A Long Night's Journey into Day
OLD TESTAMENT STORIES
A Long Night's Journey into Day
From Bad to Worse
Small Like Grasshoppers
The Failures of a Hero
His World of Ills
Of Kings and Men
A Desolate Woman
The Price He Paid
What Enemies Deserve
NEW TESTAMENT STORIES
You're Never Too Far
Where the Party Waited
No End of Blame
Three Times Worse Than None
Was It the Money?
A Blindness Overcome
Of Foods and Folk
Tough Man In A Tough Spot
I generally don't go for cute take-offs on well-known expressions. It seems like hitching your wagon to someone else's and letting him pull. Better to be original, be yourself. Why then am I borrowing a phrase from Eugene O'Neill? Back to that in a minute.
This book is a collection of short stories based on stories in the Bible. Some may be your favorites. Others will be less familiar. Some are tragic, some comic, some inspiring, some depressing. All have a theme, though, of man's struggle to gain something he hopes can be gained–the favor of God.
O'Neill put a dark face on that struggle. "Long Day's Journey into Night" is one of the most soul-baring dramas ever written. It was so painfully autobiographical that O'Neill delivered it to Bennett Cerf at Random House on condition that it not be printed until 25 years after his death. (His wife later took it back and sold it to another publisher, getting it in print just three years after O'Neill died in 1953–ah, well!)
The play is a story of the damned–a drama with great power but little hope. O'Neill called it "a play of old sorrow, written in tears and blood."
What is the truth of our journey? Is it a long day's journey into night? Is it "Walking in sunlight, all of my journey" (as a gospel song puts it). Or is it something else, something more ambiguous, something in between?
In the stories you find here, there's no reason to deny O'Neill's "sorrow . . . tears and blood" as a fact of human experience. What we do find, though, in most if not all, is a purpose, an outcome, a hint of dawn at the morning.
We have Jacob wrestling with an angel through the night, then finding the next day better than he dreamed. We have Simon Peter disgracing himself time and time again, only to learn a hard lesson and repent. We have Hosea and his rage over a wife turned prostitute which somehow he overcame and went out to bring her back. And others you will read about soon enough.
None gave up, and all found something. The Prodigal Son found grace. Job got relief at last. David the adulterer gained status as a man after God's own heart. A long night's journey . . . into day!
Come, let me tell you.
Chapter 1 – A Long Night's Journey Into Day
"The same night he arose and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. And Jacob was left alone . . .." Genesis 32:22-24
This is a story of long ago, of a man named Jacob.1 He lived in the land where Jesus lived, only much earlier. His name means "trickster," and he was that.
Later on his name was changed to Israel. But if you read the Bible carefully, you find folk were slow to begin using Jacob's new name. Some things may change, but people will wait awhile before making up their minds about them. For some reason it was hard to get used to Jacob's new name.
Jacob is returning home. He's been away in Mesopotamia, and for a long while. He was away because he cheated his twin brother, who threatened to kill him and might have. Jacob, in his early days, was always cheating somebody.
Now a person who cheats other people is usually two things at least–smart and smooth. Quick wits and a quick smile.
So if you're the young couple arriving on the lot to buy a used car that's cheap and dependable and won't need any work for a long time, here comes your man. He even likes you, your new friend about to be. He's going to take your cause before the sales manager and get you the best deal anywhere. He makes it sound so good. A little more than you thought, but if anything should go wrong, you know he'll be right there.
He makes this feel so right that you don't even object when he adds on those extras everyone needs with a car like you're buying.
That was Jacob. And the thing about a man like him is, he can make his way very well among strangers. Strangers are his livelihood. But he sometimes has trouble coming home to people who've known him all his life.
I suppose I might need to explain what a "ford" is. It has nothing to do with the car by that name. When I was a boy there used to be road signs saying "Slow Ford Ahead." But they meant a ford in the road, not a Ford in the road. A ford is where there's a stream or river to cross, but no engineers have come to build a bridge as yet. And it's shallow enough to drive across, or wade, or herd cattle, or ride your horse or camel or whatever you're on. To do that is called "fording."
Our man Jacob has come to the ford of the Jabbok River. The Jabbok is now called the Zerqa, which means "blue river" because the water comes out of the mountains. It runs into the Jordan about halfway between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Jacob forded the river with his family very late one day, got them settled for the night, then said, "Now I'll see you all in the morning for breakfast. Take care." And in the growing dark they heard the splashing water as he made his way across to the other side.
You're thinking that was a strange thing for a man in his right mind to do. And it was. But you begin to understand when you know that tomorrow is the day he will meet his brother.
