The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 14, 9 August 2015
II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
I Kings 19:4-8
St. John 6:35, 41-52
Background: Elijah and his context
The immediate context of Elijah’s ministry is in the 9th Century BCE in the Northern Kingdom of Israel especially during the reign of Ahab (871-852 BCE). A political marriage to a princess of Sidon, along with other political contingencies allowed for a continuing worship of one of the various Ba'alim (Ba’al is a title rather than a proper name, and could indicate one of several deities) that were worshiped in the cultures of the Levant. It is against this culture of inclusion of other religious traditions that Elijah makes his prophetic proclamations. Most notable were his sacrificial challenge to the priests of one of the Ba’alim, and his stance against the royal seizure of the estate of Naboth. Elijah saw it as disregarding the law that argued against selling land to someone outside of one’s family. The most stunning of the stories is the prophet’s experience at Horeb where he experiences God’s presence in a “still small voice.” Elijah is active in the midst of a very active period in the history of the ancient near east, which proved to be a challenge to Israelite culture and religion. Israel was quite prosperous and successful, maintaining suzerainty over Moab, and perhaps Judah as well. Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel also speaks to the nation’s prestige and standing. Ahab’s presence at the Battle of Qarqar is noted in secular texts. There he and an alliance including Northern Syria, Cilicia, Ammon, and tribal peoples formed a coalition and fought against Shalmaneser III of Assyria. They were successful initially, but later incursions by the Assyrians saw the end of the Northern Kingdom. Elijah knew the times, and proclaimed these difficulties to be a judgment from God.
II Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33
The king, David, ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, "Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom." And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. So the army went out into the field against Israel; and the battle was fought in the forest of Ephraim. The men of Israel were defeated there by the servants of David, and the slaughter there was great on that day, twenty thousand men. The battle spread over the face of all the country; and the forest claimed more victims that day than the sword. Absalom happened to meet the servants of David.
Absalom was riding on his mule, and the mule went under the thick branches of a great oak. His head caught fast in the oak, and he was left hanging between heaven and earth, while the mule that was under him went on.
And ten young men, Joab's armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him.
Then the Cushite came; and the Cushite said, "Good tidings for my lord the king! For the LORD has vindicated you this day, delivering you from the power of all who rose up against you." The king said to the Cushite, "Is it well with the young man Absalom?" The Cushite answered, "May the enemies of my lord the king, and all who rise up to do you harm, be like that young man."
The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!"
The lectionary causes us to miss a great deal of the drama that surrounds Absalom, and his attempt to take the throne by force. He used some rather subtle methods including standing at the city gate (the place of justice and judgment) and sought the help and support of those coming there for rulings on their suits and disputes. The verse that precedes our pericope pictures David standing by the same gate, watching the troops that are marching out to meet Absalom’s rebellion. Even here, however, we see a gentler David who urges his commanders to protect Absalom, “deal gently for my sake with the young man, Absalom.” In picturesque language the author describes how Israel (Absalom’s forces) are “claimed (or even ‘devoured’) by the woods.” This image comes to even greater meaning when Absalom is caught in the branches of a great terebinth, and is abandoned by his mule. Thus he hangs between life and death, or as the text says it, “between heaven and earth.”
The later part of the pericope (a great deal of the narrative has been cut out – you may want to read the intervening verses) reports the death of Absalom to David. What David had hoped would happen (the protection of his son) has not – and Absalom is dead. The professional soldiers fighting for David wrongly assume that David only desired the death of the usurper. Instead they lump Absalom in with all of “the kings enemies.” David is in deep grief over the loss of his son, and weeps in a chamber over the gate where justice was meted out.
Breaking open II Samuel
- How would you describe David’s emotions through out this story?
- Have you ever had a child who was you enemy?
- How have you forgiven your children?
Psalm 130 De profundis
Out of the depths have I called to you, O LORD;
LORD, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?
For there is forgiveness with you; *
therefore you shall be feared.
I wait for the LORD; my soul waits for him; *
in his word is my hope.
My soul waits for the LORD,
more than watchmen for the morning, *
more than watchmen for the morning.
O Israel, wait for the LORD, *
for with the LORD there is mercy;
With him there is plenteous redemption, *
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
We have met this psalm earlier in the liturgical year, at several points. Here it is keenly attached to the emotions of David as he grieves the loss of Absalom. It is not the sins of others, however that the psalm meditates on but rather the sins of Israel. The psalm urges patience and a pause is we wait upon God and God’s judgment. Nevertheless, it is not a waiting in vain, for “with (God) there is plenteous redemption.”
Breaking open Psalm 51:
- What depths of life have you experienced?
