experience like Hagar and Ishmael’s, God was there in the wilderness
God found Hagar and Ishmael and provided for them
God wandered along with the people of Israel throughout those 40 yrs., protecting and leading and teaching them
God stayed with Jesus in the wilderness as he rebuffed Satan’s temptations
Moses encountered God and a whole new calling in that burning bush
Elijah heard the voice of God calling him to leave the safety of the cave and find his successor, Elisha
And of course, John the Baptist not only heard God’s call in the wilderness and found his place there but also called others to God in the wilderness, baptizing hundred in the Jordan River before Jesus himself would find John in the wilderness for the very same thing.
Today’s text: A voice was saying: “Call out!” And another said, “What should I call out?” … Go up on a high mountain, messenger Zion! Raise your voice and shout, messenger Jerusalem! Raise it; don’t be afraid; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” Here is the Lord God, coming with strength, with a triumphant arm, bringing his reward with him and his payment before him. Like a shepherd, God will tend the flock; he will gather lambs in his arms and lift them onto his lap. He will gently guide the nursing ewes.
Calling is clear – a call to call
To share the good news
To share our faith → what it is for us, what it means to us, what it’s been for us
To share our own wilderness wanderings
Comfort is clear as well → even in the midst of the difficulty and unfamiliarity and challenge of wilderness wanderings, God is with us, guiding and protecting like a shepherd caring tenderly and steadfastly for even the smallest, most vulnerable lambs in the flock
So be reassured, friends. We cannot avoid wilderness wanderings in our lives, and to be honest, we shouldn’t avoid them. Because in the wilderness, we find both a calling and a comfort.
Line from Lord of the Rings: “Not all who wander are lost …” → And to that I say, “Thanks be to God.” Now with all the love I can muster, I say, “Let’s get lost.” Amen.
[READ The Fellowship of the Ring – pp. 48-49] → “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness, bind them.” So begins probably The Most Epic quest story of all time. You know, if we had a screen, I could really nerd out for a minute and play the movie clip for you … but since we don’t, you’ll just have to make do with what has become probably one of the most famous lines in movie history: “One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
One Ring = ring of power forged by evil Lord Sauron
Purpose = basically world domination
Rule over the other rings of power
Rule over the free will of those unlucky enough to be bearers of the ring
Rule over all the various races: elves and humans, dwarves and hobbits alike
One Ring to unite all the power, all the darkness, all the evil in one single, simple-looking gold ring and impose dominion for all time – “One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.”
And throughout the entire epic adventure, Tolkien’s beloved cast of characters puts life, love, and limb on the line time and time again just to make sure that the One Ring doesn’t achieve its evil purpose of uniting all in evil and darkness. “One Ring to rule them all … One Ring to rule them all.”
Throughout the fall, we’ve been traveling through story after story in the Old Testament.
Began with the story of God creating humanity in the Garden of Eden
Touched on the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, and various kings of Israel and Judah
Lots of ups and downs in those stories
Lots of challenges
Lots of big issues and ideas to grapple with
Lots of insights into faith and God
Lots of variety in these stories, too → But throughout all of them runs one common thread: relationship.
Created by God to be in relationship with God
Offer of special, sacred relationship from God to Abraham
Offer renewed over and over again
Through Jacob with whom God wrestled → result: God gave Jacob a new name, Israel, which means “triumphant with God” (inextricable relationship implied)
Through Joseph who carried the sacred relationship to a new land: Egypt
Through Moses who renewed the relationship in a burning bush and liberation and tablets of stone and 10 commandments
Through prophets like Elijah and Hosea
Through kings like David, Solomon, and Josiah
Special name for this relationship used throughout Scripture: covenant.
Powerful word throughout Scripture – Dr. Schlimm: The fundamental idea is that God and the covenant people are bound together in the closest imaginable ways. … It’s amazing that God willingly enters into such an agreement. … [Covenant making] created a powerful bond between two parties.
Each covenant different slightly. The covenant – the sacred, binding promise – that God made with Abraham wasn’t exactly the same as the one God made with Jacob or Moses or King David. And none of them were the same as the unspoken covenant in which God created humanity – beings who could create and love and imagine and hope in God’s own image … what stronger sacred relationship could there be?! But as I said, the common thread that ran through each of those individual covenant promises was the promise of sacred, unprecedented, inimitable relationship with God Most High.
PROBLEM: in creating beings who could create and love and imagine and hope like God, God had the silly idea to give us free will → Because when you think about it, is love really love when choice is removed from the equation? If we didn’t willingly choose to love God and be in relationship with God, would it actually be a relationship … or would it be something more mundane, more passive, more subservient? So in hopes of a love more genuine and reciprocal, God gave us free will so that we could, in turn, freely choose God every minute of every day. If that’s what we choose … which time and again, we fail to do.
Failure to freely choose God = reason for so many covenants → Every time the people turned away from God, God reached out to them – through pilgrims, through prophets, through kings, through every possible way God could think of. And it would work for a while. The people would return. They would worship God lovingly and freely, reveling in that holy promise and that sacred relationship. But inevitably, the people would fall away again.
And so we come to today’s text: The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfill my gracious promise with the people if Israel and Judah. In those days and at that time, I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land. In those days, Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is what he will be called: The Lord is Our Righteousness. → And God said, “It’s time to do a new thing.” After centuries of the people falling away and returning and falling away and returning and falling away again, God knew that something different – something drastic! – needed to be done. And so God prepared to do the most drastic thing of all: to fulfill that sacred promise of relationship with humans as a human. God chose to come down to earth in the form of one of those beloved, vulnerable, messy and messed up creature God had created: us.
Way for God to fulfill that holy and unprecedented promise of relationship that God made in creation and tried so diligently and purposefully to maintain → This promise spoken through the prophet Jeremiah was truly God’s One Promise to bring all the other promises to fruition and fulfillment.
See this in the Heb. in a really interesting way – Heb. for “I will fulfill my gracious promise”
Expect “promise” to be the typical word for “covenant,” right? Nope. → The Hebrew word used here is actually “word.”
Heb. “fulfill” = complex word with lots of meanings including “recover,” “continue,” and “rise up to” → So God is essentially saying to the people, “I will rise up to the word that I gave you before. I will recover that word. I will continue that word.”
