Sunday, August 25, 2013

Water, Water Everywhere

Water, Water Everywhere
Psalm 29
            Every spring people in this part of the country worry about water.  Farmers are concerned that there might be too much or too little rain.  The greater worry, though, is flooding.  As the winter snows melt up north, and the spring rains come, the Mississippi River rises—sometimes to dangerous levels.  A couple of years ago the Mississippi flooded much of the surrounding countryside.  My wife and I drove to Memphis to see the river at flood stage.  It was impressive.  Standing there, looking at the river far out of its banks, we got a sense of the power of water.
            Water is necessary for life.  We need drinking water daily.  We need rain to help crops grow, and keep vegetation healthy so the land won’t become a dustbowl.  Without water we perish.  The Bible gives due respect to the need for water.  We read of the Israelites’ cries for water in the wilderness.  Many times in Scripture, God promises the “former and the latter rains.”   When God had enough of the antics of Ahab and Jezebel he sent a drought over Israel that dried up everything until Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel.
            This was a significant victory, for Baal was the god of water.  If anyone could bring rain it would be Baal.  That God beat Baal at his own game, both in withholding rain and then sending it, was a momentous occurrence.  Baal, the god of the storms, couldn’t produce.  God, the God of all creation, could.
            As necessary as water is for life, too much of it can be disastrous.  Floods destroy houses and wash away topsoil.  Floods make it impossible for farmers to get equipment into the fields for plowing, or planting, or harvesting.  Floods rot crops, leaving nothing to harvest.  Floods sweep everything before them, as those who have witnessed them know.
            Throughout the Psalms the writers speak of a God who sets the boundaries of the waters.  This far they can go and no further.  In Genesis 1:6-9 we read of God creating the waters of the heavens and the earth, then separating earth’s bodies of water from each other with dry land.  These tasks were important enough that they happened on the second and third days of creation.  God is indeed the God of waters, and no other god can legitimately claim that jurisdiction.
            This is what we read in Psalm 29.  In the first two verses, David addresses the “heavenly beings”—all other possible gods—and tells them to ascribe to God the “glory due God’s name.”  Near the end of the psalm (v. 10) the psalmist says, “The Lord sits enthroned over the flood.”  God rides the storm.  Rivers may overflow their banks.  Fields may flood.  Lakes may fill to the brim and beyond.  But God is always in control.  God rides the storms that create the overflow of water.  This far they can go and no further.
            We get a different view of the power of God over water when we read the stories of Jesus calming storms.  Galilee is a huge, shallow lake, and storms can rise up quickly, catching even seasoned sailors by surprise.  It is dangerous territory, a place where lives can easily be lost.  We read in Mark 4:35-41 of Jesus and his disciples caught out in the middle of the lake—not just one boat, but many—when a storm blows up.  The disciples are losing the battle to the wind and the waves, but Jesus is riding the storm by taking a nap.  When they wake him, he simply says, “Peace!  Be still!” and the wind and the waves cease.

            Matthew tells us that Jesus said, “I will give you rest.”  Jesus can calm the storms in our lives because Jesus, like his Father, is the God of the storms.  Unlike the Galilean storm Mark tells us about, Jesus might not make the wind and the waves cease for us, but he will create a pocket of peace where we can rest, knowing that the storm cannot overcome us.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Who's Your Goliath?