He's been praying about that meeting with dread in his heart, with guilt in his soul for things done and said long ago–things unresolved and unforgiven all these years. And in the night ahead, it'll be an even stranger praying he does.
The Bible says Jacob was given to his parents as an answer to prayer. Rebekah, his mother, was barren. Isaac, his father, entreated the Lord, and the result twins, both boys. Esau, the older, grew to be a man of the field and skilled in hunting, the pride and joy of his father.
Jacob was more the indoor type. He'd have been in the band, not on the football team. He preferred reading and talking with people to climbing trees and running over the hills. He was Mother's boy, and there was a source of the problem.
A note of conflict was sounded early in the partiality of Jacob's parents. It shows the terrible harm that's done when children are used in the struggles of their elders, and set at odds one against another. Kramer vs. Kramer isn't just the older Kramers.
Esau had been out in the wilds as usual. You could hear him coming, maybe singing or whistling. And his gear falls to the floor just inside the door, and the door slams as only a man like that will slam one, and Esau says, "Boy, am I starved. I'd give anything for something to eat!" And Jacob says "You would?"
That's another story, of course, but it hangs over this story. It hangs over the night Jacob spends beside the Jabbok. Jacob got his brother's birthright for a pot of stew. And later got the old man's blessing, always given to the oldest son, by covering his arms with hairy skins to make them seem like the arms of Esau. Which tells you his father was old and blind. And what kind of boy will trick a blind man, much less one old and sick, and him his dad?
In the darkness of that night, things caught up with Jacob. His exploits seemed less worth it now. The price he'd paid seemed higher. In fact, he seemed to still be paying a price. He must face his brother Esau in the morning.
Imagine you're him. You're older now, older than all those deals you pulled off, but still not over them. They bother you even yet. You never planned to be thinking like this. You used to make fun of people who did, those troubled souls that worry what other people think.
But you're older now and life is farther along. You want to see your brother, but with a lot of dread. You wonder what he looks like. You know the past will come back on you when you take the look. But you've decided if it must, let it come.
Your brother was mad at you the last time you saw him. He may still be mad. You worry about a fight. And then suddenly you have a fight.
Jacob could have been asleep when it started. He might have been dreaming, who can say? But his struggle was no dream. Jacob was attacked. There wrestled with him a man until the break of day.
There are things that seem right for settling in the night. No other time will do. There are those who love the night, but in a sad kind of way. Robert Frost's has a haunting poem which gathers up a lot of that feeling. It is called "Acquainted with the Night."
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain–and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-by;
And further still at an unearthly height
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.2
And to be alone at night, as Jacob was, is to invite those things. And to be lying there in dread of the morning is another thing too. And when the soul is full of such feelings, who knows what will come?
I always hesitate to tell my dreams, perhaps we all do. Maybe we fear there's a psychiatrist around to overhear us. Anyway, one Wednesday night at the church I was involved with some kids who were stealing cokes from the coke machine. I spent more than a little time upset, and running people out of the building, and talking to parents and others about this problem.
I may not have handled it as I should. Later that night, safely in my bed and camped by no river, the thing came back on me, and I would say attacked me.
In my dream I was going through a large and confusing church building of which I had charge. And I came upon a family camping out. They were foreign, I remember. There was a mother and a little child. And I said, "Listen, I'm sorry, but you can't do this. You just can't live in the church like this, we don't permit it. You have to leave."
In my own defense, let me say I put them out with more sympathy than I'd used with the coke stealers! But I did put them out.
Then, in my dream, something became my accuser. Something, began to ask embarrassing questions like "what would Jesus do?" and "what's the church for if not to help the poor?" I imagined the Living Christ coming and opening up all the doors of the church and letting needy people come in and fill every room. And I tell you, my soul was in agony over that.
Old anxieties stalk us in the night. Old enemies threaten us again. Old guilts begin tugging, old memories dance on the ceiling. And sometimes, at one of life's fording places, the struggler hangs grimly on to life, waiting for the day to come and make it new again.
And you look back on what took place with a realization that you wrestled with God that night.
But for all Jacob knew, this could have been Esau, his brother. Imagine it! Wrestling in the dark, not able to see, hearing only the sounds. And smelling the sweat and groping blindly for any advantage to be had. And on and on that goes, long past his wearied urges to quit. Long past the time when others would have quit. Hours past.
I can tell you this about wrestling, that minutes get long. Minutes in wrestling can be like hours. And so Jacob's hours must have seemed like lifetimes.