“Fulfill” also has interesting connotations both cost and belonging → So is God also implying that this new form of the promise – this re-creation and re-statement of that same sacred promise … this baby soon to be born in a stable … this God Incarnate, God-Made-Flesh, God-With-Us, Emmanuel … this fulfillment of promise in its most genuine, organic, intimate, human form ………… Is God implying that this promise will bring both belonging and cost as well?
Belonging = final, definitive, everlasting grace that welcomes us into God’s arms as children adopted through the free gift of grace offered to us through Jesus Christ
Cost = cost for both God and for us
Cost for God = painfully simple and complex at the same time → It’s as simple and as intricate, as beautiful and as brutal as the cross – the love that God displayed there, the sacrifice that God made there, the grace that was laid out for us there.
Cost for us = also simple and complex – cycles back to that pesky free will → As I said, in hopes of a love more genuine and reciprocal, God gave us free will so that we could, in turn, freely choose God every minute of every day. Choose God in the midst of easier, flashier, more instantly-gratifying options. Choose God in the midst of questions and doubts and uncertainties and fears, those of the world around us as well as those we harbor within ourselves. Choose God in the easy moments and the hard moment. Choose God in the light moments and the dark moments. Choose God in the hopeful moments and the hopeless moments. And what is sometimes hardest, choose God in all the routine, day-to-day, in between moments.
Because here’s the thing about this promise that we read today – these words from Jeremiah. They are eternal. Yes, they were spoken in a specific time and place to a specific people thousands of years ago. But their promise still stands. “I will raise up a righteous branch from David’s line, who will do what is just and right in the land … And this is what he will be called: The Lord is Our Righteousness.” He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. He will be called a prophet and a king, a rabbi and a friend, a blasphemer and a seditious radical, the One who comes in the name of the Lord and the One to be crucified. He will be called Jesus, and he will indeed be the ultimate, eternal, grace-filled fulfillment of God’s blessed and sacred promise of relationship. One Promise to rule them all, One Promise to find them, One Promise to bring them all and in a humble stable, bind them. Alleluia. Amen.
 J.R.R. Tolkien. The Fellowship of the Ring. (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin, 1966), 48-49.
 Matthew Richard Schlimm. 70 Hebrew Words Every Christian Should Know. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2018), 101, 102.
It’s time for a little truth telling, friends. I had a cute and funny opening written for this morning’s sermon – something about the return of 80s fashion and how everything comes back around for better or for worse – but when I sat down at my computer this morning, I erased it. Something about today doesn’t feel like a “cute and funny” morning. Maybe it’s because the weather is a bit dark and gloomy. Maybe it’s because of the darkness that is ever-encroaching during this time of year, eating up more and more of that precious daylight. Maybe it’s because of the somber events that we’ve witnessed on the national stage this week – impeachment hearings, continued threats from wildfires in California, and yet another school shooting, this time in Santa Clarita, CA. Maybe it’s because of some serious and difficult things going on in the lives of people I know and love. Maybe it’s just that time of year as we approach Advent – a season in the life of the church meant to be reflective and deliberate and measured. Whatever the reason, something about this morning feels like it requires a more serious, more contemplative approach to our text.
This morning’s text = a coming full circle for the people of Israel → It is a powerful moment of self-recognition, contrition, and repentance.
Story begins in a way that many of the previous stories have not – text: Josiah was 8 years old when he became king, and he ruled for thirty-one years in Jerusalem. … He did what was right in the Lord’s eyes, and walked in the ways of his ancestor David – not deviating from it even a bit to the right or left. → Remember, in pretty much all of the Old Testament stories that we’ve read recently, we’ve encountered kings who did the exact opposite – kings who did evil in the sight of God, kings who worshipped other gods and led the people of Israel to worship them as well, kings who seemed to almost go out of their way to not follow God’s guidance and commands for the people.
A couple weeks ago = King Ahab → cream of the crop when it comes to evil and corrupt kings
And so just the beginning of this morning’s Scripture reading seems to be a turning and returning … a new page … a breath of fresh air.
What follows = fascinating story about remodeling and buried treasure of sorts and utter repentance
History behind the remodel/reform (from Rev. Dr. Mark Throntveit, prof. of OT at Luther Seminary in St. Paul): It seems probable that Assyria’s rapidly diminishing power was a major factor in [Josiah’s] reforms. Since political domination in the ancient Near East usually involved participation in the conqueror’s religious practices, Josiah’s religious reforms not only witnessed to his piety, they were also a strong reassertion of Judah’s political independence from Assyrian domination. → So this Temple remodel isn’t just a little DIY project a lá HGTV.
Repairing and remodeling of the Temple = restoration and reassertion of Judah’s power and sovereignty as an independent nation in the region → restoring long-dominated and long-abused nation of Judah to a place of self-reliance and national autonomy
Repairing and remodeling of the Temple = repairing and remodeling of the faith → restore the long-neglected and long-abused Temple, and indeed, the faith of the people of Judah, to its right and sacred glory
Discovery in the midst of the renovations = hidden “book of the law”
Scholars in agreement that this is some sort of copy of the 5 books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy) – probably not the full books that we have today but some sort of collection of portions of them
Some scholars speculate it may have been hidden by previous priests in order to protect it in the face of some of the more forceful and dangerous counter-reformations of previous kings, including Josiah’s immediate predecessor – his father, Amon, as well as his predecessor before that (and grandfather), Manasseh, both of who were evil and sinful kings more along the lines of Ahab than Josiah
So one of King Josiah’s secretaries heads to the Temple in the morning to pay the workers and instead is met with this incredible discovery that was made by Hilkiah, the high priest. Hilkiah gives the scroll to this secretary who returns to the king and reads him the scroll. – text: As soon as the king heard what the Instruction scroll said, he ripped his clothes. The king ordered the priest Hilkiah …: “Go and ask the Lord on my behalf, and on behalf of the people, and on behalf of all Judah concerning us because our ancestors failed to obey the words of this scroll and do everything written in it about us.” → You can feel Josiah’s desperation and devastation in every word of this account. As soon as he hears these long-lost words of God, he is beside himself with shame and grief on behalf of himself and his people.
