The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 16, 23 August 2015

I Kings 8:1, 6, 10-11, 22-30, 41-43
Psalm 84
Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
Psalm 34:15-22

Ephesians 6:10-20
St. John 6:59-69

Background: The Covenant
Stemming from the covenants that marked everyday life in the Ancient Near East, the biblical covenants were also influenced by the form of the Hittite Treaty. All of them acknowledge the relative status of each of the parties, and the consequences of meeting or not meeting the provisos of the agreement. We see this in the “blessings and curses” that are found in the Bible, the latest of which was Luke’s version of Beatitudes, where the “Happy is” is contrasted with the “Woe to”. There are several covenants in the Hebrew Scriptures, the Noahic (see Genesis 9:8-17), the several covenants made with Abraham (see Genesis 12, 15, and 17). It is the Mosaic covenant (see Exodus 19-24), however, that not only guides the history of Israel, but also continues to guide western civilization to a greater or lesser degree. The priestly covenant undergirds the institution of the Aaronic priesthood, and the David covenant did similar service to the monarchy. See the first reading in Track 2 for Joshua’s take on the covenant.

1 Kings 8:[1, 6, 10-11], 22-30, 41-43

[Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion. Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim. And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.]

Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven. He said, “O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart, the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand. Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, `There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.' Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.

“But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built! Regard your servant's prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today; that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, `My name shall be there,' that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place. Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.

 “Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name -- for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm-- when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.”

The purpose of Track 1 in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) is to familiarize people with a greater view of the Hebrew Scriptures by means of a continuing reading from its books. Here we have a continuing history of Solomon, his building of the temple, and the subsequent installation of the Ark of the Covenant in the Holy of Holies there. What is really startling in this passage is the material from verse 41 on. There is concern about the name of Israel, its reputation, amongst the nations of the earth. The attitude in verse 41 is quite a change, however, in that it advocates for a rather benevolent attitudes toward the Gentile nations. One wonders if this is a theological point in Kings, or rather a practical attitude in which matters of political and commercial interest are made livelier by such a position.

Breaking open I Kings
  1. What does the Ark of the Covenant symbolize to you?
  2. What are the ideals in this passage?
  3. Can these ideals speak to our time?
Psalm 84 or 84:1-6 Quam dilecta!

How dear to me is your dwelling, O LORD of hosts! *
My soul has a desire and longing for the courts of the LORD;
my heart and my flesh rejoice in the living God.

The sparrow has found her a house
and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; *
by the side of your altars, O LORD of hosts,
my King and my God.

Happy are they who dwell in your house! *
they will always be praising you.

Happy are the people whose strength is in you! *
whose hearts are set on the pilgrims' way.

Those who go through the desolate valley will find it a place of springs, *
for the early rains have covered it with pools of water.

They will climb from height to height, *
and the God of gods will reveal himself in Zion.

LORD God of hosts, hear my prayer; *
hearken, O God of Jacob.

Behold our defender, O God; *
and look upon the face of your Anointed.

For one day in your courts is better than a thousand in my own room, *
and to stand at the threshold of the house of my God
than to dwell in the tents of the wicked.

For the LORD God is both sun and shield; *
he will give grace and glory;

No good thing will the LORD withhold *
from those who walk with integrity.

O LORD of hosts, *
happy are they who put their trust in you!

This psalm always brings a smile to my face. I recall a situation in college where birds having gotten into the rather spacious chapel, were being discouraged with helpings of poison seed placed there by the maintenance staff. One day I noticed the seed was gone, replaced by a sign quoting this psalm, “The sparrow has found her a house and the swallow a nest where she may lay her young; by the side of your altars, O Lord of hosts.”

This is a devotional piece on the Temple that is stated in startling terms. The longing and love of the place is described (in the Hebrew) in almost erotic terms. Such intensity is missing from our English translations. As a pilgrim psalm, it urges the pilgrim on with the intensity of emotion and longing. It is not only humankind who long for the temple, but birds as well, along with all the other pilgrims who make their way there. There are both urban, “They climb from height (rampart) to height,” and rural “(they) will find it a place of springs.” It reflects in a way the images of the 23rd psalm. God makes a place (the green pastures, and the temple) and we long to be there.

Breaking open Psalm 84:
  1. For what do you long in life?
  2. Where does the church fit into that vision?
  3. How do you love God?

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18

Joshua gathered all the tribes of Israel to Shechem, and summoned the elders, the heads, the judges, and the officers of Israel; and they presented themselves before God. And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel:

"Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River, and in Egypt, and serve the LORD. Now if you are unwilling to serve the LORD, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the LORD."