One thing in his favor, though–he had determination. He proved that with Laban's daughters. "Give me seven years of service and you have your bride," Laban said. And Jacob did it. It seemed a reasonable thing to do for Rachel, beautiful Rachel, whom he loved at first sight. But when seven years were up and Jacob mentioned marriage, Laban said: "We do have this problem, young man. I have an older daughter who isn't married, and the oldest has to marry first. That's just the rule!"
Now how can I hint subtly at the reason oldest daughter Leah was still unmarried? Well, she was ugly! And Laban said, "The best deal I can make is this: you work for me seven more years and you can have them both!" And Jacob so wanted Rachel that he did it.
By the way, you've heard that lovely benediction, "May the Lord watch between me and thee, while we're absent one from the other"? That comes from Laban and Jacob, as what was said between them the day they parted. And it really shows less of anything spiritual, and more of the standoff between two rascals!
Determination Jacob had. But as you read the story of his struggle in the night, you get the feeling it was inevitable and ill-fated. That here was a contest he could never win. That he was bound to be overwhelmed. As the day begins to break, the stranger touches the hollow of Jacob's thigh and it springs out of joint. He is crippled.
But in his defeat, Jacob becomes blessed. He says to the stranger, "I will not let you go unless you bless me." And the stranger asks his name, which we've seen meant "trickster." And the stranger gives him a new name, Israel, which means "he who strives with God." For what Jacob would say about that night, looking back on it for the rest of his life, is that he wrestled there with God.
We have theologies of victory, but none of defeat. Yet here the blessing comes from the midst of defeat. We imagine God is with the clean faced and happy folk who entertain an audience with their spirituality. But what of that defeated person who lies helpless on his back, who can't rise, who's crippled at the core of his being and only mercy can save?
That may be the lesson here. If we only consider our adversities, we see God as the enemy. But those may indeed be his purifying activity. For in adversity we learn to trust him at the deeper levels of trust, and thereby gain what we might never achieve otherwise.
Caught as he was in the grip of judgment, Jacob's effort was not to escape. He was determined to hold on until something happened. He wouldn't let go until he'd wrung a blessing from that night.
He must know who he was. He must know his name. And out of that he learned not only who he was, but who he was to become. So how did it turn out?
Well, he limped for awhile. But next day he crossed the Jabbok again, and gathered his family, and went on to meet Esau. And the Bible says his brother "ran to meet him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept."(Genesis 33:4) And from that time on, things were different with Jacob.
It had been a long night's journey into day.
Chapter 2 – From Bad to Worse
"And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord; and he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and beheld, and lo, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace." Genesis 19:27-28
Joshephus the historian tells of going to a region of the Dead Sea where some ruined cities were supposed to have been and finding there a pillar of salt.
A person might say "so what?" if it weren't for the story of Lot's wife. That makes us pause and think. The mind wanders past the geological, the archaeological, and the historical. Her story involves us in human drama and tragedy, and with issues we face each day we live.3
To speak of Lot's wife, you must first speak of Lot. And to speak of him, you must speak of Abraham. It seems there are people who are always spoken of in terms of someone else.
Lot was the son of Haran, who was one of three brothers. Abraham was one of them, so Lot was his nephew. When Abraham felt called by God to leave home and seek the Promised Land, that affected Lot as well. Abraham left because God told him to. Lot left because Abraham left.
In fact, most everything that happened to Lot happened because Abraham was his uncle. Think of him as Billy Carter and you have it pretty close. (Do I need to explain that Billy was former President Carter's brother, and used to be in the news quite often those days?)
When you read about Abraham you sooner or later find some minor mention of Lot. And when you no longer read about Abraham you hear no more of Lot. (When has anyone heard anything lately about Billy Carter!)
But is it better to be famous by accident than never famous at all? That's one you can think about. That's one Lot must have thought about.
Who Lot's wife was, and where she came from, is pretty much a mystery. And she has no name. I knew I'd never heard a name, but I thought maybe I missed it. So I went through the Bible looking. No name. She is "Lot's wife" and that's all.
Are there women today who are so-and-so's wife and that's all? The answer is yes and no. As things should be among persons made in the image of God, no. There is no woman the Lord knows only as "somebody's wife." We're the ones who write off someone so easily. We often make the answer yes, but not with God's approval.
"Lot's wife." But who was she? What was her name? We don't know that, and someone will ask what it matters? I think if I were a woman I'd be mad about that sort of thing. I think some of them are!
But I did find an interesting sidelight in my search for Mrs. Lot. I found the Jews have a tradition that her name was Edith! How did that come about?