Heb. “kriah” = ancient tradition of expressing pain and sorrow
Mandated by Torah as part of the grieving process
1) outward expression of that torn feeling you have in your heart when you’re grieving
2) recognition that the body is only a garment that the soul wears à death is the opportunity to strip off one garment and don another
So in his response, Josiah is immediately and viscerally reacting to the spiritual disobedience of himself and his people as though it were a death – something lost, something to grieve. But perhaps there is also a layer of recognition that he and the people have the chance to strip off that outer layer of disobedience and sinfulness that they have worn for so long to expose a new layer of faithfulness beneath.
Supported by Josiah’s actions at the end of our reading – text: Then the king went up to the Lord’s temple, together with all the people of Judah and all the citizens of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets, and all the people, young and old alike. There the king read out loud all the words of the covenant scroll that had been found in the Lord’s temple. The king stood beside the pillar and made a covenant with the Lord that he would follow the Lord by keeping his commandments, his laws, and his regulations with all his heart and all his being in order to fulfill the words of this covenant that were written in this scroll. All of the people accepted the covenant.
And if that were all to the story, it would be perfect and beautiful and wrapped up nicely in a neat, little package with a bow. But friends, Scripture rarely (if ever) wraps things up that neatly for us.
On the king’s orders, Hilkiah, the high priest, seeks the counsel of Huldah, the prophetess – Huldah’s words ring out in the middle of our text: “This is what the Lord, Israel’s God, says: … I am about to bring disaster on this place and its citizens – all the words in the scroll that Judah’s king has read! My anger burns against this place, never to be quenched, because they’ve deserted me and have burned incense to other gods, angering me by everything they have done.” → As much as we may like to, friends, we cannot ignore this portion of the text. It is neither healthy nor faithful to read a story like this in Scripture and only take to heart the easy parts … the light parts … the pretty parts … the parts that make us sit comfortably and contentedly in our pews and pat ourselves on the back. Today’s Scripture is truly a text of repentance – of returning to God with hearts and souls that are woefully contrite. In order to return to God in such a way, like the people of Israel, we have to acknowledge when we’ve made a mistake. We have to actively name that mistake and claim it within our hearts and our minds. We have to own up to it and bear the consequences.
BUT this is where we find light and everlasting hope in the good news of the gospel (from Paul’s letter to the Romans): All have sinned and fall short of God’s glory, but all are treated as righteous freely by his grace because of a ransom that was paid by Christ Jesus. → Friends, God knows that we are not perfect. God has had plenty of experience with God’s people throughout the millennia to fully know and understand that we are going to make mistakes. We are going to turn away. We are going to disobey God, both intentionally and unintentionally. We are going to fall short in our relationships with one another, in our relationship with ourselves, and in our relationship with God. None of that is news to God. Trust me, God is aware. But God is also merciful and grace-filled. God is loving and steadfast in that love beyond anything we could ever imagine.
Frederica Mathewes-Green (Eastern Orthodox speaker, author, and theologian): God is not looking for repayment, but repentance. What heals a broken relationship is sincere love and contrition.
So this is what we’re going to do this morning, friends. We’re going to take an extended time to give you a chance to come to God with all those things that feel broken in your world – in your heart, in your relationships, in your faith, in your belief in yourself and God and other people. We’ve all got broken places. We’ve all got places within ourselves that are as ragged and raw on the edges as Josiah’s torn garments. Take some time to bring those before God this morning.
Symbol of the destruction that Josiah and the Israelites had to go through to find their way back to God
Symbol of the strong, steadfast nature of God in the midst of all the turbulence of our world and our lives
Prayer for wholeness:
Blessed are you, O Lord our God,
ruler of all creation.
We praise you for the abundance of your blessings.
To those who ask, you give love;
to those who seek, you give faith;
to those who knock, you open the way of hope.
Help us to serve you in the power of the Holy Spirit,
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
He was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1918, made radio receivers as a young boy, and started working at an AM talk radio station at the ripe old age of 14 when one of his teachers told him she was “impressed by his voice.” He started as a janitor, moved up to filling in on the air reading commercials and news briefs, and eventually ended up with his own show on ABC syndicated stations nationwide. By the time his illustrious career came to an end with his death at age 90, he had won just about every radio broadcast journalist award there was as well as the Presidential Medal of Freedom. For millions of Americans, his voice was the calm, velvety voice that narrated stories that touched their hearts and lives for decades. [PLAY PAUL HARVEY CLIP] After those now-infamous words, Paul Harvey would weave together his own particular blend of history, narrative, and personal commentary.
Stories as touching and innocent as a story of a man trying to save a flock of birds on Christmas Eve and instead finding a renewed sense of faith
News stories as momentous and history-altering as the assassination of President John F. Kennedy
Following that famous phrase, Harvey would present a different facet, a different angle, a different element of a story – something you probably hadn’t known or considered before. More often than not, it was a more human element, a more personal connection, or a twist in the story that revealed some profound element of faith. Friends, today is our Paul Harvey moment in the midst of all this Old Testament meandering we’ve been doing. Today is our “rest of the story.”
Weeks leading up to today = lots of stories of the people of God in the Old Testament
Elijah the prophet taking on the prophets of Baal and the deterioration of the people’s devotion
In all of these stories, we’ve heard the people’s side. We’ve heard about the people turning to God and away from God. We’ve heard about the people trusting God and doubting God. We’ve heard about the people acting for God and acting against God’s will.
But today’s Scripture is wholly different. In today’s Scripture, we hear from God. Today’s Scripture is, in fact, the rest of the story.
Today’s text = from book of Hosea → Now, Hosea is a challenging little book.
One of what we call the 12 minor prophets (major prophets being Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and Lamentations) → all of the writings of the minor prophets are fairly “doom and gloom.”
REMINDER: job of the prophets was to bring God’s word to a people who had strayed in an attempt to bring them back to God
Necessarily includes calling the people out for their wrongdoings AND detailing the terrible things that will happen if they don’t repent and return to God
NOT a popular message → prophets = not popular people
Very little is known about the prophet Hosea himself
Historically somewhere between 750 and 724 BCE → period of heavy political, economic, and religious turmoil in Israel
6 kings on the throne during Hosea’s time → all but one assassinated
Corruption in highest levels of court and government was rampant
Borders of the northern kingdom of Israel constantly threatened by kingdom of Judah to the south and kingdom of Assyria to the east
Practice of religion at the time had become intimately interwoven with various Canaanite religious practices (worship of Baal, rituals involving golden calves, cultic fertility sacrifices, etc.)