Who’s Your Goliath?
1 Samuel 17:1-54
            If you’re like me, you grew up on the story of David and Goliath.  We heard it in Sunday school.  Dad would tell it to me as a bedtime story, or on Sundays after church when Mom was putting the finishing touches on dinner.  We even sang a song about David and Goliath.
Only a little boy David, and only a babbling brook;
Only a little boy David, and five little stones he took.
One little stone went in the sling, the sling went round and round;
Round, and round, and round, and round, and round, and round, and round;
One little stone went up, up, up, and the giant came tumbling down.
David was one of our heroes.  Here he was, a kid like us, defeating a giant who was threatening all of Israel.  If David could accomplish so much with God’s help, we could hope to do great things for God ourselves—at least this is the message our Sunday school teachers seemed to want us to get from the story.
            Recently I read a review of a book entitled Five Stones, by Shane Stanford and Brad Martin.  The reviewer quoted from an interview with Stanford.  The authors feel that the story of David and Goliath is much more than a story for children.  It’s a story that has significance for adults as well, since all of us face, at one time or other, giants that we can’t defeat on our own.  Stanford and Martin want us to know that giants are beatable, and that we don’t have to face them in our own strength.
            As with so many other Bible stories, it is easy to become glib about David’s success.  We can pass it off as a story from ancient history, even claiming that it cannot possibly be true.  Not even God’s chosen future king of Israel could kill a giant with a slingshot and a stone. 
Some claim that God did miraculous things in the Hebrew Scriptures, but doesn’t get much involved today.  After all, we have all kinds of situations where all kinds of Davids are trying to conquer all kinds of giants and God doesn’t seem to be providing any help at all. 
            What the authors of this book are saying is that God does provide help, especially with our individual battles against our individual Goliaths.  We know the kinds of battles we fight every day.  We have our own personal proof of victories we know were not won in our own strength.  God does provide help for us in our fights against our giants, but it may not be as easily evident as it was in David’s case.  Many times the help God provides is through other people.  Perhaps our five stones come in the shape of social workers, pastors, government agencies, doctors and other medical personnel.  All of these people have expertise that is available to help us defeat our giants.
            Giants today come in many forms, some of them far more terrifying than an oversized human.  Some of the giants we face are poverty, racism, addiction, crime, brokenness, and alienation.  These can seem insurmountable, Goliath-sized problems.  How can we defeat them with only our weak resources?  Even when many of us work together we don’t seem to make much progress.  So we stand on the sidelines, afraid, like the Israelites, of engaging our Goliaths in battle for fear we will lose and become enslaved ourselves.
            Through David, God gives us a different answer.  God says, “Get involved.  Do what you can.  You get to work finding the stones and I’ll help them find their mark.  I can do so much to bring the battle to a successful conclusion if only you will do your part.  I can’t throw the stone, but I can guide it to the destination where each and every one of these giants will fall.”

            Who’s your Goliath?  Do you want to defeat him?  Get started.  God waits to help.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Cast of Characters

Cast of Characters
2 Kings 5
            When I go to see a play, one of the first things I do is read the cast of characters in the program.  It gives me an idea of who I’ll be seeing.  I know I probably won’t be able to tell the lead characters from the minor ones at that point, but at least I’ll have a feel for the names.  I’ll have a good idea how the characters will relate to each other as the action moves forward.
            Most of us have minor roles in the play of life.  Few of us get to strut our stuff on the major stages of history.  We fall into the category John Milton describes in his sonnet, On His Blindness:  “They also serve who only stand and wait.”
            The story of Naaman gives us a good opportunity to see this principle in action.  The story involves four very important people—people whose position guarantees that they will have major roles in this story.  There are also three minor characters.
            The first major character is Naaman himself.  He is the commander of the army of the king of Syria.  Throughout history this country has played a major role in the affairs of the Middle East.  Certainly the commander of Syria’s army is an exalted position, then as well as now.  But Naaman has a problem.  He has a skin condition—leprosy—and because of this he cannot go places and associate with people.  Commander of the army or not, he is an outcast.
            The second “lead character” is the king of Syria.  He obviously thinks highly of Naaman, because he wants his general healed.  He even writes a letter to his counterpart, the king of Israel, asking him to heal Naaman.  The Syrian king goes to great trouble and expense to help one of his favorites.
            The third person is the king of Israel, who panics when he receives the letter, since he does not have the power to heal.  What will he do?  More important, what will the Syrian king do when he learns that Naaman can find no help in the Israelite court?
            The final main character is God’s prophet Elisha, who does have the power to heal Naaman, and offers to do so.  The only trouble here is that he does not treat Naaman with the respect the general feels he deserves.  Elisha practically ignores him, sending his servant to deliver the instructions for healing.
            As important as these characters are, the story would never move forward if not for three minor figures who make things happen.  It is their efforts that connect the main characters together and make a positive outcome possible.
            The first is a young Israelite girl, captured in a raid, who is a slave in Naaman’s household.  She tells her mistress that there is one in Israel who can make her master whole.  Connection #1.  The second is Naaman’s wife, who transmits this information to her husband and in doing so sets the healing process in motion.  Connection #2.
            The third is the servant who calms Naaman down and talks him into bathing in the Jordan River.  Naaman, offended because he has been slighted by Elisha, is ready to turn around and go home—willing to pass up a cure because of his pride.  The servant helps him see that what Elisha has asked is a very small matter indeed.  Why not try it?  What can it hurt?  And in fact, it not only doesn’t hurt, it does the trick.  Connection #3.