Someone likely noticed in later years that she had no name, and though she should have, and gave her one. After all, there are chapters of the Old Testament that are nothing but lists of names. Everybody and his brother and his brother's brother, all in order. They were careful about recording names. But here, by golly, was one that got missed. So a few centuries later someone corrected the mistake.
You can see I don't believe her name was really Edith! And I don't intend to use it. No disrespect to any reader or hurricane by that name. The name Edith does somehow remind you of a hurricane. No disrespect to any . . . oh, well!
Abraham's journey to the Promised Land had a detour down to Egypt and back. What Lot was doing then isn't said in the Bible, but there's a reference to it in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Lot goes along and acts as Abraham's spokesman. Also Lot finds his wife in Egypt according to that source. But who ever heard of an Egyptian named Edith!
The thing we know for sure is that on returning from Egypt, Abraham and Lot parted ways. It may have been economic need more than anything else. The land wouldn't support them both in one place, so Abraham said to Lot "you pick." There was the valley, and there were the hills. "You pick," said Abraham.
That was surely a noble thing to do. It showed faith in the grace and care of God. "Go ahead, Nephew, take what you want. I'll get by on whatever's left. You pick."
There's no indication that Lot asked his wife about this. No indication that he asked the Lord either. He simply did what most of us do in similar situations–he took what he thought was in his own best interest. He went for the best deal he could. He said he'd take that nice level valley.
So Abraham moved up to the hills. That was to be a fateful decision for both men and their families. Life was harder for Abraham, but it served him well. And life was easier for Lot, but it served him ill.
We learn this through the passing of time, but we learn it. Lot moved his tent to a place called Sodom. And the Bible says "the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord."(Genesis 13:13)
That's a story I won't try to get into. I leave it to run-down movie houses and cheaply bound books. I leave it to the preaching of some evangelists. I leave it to imaginations that do quite an adequate job.
But Lot's wife had to think about it. She had to live with it. Sodom was her home. Gomorrah is where she may have gone to do shopping.
It makes a big difference when a place is your home. Lot and his wife were not typical residents of their city. They lived a different life from most of its inhabitants.
Still, it was home. They drank the water and ate the food and raised their children there. And had what friends they had. And didn't leave.
We've all driven through areas of cities, driven with the doors locked and the windows rolled up. And we've said to ourselves or someone riding with us, "This would be a terrible place to live, wouldn't it?"
You imagine the things those women do. You wonder what that man has there in the small paper bag. You imagine what it's like down here on a warm Saturday night, if it's like this now in broad daylight. And what's it like to actually live and sleep inside those rotting buildings. And what do the children do for play?
But every such place is home to some people. It may look wicked to us, but it's home to them. It's where their friends are, their belongings, their memories. Where life has been whatever good it's going to be. A person has an attachment to the place she calls home, and few people call their home an awful place.
But Sodom was an awful place. And one day the Lord was talking with Abraham, up high in those green hills, and mentioned it. He asked how many decent folk did Abraham think were living in Sodom? He seemed serious about it. He'd been thinking that maybe a place like that didn't need to be a place anymore.
And Abraham thought about Lot and his family, of course. He knew they were good and decent. But he knew about the other problems too. For his nephew's sake, he made a generous estimate–so many.
"You must be kidding!" He revised it downward. "Oh, come now!" Downward some more. And all that finally came out of the conversation was a promise that Lot and his family would get a warning to leave the place or else.
What a terrible thing, to leave or else. When it's your home and all you have. Some Vietnamese friends told me their stories about "leave or else." They sailed tiny boats on dangerous seas to get to refugee camps in Thailand. Or worked their way in hiding all the way across Cambodia.
And in cities of the U.S. and other nations today, very often near the schools and shopping centers, there are poles with funny looking horns on top, ready to sound a warning when the missiles are on the way. Saying "leave or else."
Only how? And where to, with every road blocked and only minutes left? For instance, I live near Washington, D.C. They tell us it's an eight minute trip for a warhead to land here from a submarine off the coast. Not even the President can get out of town in eight minutes.
If you've thought about things like that, as all of us have, then you can sympathize with Lot's wife when her warning came. They were warned by an angel, it says. "This wicked place is doomed. It's going to be destroyed.
"Don't think about it, just get out. And most important, don't look back, no matter what. Do that and you'll never make it."
And as she fled with her family, they began to hear sounds of an awful destruction back behind them. And maybe they kept saying to one another, "don't do it! don't look back!"
But where she wasn't supposed to look were all the things she'd known and loved. That blazing city was the place she called home. She'd walked its streets the wife of a successful man. Back there were her memories and her roots.
And what lay ahead that was better? Just a long, long road stretching off into the dark. And at the end of it a little place called Zoar. And it was hard to think about starting life all over at the age she was. Don't look back? How could she keep from it?