Suffice to say thing in Israel have gotten pretty horrible.
Hosea’s unique framing of his message = metaphor of marriage
Nation of Israel as a whole = unfaithful spouse who has turned away from God
People = children of that marriage
First 10 chs. of Hosea are full of stark, no-holds-barred, call-it-like-it-is recriminations aimed at Israel
E.g. – Hear the Lord’s word, people of Israel; for the Lord has a dispute with the inhabitants of the land. There’s no faithful love or loyalty, and no knowledge of God in the land. Swearing, lying, murder, together with stealing and adultery are common; bloody crime followed by bloody crime. … My people are destroyed from lack of knowledge. Since you [priest] have rejected knowledge, so I will reject you from serving me as a priest. Since you have forgotten the instruction of your God, so also I will forget your children. → And that’s probably one of the most G-rated parts. Truly, all, Hosea is a very difficult book to read. It’s full of agony and hurt and abandonment, and all of that is felt, not by the people but by God. God has not turned away from the people. The people have turned away from God.
Today’s passage = unique and even refreshing moment of grace and love and light in the midst of a grim text → speaks of God’s love in pure, unadulterated, unequivocal terms
Text: When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more I called them, the further they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and they burned incense to idols. Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up in my arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with bands of human kindness, with cords of love. I treated them like those who lift infants to their cheeks; I bent down to them and fed them. … How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim? My heart winces within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I won’t act on the heat of my anger; I won’t return to destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a human being, the holy one in your midst; I won’t come in harsh judgment. → You can hear God’s anguish in this. You can hear God’s yearning. You can hear God’s heartbreak. You can hear how desperately God misses the children who have so willingly and so easily turned away despite all that God has done for them. It is truly both stunningly painful and stirringly powerful to read.
Margaret Odell (prof of religion at St. Olaf): This poem of YHWH’s anguished love for the beloved child Israel stands as one of the most poignant testimonies to divine love in the Old Testament, if not in the entire Bible. Quite possibly the earliest expression of God’s love in the Bible, it is also the most passionate, as it portrays God’s heart in conflict with his plans, his compassion averting his anger.
Up to this point, much of the Old Testament stories that we read have been the “turning away” stories from the point of view of the people. Today, we hear a stirring, heart-rending reminder from God of just how much that turning away tears at the heart of God. It is, indeed, the rest of the story, and that story is LOVE. You see, friends, that is how big God’s love is for us.
Love that overcomes “turning away”
Love that overcomes waywardness and faithlessness
Love that overcomes excuses and exceptions
Love that overcomes even God’s own frustrations and intended consequences
Text: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I treat you like Zeboiim?
“Ephraim” = Israel (interchangeable in this text)
Admah and Zeboiim = cities completely and permanently destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah
Love that overcomes anything and everything just to get to us
Scholar: This is not the story of the “prodigal” son who, having struggled with his own bad choices, finally turns and comes home. This is the story of a prodigal God who – in anguish, heartbreak, and the fiercest love – comes seeking out the children who have strayed.
“But,” you might be saying, “I haven’t strayed. Not that much. Not really. Not intentionally, anyway.” And that may be true. But the reality of life and faith and the brokenness of the world around us and the world inside us, friends, is that we have all strayed – in big ways and small ways, in intentional ways and unintentional ways, in simple ways and in complex ways, always in ways that hurt God.
Description from Fall Breakaway workshop → turning ever-so-slightly bit by bit until God is completely out of sight
Friends, we are not perfect … at least, not the last time I checked. And even despite our best efforts … on our best days … with our best intentions, we cannot love God perfectly. But the good news is that God can love us perfect. The good news is that God does love us perfectly.
1 John 4: God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them. … here is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear.
This is why I say what I do and we profess what we profess whenever we come to the table. “No matter who you are … no matter where you come from … no matter what you bring with you this morning, you are welcome.” God’s love is big enough to love us through all our ups and downs, our turning aways and running aways, our doubts and our frustrations and our messes and anything else we think might be “too much.” The point is that with God, there is no “too much.” No. Matter. What. God loves you. God loved you before it. God loves you in the midst of it. And God will love you after it … no matter what “it” might be. Loves. You. Full stop.
I want to leave you with a song this morning – a song that speaks to that holy, perfect, infinite, pursing, forgiving, all-encompassing love of God.
Halleljuah, indeed. Amen.
“The faith that I profess is rooted in a belief in a God who loves us deeply, desperately, and with a passion that cannot be contained. This God is always seeking us out, wanting to be with us and wanting us to experience the very best that life has to offer. This God is protective because we are loved so damn much.” – Rozella Haydee White from Love Big: The Power of Revolutionary Relationships to Heal the World
 Stacey Simpson Duke. “Proper 13 (Sunday between July 31 and August 6 inclusive) – Hosea 11:1-11, Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year C, vol. 3. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 296.
I want you to take a look at your bulletin cover this morning [see image above]. This is a meme I’ve been seeing make the Facebook rounds lately, and it makes me chuckle every single time I see it.
READ MEME: “Me trying to ask someone for a favor: Hey could you help me with this thing? Absolutely no pressure though. Totally ok if you can’t. If you’d father run me over with a car that’s cool. Are you mad at me?” → Full disclosure: Part of the reason I chuckle at this is because this is exactly the way I ask for favors. Many of you probably know that from various messages or emails you’ve received from me.
Maybe it’s the Midwesterner → Minnesota nice on steroids, right? You’ve heard the old adage that you have to ask a Minnesotan if they want something 3 times, right? “Can I get you a cup of coffee?” “Oh, no. That’s okay.” (2 minutes later) “Are you sure I can’t offer you a cup of coffee?” “No, really. I’m fine.” (5 minutes later) “Really, I can get you a cup of coffee. It’s okay.” “Well, I guess I’ll take a cup of coffee.”
Maybe it’s the introvert in me → not wanting to put someone out
Maybe it’s just the “me” in me …
But I know I can’t be the only one that asks for favors this way, right?