            In life there are many small parts.  Not all of us can be kings, or generals, or prophets, but all of us can serve where we are called to serve, and perhaps affect history in ways we can’t even imagine.  Even minor characters can move God’s story forward.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

A Long and Winding Road

A Long and Winding Road
Joshua 1-4
            Yes, I know it’s a long (and winding?) Scripture reading.  The trouble is, once you begin the story of Joshua assuming leadership of the Israelites, there’s no logical place to come up for air until he gets them across the Jordan River and into Canaan.  Once there, they can stop and catch their breath (and we with them) before attacking Jericho.
            Those of you of a certain age may recognize the source of this column’s title.  It’s the last song (but one) on the Beatles “Let It Be” album.  It was also their last #1 hit and one of the last songs Paul McCartney wrote for the group.  While the lyrics are about a man standing at the beginning of a long and winding road leading back to his lover’s door, McCartney penned the words at the time when tensions between the Fab Four were beginning to intensify.  Some believe that McCartney was reflecting the sadness he felt about the state of the Beatles’ relationship and the end towards which they were heading.
            The Israelites’ long and winding road, on the other hand, culminated in relief, accomplishment, and the end of tension.  Their long and winding road had taken them forty years to complete.  That was the time between crossing the Red Sea, which took them out of Egypt, and crossing the Jordan into Canaan.  Those of us who have read the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures know it needn’t have taken them that long.  Their mumbling and grumbling, and their disobedience caused God to keep them in the wilderness until everyone who had left Egypt had died.  Even Moses was not spared, since he disobeyed God when he struck the rock to bring water rather than speak to it as God had commanded.
            Forty years is a long time, and we can imagine that some members of the wandering tribes, especially those born soon after the crossing of the Red Sea, must have wondered why they were being punished this way.  They must have been tired of a diet of manna and quail, with only water to drink, and the same scenery, day after day, as they wandered their way towards the Promised Land.  At times the promise must have seemed like a desert mirage, but with Moses’ leadership they kept moving towards the fulfillment of that promise.
            What joy they must have felt, what relief when they stood on the bank of the Jordan and looked across to the land God had given them!  We can imagine there must have been some trepidation as well.  Were they really going to make it?  Did God have more delays in store for them?  Once across the river would they be able to take possession of this land?  We can understand their misgivings.  Many of us have been in the same position as we anticipated the beginning of a new phase in our lives—a new job, a new relationship, a move to a new town.
            To their credit, when Joshua said “Forward!” forward they went.  Once across, they piled up twelve stones as a marker to commemorate how far God had brought them, and the beginning of a new life in a new land.
            Jesus’ long and winding road through the wilderness took forty days, not forty years, but being left alone with only the devil for company must have made it feel longer.  We know the temptations he faced were real, not some phony exercise in self-control.  Because Jesus faced temptation successfully, we know that walking in his strength, we can too.

            Our long and winding wilderness roads will most likely be less than forty years, and very likely more than forty days, but we will face wilderness experiences in our Christian journey.  What we can be sure of is that just as God was leading the Israelites through their wilderness, and just as God was with Jesus in his wilderness, God will be with us as we make our long and winding way to the promised land God has waiting for us.