The angel said go on. But what does an angel know about the pain of a woman's heart? How could she keep from pausing, at least for a moment, to see what she could? The end of life as she'd known it up to now.
She stopped, and turned, and looked back. And maybe she knew the risk, or maybe it caught her by surprise. And maybe someone tried to stop her, or maybe they never saw until it was too late.
She became, it says, a pillar of salt.4
It wasn't the fire or falling stone
I turned back to see. It was a vision
of children playing on the roof; the
morning sun on a muddy street
the way it used to be.
The pain and risk of life's departures. That's what our tears for Lot's wife are about.
Life, it seems, is made up of departures. Babies grow to childhood, which they outgrow in adolescence. Then they must outgrow that, or try to. And then there are even harder tasks ahead. And just when some of those are getting more in hand, there's the threat of knowing that time is running out on the whole process. We gain and lose, gain and lose.
All along this journey we lose what were once our securities. We run risks. We remember how the Lord was with us in Sodom, but we know nothing of the place called Zoar. No wonder we look back.
Lot's wife heard a voice saying "Go on, go and the Lord will be with you." It was the voice of truth, a voice she needed to hear and heed. But she just could not.
And so she died in a ruin not meant for her. A symbol of those who need to move on to life's next thing but can't. A painful reminder that we must act, and not linger, when the voice urging change is a voice that speaks for God.
Chapter 3 – Small Like Grasshoppers
"But my servant Caleb, because he was a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it." Numbers 14:24
If you made a graph to show the highs and lows of Old Testament history, the Exodus from Egypt would be right at the top. When some powerless slaves overthrew a mighty government. Plagues raining down on Pharoah's house. Signs and wonders performed by Moses. Escape through the Red Sea, with chariots caught and drowned behind them.
That experience was the same for Old Testament believers as the cross of Jesus became for those of the new. Their salvation, their assurance that God had acted and would act on their behalf.
But you have to beware of such times–and you can observe that over the years. The dangerous thing is the let-down that follows. Our biggest risk comes when we think we have it made. Temper your delight in good fortune with the knowledge there'll be something along soon to even the score.
That happened not far out of Egypt, at the threshold to the Promised Land.5 They got there and paused. It was where they were going, but still they paused. The land of God's promise to their fathers–Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob–but something made them think it wasn't ready for them now.
Maybe it made sense to pause. They wanted to be sure about the place, to know what they were up against. God had promised them the land, but other people were living there. Which meant what?
I realize there are holier tasks than waging war, which they were faced with doing. The term "soldiers of Christ" can be used literally, and has. "Onward, Christian soldiers" has been played to the rattle of swords and the pawing of horse's hoofs.
But let's not get into that. Let's simply use the story as a parable of obedience and disobedience, of vision and the lack of it. The Lord will understand.
As I said, they paused. And they sent out spies. Send a few good men to get the lay of the land, someone had suggested. What harm could that do? Everyone needs to know what he's going to be faced with if he can.
Maybe all of us have spied a little. Spied into a Christmas package, or someone's desk drawer, or a window at night, or something. And consider how spying has advanced since then, and what big business it is now.
You can hire people to spy for you today–they're listed there in the yellow pages. A man once showed me film of his wife and another man made by hired spies. I think it was shown later in court. And corporations spend large budgets spying on one another, and guarding against it. And nations, of course.
Spy satellites are circling through the skies right now. We have cameras that can see in the dark, microphones that hear through walls, electronic eavesdropping, secret agents, and who knows what else? We're not advanced beyond their state of insecure suspicion. We've just improved the technology.
So off went that 12-man Hebrew CIA, while the rest of the people waited. But what are you looking for when you're looking at a new land? What matters about a place where you might want to settle down?
I've been a few places in the world–as far away as Korea. Every place I've been I'm sure it crossed my mind that maybe I'd like to call this home. I wondered that in Oregon, and I'll always dream of living on the seacoast of Newfoundland. But what do you really know about a land from several days' visit there? If someone came to check out the place you live as to its habitability, what report would they take back?
The concern of the spies was all with physical things. The size of the people, the richness of the soil, the supply of wood, the ease of travel. But what do we value that's different?
What kind of schools? How high the taxes? How many the doctors? And the weather, scenery, the jobs. We're really just like them. We have our mind on the lay of the land, not on the will of the Lord.
The spies return–just picture it. People gather around to hear a report that's to determine their future.