Lots of ways that we soft ask for things
“Could you maybe …”
“Would you possibly …”
“I might like you to …”
Lots of ways that we couch our requests in a way out for the person we’re asking
“If you want to …”
“If it’s not too much to ask …”
“When you have time …”
“But …” “But …” “But …”
And all this hesitation and bet hedging certainly doesn’t stop with asking people for things, does it? How often do our prayers sound like this as well? “If it’s your will, God … when you make a way, God … maybe … possibly … but … but … but …”
TRUE: persistant little petition in the Lord’s Prayer “THY will be done” → And in the past, I know we’ve talked about “thy will” vs. “my will” and how important and impactful it can be to leave ourselves open to the moving of the Holy Spirit and the potential of God’s calling and leading in our lives. I think “Thy will, not my will” qualifies as a prayer couched in uncertainty. But there’s a big different between declaring our openness to God’s direction and hedging our prayers because we’re not really sure God can handle them. We’re afraid that God won’t “show up.” We’re so concerned we can’t handle a “no” response to our prayers that we don’t even want to give God the opportunity.
Today’s Scripture reading = exact opposite attitude → Strange as it may sound, I love this Bible story because it’s so excessive. It’s so sensational. It’s so over-the-top. In it, Elijah embodies such a wildly audacious Plus, he’s sarcastic as all get out, and how often do we encounter a little snarky sarcasm in the Bible, right?
Last week: splitting of the whole kingdom of Israel into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah → very end of last week’s Scripture reading
Jeroboam made king of the northern kingdom of Israel → worried that the people would go back to King Rehoboam (southern kingdom) because the temple was in Jerusalem and Jerusalem was located in the southern kingdom
Bottom line: people needed a place to worship SO Jeroboam set up 2 golden calves to worship in the northern kingdom → Do you remember me saying last week that that was foreshadowing of more trouble to come? Yeah … that trouble comes TODAY.
Shannon Meacham (colleague and fellow YCW): Last week’s reading ended with two golden calves and a dagger in God’s heart with the words that echoed Aaron at Mt. Siani. After weeks of skipping books and centuries, this week we move only 6 chapters to hear how bad things have really gotten.
A handful of kings in between Jeroboam and King Ahab in today’s passage – IMPORTANT POINT: all of them “did evil in the Lord’s eyes” in one way or another, mostly by leading people away from worshipping God → Now, you may also remember those pesky, sort of obscure rules that we read a few weeks ago. You know … the Ten Commandments! That first rule was something about not having gods other than the Lord God. Yeah. Uh oh.
Today’s king = Ahab → And as far as wayward kings who did evil things are concerned, Ahab was by far the worst! – text (1 Kgs 16): [Ahab] did evil in the Lord’s eyes, more than anyone who preceded him. … He served and worshipped Baal. He made an altar for Baal in the Baal temple he had constructed in Samaria. Ahab also made a sacred pole and did more to anger the Lord, the God of Israel, than any of Israel’s kings who preceded him.
Quick history lesson: “Who was Baal?” = god of storms and fertility worshipped by a number of ancient Middle Eastern cultures including the Canaanites (modern day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine)
So this is who the prophet Elijah is up against.
Today’s text = not Elijah’s first run-in with Ahab
Previous encounter: Elijah telling Abah that Israel will suffer a severe drought because of Ahab’s wicked ways → As you can imagine, this wasn’t exactly something Ahab enjoyed hearing, so Elijah’s already on the wrong side of King Ahab’s temper.
Hear that tension in the opening part of today’s reading – text: When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, “Is that you, the one who troubles Israel?” Elijah answered, “I haven’t troubled Israel; you and your father’s house have! You did as much when you deserted the Lord’s commands and followed the Baals.”
Bulk of today’s story = dramatic scene straight out of Biblical soap opera
Villain: Ahab, the corrupt and evil king
Hero: Elijah, the prophet of God
Pawns/stooges: 450 prophets of Baal
Drama: one singular, solitary prophet (Elijah) essentially challenging great, overwhelming hoard of Baal’s prophets to a duel → It is a duel of belief. It is a duel of fire and sacrifice and pageantry. It is a duel of prayer vs. prayer, god vs. God.
Elijah challenges prophets of Baal to build an altar, sacrifice a bull (one of the most expensive and sacred offerings), and call on Baal to light the fire on the altar – text: “Give us two bulls. Let Baal’s prophets choose one. Let them cut it apart and set it on the wood, but don’t add fire. I’ll prepare the other bull, put it on the wood, but won’t add fire. Then all of you will call on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of the Lord. The god who answers with fire – that’s the real God!” And all the people answered, “That’s an excellent idea.” → Now, there’s a really important point embedded in this portion: Elijah’s audience. In preparation for this scene, Elijah has called “all the Israelites” to witness because, after all, Elijah is attempting to turn the people’s attention and devotion back to the Lord God. That’s his ultimate goal, right? He’s not going through these crazy, elaborate paces just to show off to a bunch of false prophets and a dangerously maniacal king. He’s doing it for the people.
Makes this point clear – text (Elijah basically calls the people out): Elijah approached all the people and said, “How long will you hobble back and forth between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow God. If Baal is God, follow Baal.” → super funky Heb. in this portion of the text
Scholar: The Hebrew word translated “opinion” is related to a word meaning “tree bough” that might have been fashioned into a crutch creating “unequal legs” and causing an unsteady gait. Elijah is calling the people to pick the god behind whom they can steadily walk. → So basically, Elijah is calling out the people’s wishy-washy attitude toward God and their faith up to this point. They’ve been flip-flopping back and forth for generations, and Elijah says, “You know what? Not anymore. It is time to choose. And by the way … here. Let me help you make that choice.”
450 prophets of Baal build their altar, prepare their sacrifice, and spend “from morning to midday” parading around the altar and calling out to Baal to light the fire … But … NOTHING.
As if that embarrassing silence wasn’t bad enough, the added bonus is that Elijah starts taunting them! (This is where that snarky sarcasm comes in.) – text: Around noon, Elijah started making fun of them: “Shout louder! Certainly he’s a god! Perhaps he is lost in thought or wandering or traveling somewhere. Or maybe he is asleep and must wake up!” → And Elijah’s spiritual trash talk ends up having quite the effect on the prophets. – text: So the prophets of Baal cried with a louder voice and cut themselves with swords and knives as was their custom. Their blood flowed all over them. As noon passed they went crazy with their ritual until it was time for the evening offering. Still there was no sound or answer, no response whatsoever.