Then the people answered, "Far be it from us that we should forsake the LORD to serve other gods; for it is the LORD our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the LORD drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the LORD, for he is our God."

The scene at Shechem, a cult center of Israel, is a renewal of the covenant between the tribes and God. Ancient history is reviewed, and it is more than a history of movement, but also a change of allegiance from the gods “across the river” to the God of Israel. Joshua forces them to see the comparison and to make the choice. It’s either the gods that their forefathers worshipped, or the gods of the Amorites (Canaanites) or the God of Israel. Joshua makes his choice and the people follow suit.

Breaking open Joshua:
  1. What religious choices have you made?
  2. What were the alternatives?
  3. Would you do it over again?

Psalm 34:15-22 Benedicam Dominum

The eyes of the LORD are upon the righteous, *
and his ears are open to their cry.

The face of the LORD is against those who do evil, *
to root out the remembrance of them from the earth.

The righteous cry, and the LORD hears them *
and delivers them from all their troubles.

The LORD is near to the brokenhearted *
and will save those whose spirits are crushed.

Many are the troubles of the righteous, *
but the LORD will deliver him out of them all.

He will keep safe all his bones; *
not one of them shall be broken.

Evil shall slay the wicked, *
and those who hate the righteous will be punished.

The LORD ransoms the life of his servants, *
and none will be punished who trust in him.

This psalm has been our companion for several Sundays. In this section, the psalmist poses a choice similar to the one that Joshua poses, “Swerve from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” Here it is not the gods so much as it is the attitude that one has while living life, and living in covenant with God. This is no Hallmark card however, for there are harsh realities that invade this righteous attitude of following the Lord. The vicissitudes of daily life are met with the comfort of the God who walks with us, “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and will save those whose spirits are crushed.” Perhaps that is why the psalter, or at least parts of it, remains popular. It meets us at our worst hours.

Breaking open Psalm 34:
  1. In what ways have you “swerved from evil”?
  2. How has God met you in the dark parts of your life?
  3. How have you met others in their darkness?

Ephesians 6:10-20

Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. With all of these, take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints. Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.

The long period of ethical exhortation has ended, and now we are to listen to the author as to a general prior to battle. The martial attitude is quite evident, “put on the whole armor of God.” Are we exhorted to fight against human authority? No. We are in battle against spiritual forces, which move us from faith in the Christ who triumphs to concerns of this world and its wealth. We have heard of the “Day of the Lord,” however here we are warned against that “Evil Day.” What we are armed with is a typical Pauline list of Christian virtues: truth, righteousness, the Gospel of peace, faith, and salvation. There is an “active waiting” filled with alertness and perseverance, guided by mutual prayer.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. What battles does God want you to fight?
  2. How will you fight them?
  3. What will happen if you lose?

St. John 6:56-69

Jesus said, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." He said these things while he was teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum.

 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, "This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?" But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, "Does this offend you? Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. But among you there are some who do not believe." For Jesus knew from the first who were the ones that did not believe, and who was the one that would betray him. And he said, "For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father."

 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him. So Jesus asked the twelve, "Do you also wish to go away?" Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

This is quite a remarkable event – Jesus teaching the people on the Bread of Life in a synagogue. We need to remember that at the time John was writing this Gospel, the Christians had already been cast out of the synagogues. And what is further, the subject matter would have been quite odious to a Jewish audience, “eat my flesh and drink my blood.” The disciples see the difficulty and object, “this teaching is difficult.” Jesus is declaring some freedom and asking that they take into themselves a fresh and life-giving spirit. John makes a comparison between the spirit and the flesh, one gives life, and the other is useless. The disciples are hung between the horns of a dilemma, and there are some who cannot make the transference – indeed one will betray Jesus.

Dwight Zscheile, in his book The Agile Church[1], talks about the church’s need to accept failure as a way to build knowledge and relationship so that the Gospel might be authentically proclaimed. Here we have the perfect example of failure that leads to a confession on the part of Peter. “Many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” Jesus questions Peter, as he questions all of us. “Is this too much for you – do you need to leave.” Peter admits that there is no other way, which makes us wonder if we have really wrestled with the alternatives that Jesus has shown us.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. Why are the Jews offended?
  2. Why do the disciples find this difficult?
  3. Have you ever left Jesus?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Grant, O merciful God, that your Church, being gathered together in unity by your Holy Spirit, may show forth your power among all peoples, to the glory of your Name; 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

[1]Zscheile, D. (2014), The Agile Church: Spirit-Led Innovation in an Uncertain Age, Church Publishing, New York, Kindle Edition.


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