It's going to happen to them like it always happens. Many will come to stand and listen who have no voice in the matter at all. They'll know to keep their mouths shut while the others decide. Government "of the people, by the people, and for the people" has been man's dream, but seldom his situation. Many always have a presence, but no voice.
The report of the spies was another "good news, bad news" affair, as so much of life is.
It's a good land, but . . ..
We can get there easily, but . . ..
See here these grapes we brought, but . . ..
But there are giants up ahead! Sons of Anak. The name "Anak" literally means "neck." There were people with long necks in that land.
In an airport lobby in Seoul, Korea, a person said "I want to introduce you to someone." So I turned to meet the person. If you're six feet tall, you expect to look down when meeting Koreans. But where I looked was about the middle of the man I turned to see. And so I looked up higher, and higher, amazed. And people laughed as the man smiled down on me. He was a giant, a son of Anak. He turned out to be a gentle Christian, but a champion wrestler, and a feared man in the ring they said.
This land is full of men like that, the spies warned. And it's a land that "devours" its inhabitants.
In Oklahoma I met a laborer named Pappy. He lived in a shack rented for $50 a month. He'd paid $50 for his car. And I was there with his boss to tell him the contractor's check for a week's wages bounced, and he had no money to feed nine kids. Any wonder those kids get in trouble? Don't some lands still devour their inhabitants?
But back to the spies and their news about the giants. People who'd been quiet a minute before are now in an uproar. They're in a good-news-bad-news uproar, and it's the bad they're talking about mostly. And a man named Caleb, one of the 12, is trying to get them to shut up so he can say something.
That's hard where fear has taken hold. Caleb needs our prayers. It's hard to get things quiet when they're already out of hand. It's hard to tell the other side of something when people have already made up their minds about the one side they've heard.
Caleb was a man with a "different spirit," the Bible says. He'd had the same experience as the other spies, but not the same response. And that shows it's not what life brings us, but what we bring to life, that matters most. Calebs make their way, while others let the way make them.
Finally they do get quiet. So listen in on Caleb's quiet. "We are well able," he says, "let's go on now!"
The other spies had said, "we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them."(Numbers 13:33) You see there how some faith gets shrunk by the size of the threat against it. But Caleb didn't see himself as a grasshopper. His faith added to his confidence and strengthened his resolve. Their faith said "we can't," but his said "we can."
Whatever we are in our own sight we think we are in others' sight and sooner or later we become. Grasshopper thinking! The strength of our will to believe becomes the strength of our will to act.
Caleb does get a little help–from Joshua, another of the spies. Joshua, bless his soul, raises a theological question. He says: "If the Lord delights in us . . .." Which means "if God's really on our side, what do we have to worry about?"
But they could stand none of that. Theology is in the way here. Joshua's truth is about to be trampled as by a herd of cattle in a wild stampede.
I've seen theology trampled. I've heard people say they didn't want those strangers coming in and messing up "their" church. I've seen someone try to quote the words of Christ about feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. I've heard the matter put bravely on a will-of-the Lord basis, and the crowd still say: "Don't give us that preacher talk, get 'em out of here."
You must worry then about whatever leader is in the crowd's way. And sure enough, people begin hollering for a new man to lead them back where they came from. Back to Egypt! Back to slavery! Back to their old securities.
Should we feel any sympathy for the choice they faced? I suppose some. After all, they were called by God to a future known only through promise. And the uproar continued, and now they're saying stone Caleb and Joshua.
Some remedy. Not exactly a plan for Staff Appreciation Day! And they might have done it, but something happened. The glory of the Lord appeared at the Tent of Meeting.
And Moses goes inside, and he and the Lord have a talk. The Lord says, "Moses, I've had it with these people. I'll wipe 'em out and make a new start." And Moses says, "But Lord, haven't you always been slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love? Be patient with them. They're weak, but they're not bad." And the Lord says: "Well, I guess you're right. But I'll tell you this, we're going to wait for a new generation before they enter my Promised Land."
So the outcome was ambiguous, as so many are. They didn't turn back to Egypt, nor were they stricken there by the wrath of God. Instead they wandered, wandered, wandered. For 40 years they wandered.
In his movie "The Natural," Robert Redford played a baseball player with a past he's trying to hide. He has a haunting line about his wasted years.
"Some mistakes you never get through paying for."
So with those Israelites. One by one, they died in the wilderness. And never knew how much better life could have been.
How sobering that the promise of God must often wait for some funerals to take place. What a perilous thing to stand in the way of his will. What a tragic thing to be close to the land he's called you to, then turn around and go in the other direction.
It gives added urgency to the prayer about a lamp for our feet and a light for our path.