Elijah’s turn = builds his own altar using 12 stones (one stone for each of the 12 tribes of Israel) → But then Elijah ups the ante even more. To his altar of wood and stone, he adds water. Not just a dribble. Not just a little bowl. Not even a single, full jar of water. Elijah has those around him fill four jars with water, then douse the altar not once, not twice, but three times, so much so that the abundance of water basically creates a moat around the altar!
Historical point: jars that Elijah calls for are not cute little mason jars but massive jars used to catch rainwater for various purposes → similar to the jars that Jesus uses to turn water to wine at the wedding at Cana in gospel of John
Capacity = 9 gallons per jar (do the math: 9×4 = 36 gallons per trip TIMES 3 trips = 108 gallons of water)
And remember, they’re in the midst of a severe drought … and here’s Elijah, pouring gallons upon gallons upon gallons of water on his altar. This, friends, is a Biblical throw-down right here. Without a doubt!
Elijah’s prayer: Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. I have done all these things at your instructions. Answer me, Lord! Answer me so that this people will know that you, Lord, are the real God and that you can change their hearts.” → Elijah is essentially laying down a big ol’ “PROVE IT” to God before all the people of Israel. All his eggs are in one basket. And that basket … is on fire. Literally. Or at least, it’s about to be. Elijah’s ask here is not It’s not couched in escape clauses and possible outs and “maybe-possibly-if-but” language. Elijah’s ask is big. It’s bold. It’s ostentatious. It’s wildly audacious. Elijah is literally calling on God to show up in power and presence, in essence and extravagance, in sparks and flames and blazing glory.
God does not disappoint – text: Then the Lord’s fire fell; it consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up the water in the trench! All the people saw this and fell on their faces. “The Lord is the real God! The Lord is the real God!” they exclaimed.
Friends, it’s certainly true that sometimes, God’s answer to prayer is not the answer that we’re seeking. And it’s true that sometimes it’s hard to put ourselves – our deepest desires and most desperate hopes – out there when we cannot hear or see God, when we cannot prove God like Elijah did with fire from heaven – not to the world around us, not to those who laugh at or question us … not even to ourselves. But here’s the thing: if we don’t take that risk … if we don’t leap out in faith … if we don’t ASK, we don’t give God the opportunity to be audacious in God’s abundance and grace. We deny God the chance to show up in our lives in extravagantly unanticipated and unexpected ways. And we deprive God of the opening to work through us to inspire faith in those around us – people we know as well as people we don’t. So be brave. Be bold. Be wildly audacious. Because you never know what kind of spark God is just waiting to forge into a wild, faith-fed blaze. Alleluia! Amen.
Okay, all … pop quiz this morning. Let me know if you can tell where these statements come from.
When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone.
The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God. But this treasure is naturally most odious, for it makes the first to be last.
Give up? Those statements are four of the 95 theses that Martin Luther nailed to the door of Wittenberg Castle church on Oct. 31, 1517. Friends, today is Reformation Sunday.
Quick church history lesson
Luther = German priest turned theology professor → grew to reject a number of Roman Catholic teachings of the day
Salvation through grace, not salvation through works
Importance of making Scripture accessible to regular people → translated the Bible into German (only in Latin up to that point = only priests could read it)
Flat out rejection of selling of indulgences – practice of people basically buying their deceased loved ones’ way into heaven (skip the punishment and postponement of Purgatory)
Wrote 95 theses (vast majority of which were counterpoints against indulgences) in 1517 → refused to renounce that and all the rest of his writings/views despite the demands of both Pope Leo X and Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor → both excommunicated and declared an outlaw in 1521
Luther’s actions that day were the flashpoint for what we call the Great Reformation → spurned the development of a number of different theologies and Protestant traditions
Today: upwards of 200 different Protestant denominations just in the United States … and that doesn’t include all the individual churches that designate themselves as “non-denomination” or “Bible churches” → dividing lines between those denominations are many and varied
Divided along cultural/heritage lines (e.g. –German Lutheran vs. Norwegian Lutheran)
Divided along polity lines (episcopal vs. congregational vs. presbyterian)
Divided along theological lines
What’s a sacrament and what’s not?
Who can participate at the Table and who can’t?
Baptism – age? dunking or sprinkling? efficacy of rebaptism or “once baptized, always baptized”?
Probably most recent split happened in the Presbyterian Church (USA) = development of ECO (Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians) → splintered along lines pertaining to LGBTQ issues among others
As we well know, the Church is no stranger to division, is it? By this point, our shared Family Tree as Christians is a pretty gnarled, complicated, crazy-looking mess. But this division is far from the exception in the history of faith as well.
Phyllis Tickle: church “cleans out its attic and has a rummage sale” every 500 yrs. → massive shift in the life and structure and theology of the Church every 500 yrs.
Roughly 500 yrs. after Jesus = era of the councils (Council of Nicaea, Council of Constantinople, etc.) → set what books would be considered Scripture and what wouldn’t, set what was acceptable (orthodox) theology and what wasn’t (heresy), laid out some of the creeds we use even today (Apostle’s Creed, Nicene Creed)
Roughly 500 yrs. after the council = the Great Schism → divided the Western Church (Roman Catholicism) with the Eastern Church (today: various Orthodox traditions – Russian, Greek, etc.)
Roughly 500 yrs. after the Great Schism = the Reformation with Luther and all those who came after him
Roughly 500 yrs. after the Reformation … TODAY → We are indeed overdue for another vast and sweeping change in the way and life of the Church. Or maybe we’re in the midst of it.
Going back even further = division in our Scripture reading this morning
Rehoboam = son of King Solomon, grandson of King David
Jeroboam = placed in position of regional power by King Solomon → led a revolt (hence the reason our text said he “returned from Egypt where he had fled from King Solomon”
Over the past few weeks, we’ve talked about the rise of first King Saul and then King David as the monarchy of Israel and how the establishment of that monarchy was against God’s wishes and counsel for the people of Israel. Through the reign of Saul, David, and David’s son, Solomon, the people of Israel remained a single kingdom – the 12 tribes (descended from the 12 sons of Jacob excluding Joseph) all united today. Today’s Scripture is the end of that union. → today’s Scripture = the division of the kingdom into the Northern Kingdom of Israel (10 tribes) and the Southern Kingdom of Judah (2 tribes)
Sub-title of today’s section: “How Rehoboam lost the kingdom” → And what does that loss boil down to today? How did Rehoboam lose the kingdom that his father and grandfather had worked so hard to build up and maintain? Through division.