- How did you survive them?
- How would you tell this to others?
1 Kings 19:4-8
Elijah went a day's journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a solitary broom tree. He asked that he might die: "It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors." Then he lay down under the broom tree and fell asleep. Suddenly an angel touched him and said to him, "Get up and eat." He looked, and there at his head was a cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. He ate and drank, and lay down again. The angel of the LORD came a second time, touched him, and said, "Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you." He got up, and ate and drank; then he went in the strength of that food forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
The background (above) places Elijah into the context of his time. Here we meet him after his defeat of the priests of the Ba’alim, and experience the wrath of Jezebel, “So may the gods do to me, and even more, if by this time tomorrow I do not make your life like the life of one of them.” So Elijah quite wisely, flees. What we have here is a feeding story that we sometimes lose awareness of in hurrying off to Horeb to experience Elijah’s vision there. The prophet’s continual complaint emerges, “Enough now Lord. Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers.” Given the circumstances, his failure to convince Ahab, and Jezebel of YHWH’s superiority, Elijah must have thought of himself as having failed at this prophetic mission. So in the midst of despair and in the wilderness, Elijah takes a nap. And God comes to the rescue. In a preview of God’s visit at Horeb, the angel of the Lord, “touched him”, and provides for food and water for the prophet. Following a second nap and a second “lunch” the prophet moves on, empowered by this food – forty days and forty nights. Again with the length of this journey and the numbering of its days, we have a remembrance of Moses and the people as they journeyed to see God as well.
Breaking open Exodus:
- How have you been lonely in your faithfulness to God?
- Have you ever run away from your faith? How? Why?
- How has God provided for you in your loneliness?
Psalm 34:1-8 Benedicam Dominum
I will bless the LORD at all times; *
his praise shall ever be in my mouth.
I will glory in the LORD; *
let the humble hear and rejoice.
Proclaim with me the greatness of the LORD; *
let us exalt his Name together.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me *
and delivered me out of all my terror.
Look upon him and be radiant, *
and let not your faces be ashamed.
I called in my affliction and the LORD heard me *
and saved me from all my troubles.
The angel of the LORD encompasses those who fear him, *
and he will deliver them.
Taste and see that the LORD is good; *
happy are they who trust in him!
We have met this psalm earlier in the season in Track 1. It is attributed to a remembrance of David when feigns madness in front of Abimelech in order to save himself. It is an acrostic psalm based on the alphabet, and begins with words of blessing. It is in verse 7 that we touch on the thematic connection with the first reading, “The angel of the Lord encompasses those who fear him.” Even more so is the following verse that comments on the bread given to Elijah, and the Bread that is Jesus. In an almost Eucharistic allusion (seen through our Christian eyes) the psalm rejoices, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.”
Breaking open Psalm 34:
- What does the psalmist mean when he says, “Taste the Lord”?
- What are your sensations about God?
- How do you communicate that to others?
Putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil. Thieves must give up stealing; rather let them labor and work honestly with their own hands, so as to have something to share with the needy. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption. Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
The author wants his readers to understand the differences that accrue when one chooses to follow Christ, and thus lists a series of ethical behaviors that ought to become the followers of Jesus. It is not a Pauline list with strict categories, but it does describe an on-going pattern of behavior and good deeds: honesty, forgiveness, respect of other’s property, respectful speech, putting away anger and bitterness, and being kind to one another. These are the marks that distinguish the Christians.
Breaking open Ephesians:
- How would you list your personal virtues?
- What might your personal vices be?
- How do you live between these two forces?
St. John 6:35, 41-51
Jesus said to the people, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, "I am the bread that came down from heaven." They were saying, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, `I have come down from heaven'?" Jesus answered them, "Do not complain among yourselves. No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day. It is written in the prophets, `And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me. Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father. Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."
We are still in the section of John that has Jesus making observations on the Passover and the Bread of Life. In this reading the people mirror the Israelites in the wilderness by complaining about Jesus’ claims to be “the bread of life.” The complaints bear a similarity to the complaints in Nazareth about who Jesus was and who did he think that he was, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven?’” Their response to Jesus’ “I am” statement only gives way to more claims by Jesus as to who he truly is. He repeats the “I am” statements, and by doing so, aligns himself with the God who provided for Israel in the wilderness when they complained.
Breaking open the Gospel:
- What is your hunger in life?
- Have you ever struggled to provide for yourself or for your family?
- How did you provide?
After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:
Grant to us, Lord, we pray, the spirit to think and do always those things that are right, that we, who cannot exist without you, may by you be enabled to live according to your will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Questions and comments copyright © 2015, Michael T. Hiller