Chapter 4 – The Failures of a Hero
"By faith the walls of Jericho fell down after they had been encircled for seven days. By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had given friendly welcome to the spies. And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson . . .." Hebrews 11:30-32
We've seen pictures of disasters like this. Every year or so, from Mexico or Nicaragua or India or other places hit by earthquakes. Pictures of buildings that fell down on people. Workers digging through for bodies, some never found. People crushed with no chance to get out. Terrible.
Imagine a scene like that. On the next day perhaps. Just one building, but huge and with thousands inside when it collapsed. Most of the relatives digging are Philistines, because it was their building, but among them are some Hebrews, who find and carry off one of their own.
He was a blind man when he died. And around his wrists and neck and ankles are the iron bands of a slave. They bury him between Zorah and Eshtaol in the tomb of Manoah his father. He was a hero.
His story will be told and retold around camp fires for years to come. And whether they made it better or worse than the man himself, who can say? I tell it like they told it.6 But you might decide that here's another example of how we make heroes from our colorful villains and then enjoy them vicariously.
The setting is Israel in the days of the Judges. The people do evil in the sight of God, and he delivers them to the Philistines for 40 years. During that time an angel appears to Manoah's wife with good news. She'll have a son, and he'll do something about the Philistine problem. She runs and calls Manoah, who's glad of course, and prays this very fine prayer:
"Oh, Lord, I pray thee, let the man of God whom thou didst send come again to us, and teach us what we are to do with the boy that will be born." (Judges 13:8)
They name him Samson and dedicate him to the Lord who gave such a promising gift. They take what was called the "Nazarite vow," which meant that he would abstain from wine or strong drink, from any food not cleansed, and from haircuts. Those things Samson's parents swore. And the Bible says the boy grew, and the Lord blessed him, and the spirit of the Lord began to stir within him.
But other things begin to stir in Samson too. One day in town he sees a woman he likes very much. She happens to be Philistine, which was the worst sort of mixed arrangement you could have in those days. He wants her and tells his parents, and of course they are aghast. But at least he isn't cutting his hair!
Something hard to believe happens on one of Samson's courting trips. He meets a lion in the road. And the lion thinks a man should get out of the road for him. But Samson thinks the lion should get out of the road for him. So the two discuss it there, and Samson leaves the lion lying behind him, torn in pieces.
He later comes that way again and finds the wild bees have made honey in the lion's carcass. And of that he makes a riddle for his wedding night in the Philistine town of Timnah. He challenges 30 young men to figure it out. He'll give each one a new suit if they do. They must each give him one if they don't.
They try and try. But you know how stupid those Philistines are! So they gather around Samson's bride and say, "Listen, honey, we need a little help with this boy from out of town." And she goes and says to Samson, "Listen honey, you surely will tell me, won't you? I mean, if you really love me you will." As a tear begins its heart-rending trickle down her pretty cheek.
Samson is strong, but not that strong! He tells her, and she tells them. So was he tricked, outwitted, humiliated. And he rushes out in a rage and kills 30 men to get their clothes and pay his wager.
As you can imagine, that caused an interruption in the wedding festivities. But Samson comes back later for his bride. He even brings a present. And her father has to break the news that she married the Best Man instead. And now Samson is really mad.
He catches 300 foxes and ties their tails together in pairs, with a torch burning from each, and turns them loose in the grain fields. The entire Philistine crop is burned, and now they are mad. They kill the girl and her father for getting him so riled up. And then he comes back and kills a lot of them to get even for that, and goes into hiding for awhile. The Philistines begin to take it out on the Israelites, who pay a visit to Samson. They want to hand him over and get this trouble off their backs. He says fine. But when the moment arrives, it's just too much. He grabs the only weapon he can find, the jawbone of an ass, and with it kills a thousand Philistines then and there.
Sometime about now, you surely begin wondering about Samson's religious experience! His home was unusually devout; he'd had a very strict upbringing. He was pledged to God before he could even know what it meant. And you begin to think that might have been part of the problem.
Samson wasn't remotely serious about the things his parents were serious about. He seemed in rebellion against it. As if religion had been shoved down his throat, and now he didn't have to take it any more. And out of that adolescent stage, he never grew.
Tell a child what to do without explaining why and there's trouble somewhere down the road. Force him to do things from your motivation, with none of his own, and he'll quit them one day. Give him things to live with, but nothing to live for, and he'll sooner or later be turning to other things. Like Samson did.
The man never got beyond the level of doing whatever he felt at any given moment. Emotions ruled. And no person who lives on that level will have satisfactory and lasting relationships with other people. For to be around him or her is to be used or abused, one or the other.