People (along with Jeroboam) come to King Rehoboam and say, “Your father made our workload very hard for us. If you will lessen the demands your father made of us and lighten the heavy workload he demanded from us, then we will serve you.”
King Rehoboam unsure of what to do → tells the people to come back in 3 days and consults his advisors
2 sets of advisors: the older ones who served his father, Solomon, before him VS. the younger ones (King Rehoboam’s contemporaries)
Older advisors: “If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today, then they will be your servants forever.”
Response born out of experience
Response born of out wisdom
Response born out of respect for the people
Younger advisors: “If my father made your workload heavy, I’ll make it even heavier! If my father disciplined you with whips, I’ll do it with scorpions!”
Response born out of ambition
Response born out of pride
Response born out of elitism
King Rehoboam decides to listen to his younger advisors → text: The king then answered the people harshly. … When all Israel saw that the king wouldn’t listen to them, the people answered the king: “Why should we care about David? We have no stake in Jesse’s son! Go back to your homes, Israel! You better look after your own house now, David!” Then the Israelites went back to their homes, and Rehoboam ruled over only the Israelites who lived in the cities of Judah.
The rest of the Israelites turn to Jeroboam to rule them → Jeroboam, in fear that their allegiance will once again flip and they will return to King Rehoboam, sets up golden calves for them to worship in Bethel and in Dan (foreshadowing for more trouble to come!)
Division, plain and simple, right?
But I want to go back to the middle of the story today and focus on the advice of King Rehoboam’s older advisors. – older advisors in the text: “If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today, then they will be your servants forever.” → “If you will be a servant to this people … If you will be a servant.” This, friends, is the key.
Outright divisiveness we’re facing in America today
Neighbor against neighbor
Friend against friend
Family against family
Divisiveness born of intolerance and an unwillingness to listen – truly listen! – to the “other side”
Not half-listen while I try to think of the next thing to say
Not pretend-listen so they think I’m listening and will, in turn, listen to me
Not ambush-listen so I can pounce on something they say and demolish it with my clearly superior argument/talking point
Certainly not the first time we’ve faced strong, deep divisions as a country
Just a couple examples:
1960s & 1970s → Civil Rights, Vietnam War, McCarthyism and communism
Civil War and the decades that surrounded it
But it cannot be denied that we are living in a highly contentious, combative, and toxically polarized time. “If you will be a servant to this people by answering them and speaking good words today, then they will be your servants forever.” Jesus talked a lot about what it meant to be a servant.
John: This is my commandment: love each other just as I have loved one. No one has greater love than to give up one’s life for one’s friends.
Mark: Whoever wants to be great among you will be your servant. Whoever wants to be first among you will be the servant of all.
Luke: But I say to you who are willing to hear: Love your enemies. Do good those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who mistreat you.
Matthew: You should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you.
Archibald Macleish (American poet and former Librarian of Congress): Religion is at its best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at its worse when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answer for everybody else. → Friends, let us take the hard questions from Scripture this morning – the questions about how we divide amongst ourselves and what that division is doing to our souls as individuals and as the church, as the human race and as Americans. Let us take those hard questions and sit with them, wrestle with them, ask them of ourselves. We have seen what division brings time and time again. Maybe it’s time to give a servant’s heart a try. Amen.
[PLAY A FEW BARS OF “Footloose”] → Classic, right? The wildly-popular 1980s movie about the new boy in town going toe-to-toe with the staunch and stodgy town minister over the issue of what?
Kevin Bacon = Ren McCormick, new boy in town who lives his life through dance
Dances when he’s happy
Dances when he mad
Dances when he wants to have fun
Dances to “get the girl”
John Lithgow = Rev. Shaw Moore, local minister who believes there’s something inherently inappropriate and wicked about dancing → does everything in his power to keep Ren and all the rest of the local youth from dancing (especially since Ren’s dance to “get the girl” is aimed at Rev. Moore’s oldest daughter)
Ren takes his place at the microphone to address the city council as well as the gathered crowd → argue to allow high school dance within city limits
And what book does he quote from in support of his argument for the power and value of dance? He quotes from the Bible. He read Psalm 149, and he speaks of King David leaping and dancing before God.
Ps 149: 1 Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song; sing God’s praise in the assembly of the faithful! 2 Let Israel celebrate its maker; let Zion’s children rejoice in their king! 3 Let them praise God’s name with dance; let them sing God’s praise with the drum and lyre! 4 Because the LORD is pleased with his people, God will beautify the poor with saving help. 5 Let the faithful celebrate with glory; let them shout for joy on their beds. 6 Let the high praises of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, 7 to get revenge against the nations and punishment on the peoples, 8 binding their rulers in chains and their officials in iron shackles, 9 achieving the justice written against them. That will be an honor for all God’s faithful people. Praise the LORD!
And with our Scripture reading this morning, we got a little taste of David’s story, both the political side and the dancing side.
So let’s talk about David. As we make our way through the Narrative Lectionary, our goal is to take in the whole, overarching scope of the Story of faith, right? Well, we certainly can’t do that without talking about King David, can we?
David’s thread in the Story of faith is a long, colorful, and complicated thread → probably takes up the most space within the entirety of Scripture (possible exception: Paul’s travels as they’re recounted in Acts)
Begins when prophet Samuel goes in search of a king to replace Saul
REMINDER: Saul = anointed king by Samuel when the people of Israel demanded a king (against God’s wishes) → Saul does a good job ruling for a little while (following God and God’s commandments) → eventually stopped listening to God and is rejected as king
Samuel goes in search of a new king à finds David in the field tending his father Jesse’s sheep à Samuel anoints David
David is taken into Saul’s service as a musician and armor-bearer (though Saul is unaware that this boy has already been anointed as his replacement)
David defeats Goliath and befriends Saul’s son, Jonathan
Saul becomes suspicious and jealous of David → Saul pursues David and tries to kill him multiple times → David escapes time and again through various means
This part of David’s life – when he’s running from Saul and trying to avoid being captured and killed but is also still functioning as a soldier for the people of Israel and going into battle for his people – is a really complicated and fascinating part of the story of faith. We don’t have time to go into it in detail today, but if you’re looking for an interesting read, delve into 1 Samuel 18-31.
Eventually, Saul is killed in battle → David is anointed king for a 2nd time – anointed as king of Judah → But because of conflict between the house of Judah and the house of Israel (different tribes under the greater umbrella of “people of Israel”), David only ruled over the people of Judah for the first seven and a half years of his monarchy.
1st part of today’s Scripture reading (from 2 Sam 5) = David finally being anointed as king over people of Israel as well
Moment of powerful unity
Moment of dynamic hopefulness
Text: All the Israelite tribes came to David at Hebron and said, “Listen: We are your very own flesh and bone. In the past, when Saul ruled over us, you were the one who led Israel out to war and back. What’s more, the Lord told you, You will shepherd my people Israel, and you will be Israel’s leader.” So all the Israelite elders came to the king at Hebron. King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the Lord, and they anointed David king over Israel. → Anointing number three … third time’s the charm, right? With the first anointing (in the fields with just Samuel and the sheep as witnesses), David was accepted by God as king. With the second anointing, David was accepted by – the house of Judah – by a faction of the people as king. And with this third anointing, David is finally accepted by all the people as king. And how does David celebrate? Probably not the way you think.
Part of Scripture that we didn’t read today (part that fills in between 2 Sam 5 and 2 Sam 6) = David leading the army of Israel to capture Jerusalem and defeat the Philistines → Granted, there’s a lot of battling and conquering that happens throughout the Old Testament. This is just a small part of it. With this battle and this conquering, David does something that becomes incredibly culturally, religiously, and politically impactful: he establishes Jerusalem as the Holy City for the people of Israel.
Certainly an action that continues to have cultural, religious, and political ramifications even today, right?
2nd part of today’s reading = David calling to have God’s chest brought to the city
“God’s chest” = “the Ark of the Covenant” → special chest that was created to house sacred articles of the covenant with God (most notably the tablets containing the 10 commandments) → But it was more than just a special, fancy box. The lid of the box was known as the kaporet or the “mercy seat. Two gold cherubim on either end of the lid created a space with their wings which was believed to be the space in which God would appear. So bringing God’s chest into the city was a powerful, sacred, and highly significant act because it establishes Jerusalem as the place where God lived.
Scholar: The ark, a large box, functions as God’s throne; a visible place for God’s invisible presence. The ark went ahead of the Israelites as they journeyed through the wilderness.
See in the text just how significant and moving this act was: David and the entire house of Israel celebrated in the Lord’s presence with all their strength, with songs, zithers, harps, tambourines, rattles, and cymbals. → different translation (NRSV): David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.
So here’s the thing: we’ve talked about all the ups and downs that David has already been through in this short life. Remember, our Scripture reading this morning said that he was only 30 when he was anointed king of the house of Judah (2nd anointing) and 37 when he was anointed king over all Israel. So in his relatively short life up to that point, he had been through a lot. He had gone from a simple shepherd boy to a secretly-anointed king to an armor-bearer for the king to a national hero to the best friend of the king’s son to a fugitive and a battle commander … to the king. And in the face of all of that … maybe because of all of that … David danced.
Danced because he was happy
Danced because he was relieved
Danced as a release
Danced to honor God
[PLAY SAME FEW BARS OF “Footloose” AGAIN]
Even though he was probably exhausted … even though he probably had a lot on his mind … even though he probably had worries and uncertainties and fears and a to-do list a mile long (being a king and a conqueror, after all) … even though he had been through some terrible thing, some scary things, some dark and painful things … David danced.
Brings to mind words from Ps 30: You changed my mourning into dancing. You took off my funeral clothes and dressed me up in joy so that my whole being might sing praises to you and never stop. Lord, my God, I will give thanks to you forever.
Many psalms traditionally attributed to King David à this is one of those psalms
Now, I hesitate a little to say this because I know that sometimes, when you’re down in the depths of whatever you’re facing and people tell you things like, “It’s bound to get better” or “There’s always a silver lining” or any of those other sunshine-and-roses-everything-is-happy platitudes, it can actually have the opposite effect. It can make you more frustrated, more anxious, more depressed, more angry, more discouraged. But even after everything that he had been through, David danced before God. David let God take that mess that he had been in – mess of political intrigue, mess of war, mess of leadership thrust upon him, mess of grief and exhaustion and fear. David let God take that mess and change his mourning into dancing. David let God bring light to his darkness. David let God bring love to his loss. David let God bring passion to his pain. David let God bring the Holy to his hopelessness.
That’s why the words of our next hymn are so powerful → convey dancing in the face of some pretty awful things
“I danced for the scribe and the Pharisee, but they would not dance and they would not follow me …”
“I danced on a Friday when the sky turned black. It’s hard to dance with the devil on your back …”
“They cut me down and I leapt up high. I am the life that will never, never die …”
And remember … not all dancing has to look the same.
Maybe your dancing looks vibrant and effusive and energetic like David and the people of Israel dancing “with all their might”
Movement that conveys joy
Movement that conveys passion
Movement that conveys celebration
Maybe your dancing is slower, more measured, more contemplative à more “movement with a purpose” than anything
Movement that conveys belief
Movement that conveys intention
Movement that conveys resolve
Maybe your dancing is simply moving your finger or tapping your foot
Movement that conveys faith even in fear
Movement that conveys courage even in pain
Movement that conveys hope even in uncertainty
In the midst of his mess, David let God move him. David let God bring out the magnificent in the midst of that mess because that is the nature of God: goodness, mercy, love, and hope above all else. These are the things about God that will not change. These are the things about God that reach into our hearts and our souls no matter what we’re facing. So friends, let me ask you: How is God moving you? What will your dance be? Amen.
CHARGE & BENEDICTION
 Kenny Loggins and Dean Pitchford. “Footloose,” released Jan. 1984 by Columbia Records.
Footloose, written by Dean Pitchford, released Feb. 17, 1984 by Phoenix Pictures and Paramount Pictures.