Well, this is digressing some, but actually that's not bad, because time passes before the story continues. Samson was on the scene 20 years, and it's just the highlights of his life we know about. They all seem to have to do with Philistines.
He goes to Gaza and finds there a harlot. They go to her place, apparently for the night. But remember, Samson isn't a popular hero in Philistine towns, so word spreads that he's there and what he's doing. And their bravest young men surround that "house" and swear to kill him when he comes out next morning.
Now you begin to realize that Samson is a sort of ethnic joke. Samson is the means whereby one group of people thumb their noses at another group of people. Not unlike the Philistines had done with their giant Goliath. Many groups find means of thumbing their noses at other groups.
I can barely remember, but do, when grown men put black shoe polish on their faces and performed ridicule on people whose faces were black all the time. These exploits of Samson were used the very same way in Hebrew circles. They would roar with laughter at those dumb Philistines.
So dumb they were all sound asleep when Samson crept out of the house at midnight, not dawn, and tiptoed past them, and showed his contempt by stealing the gates of their city and moving them 20 miles up the road! Wow!
All this is great fun, of course, but think of it now. Think how a man who was chosen by God and endowed with mighty gifts is using his life. Think what better causes he might be serving. Think what will become of him if he goes on like this.
You want to say, "Stay away from Philistines, Samson. And especially women!" But you know he won't, because we have yet to meet Delilah. Well, she's next.
Like all his known women, she was a Philistine, and the Bible says he loved her. It never says she loved him. When her kinsmen hear that again this enemy fancies one of their women, they talk with her and offer rewards if she will learn the secret of his strength. Delilah will try her best.
Poor Samson. A match for any man, but easy prey for any woman.
Delilah pleads. "Tell me your secret, Samson. If you love me!"
And if needed, she will cry. And you know he will tell her. And while he sleeps in her lap, she cuts his hair and renders him helpless. They come and bind him, and put out his eyes just to add to the margin of safety, and lead him away. They work him like an animal, and make sport of him like he once made sport of them.
Samson gave up his secret to someone who cared nothing for him, who only used him to get what she wanted. The world is full of those. People who want to learn your secret so they can manipulate you for their own advantage.
Be warned. You live in a world that will find and exploit your secret if it can. The advertisers are only one group, but they study you daily. Have you considered the ads suggesting that if your child is acting funny lately (and you really love him) you should get him into their expensive program at once? Hey, what kids haven't been acting funny lately? But someone knows the secret of guilty parents, you see.
Samson's passions were what? Women and fighting. And what are ours?
Look in that mirror of what we are, which is the television screen, and you'll discover the same thing. Sex and violence. And don't blame TV, this is simply what people want. It's what gets an audience and moves the merchandise. If the country was wild about tropical fish, that's what you'd see all the time on television.
You imagine that after Samson's capture, people were afraid of him for awhile. But then later, when the fear gave way to the commonplace, even little kids might run up and poke him in the ribs just to watch him jump. You wonder if Delilah might have felt anything about that, but you guess not.
Time passes. A feast day comes when everyone gathers in the temple for a great celebration. And Samson is brought there as part of the entertainment.
Don't worry, he's used to it now. He's adjusted. He had a past that promised much, but the present has had it and so has the future. So that if he got the chance, as the evening wore on, he might say to the boy that led him, "I'm tired. Could you just let me lean against the pillar?"
Two great pillars held up the roof. And he'd put out his hand and find he could reach the other one too. And he'd pray then. Only time in the whole story he prays.
"O Lord, restore my strength this one last time to let me get even with my enemies."
And he'd push with all his might, and down would come that building to bury them all.
What a contrast to another prayer about enemies: "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do."
And what a lesson for us all, and especially the young, to learn and guard the secret of our strength. And use it wisely to the glory of God.
Chapter 5 – His World of Ills
"Then his wife said to him, 'Do you still hold fast your integrity? Curse God, and die.' But he said to her, 'You speak as one of the foolish women would speak. Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?'" Job 2:9-10
You begin a story by saying "once upon a time there was a person named so-and-so." That makes a way to start. But in the case of Job, no one's really sure if it's true or not. The book is more a drama than a book of history. More a story about all of us than a record of any one of us. So we don't know if "once upon a time there was a man named Job." This may be his story, or it may be ours. Or could be both.7
Like many things about the Bible, people have distorted ideas concerning Job. They speak proverbially about the "patience of Job," and that's something of a laugh when you read the book. Job was a profoundly impatient man. Impatient with the thinking of his day, with his lot in life, and with God himself. There's no meek acceptance in this story. To walk it is to walk a battlefield.
Disasters pile up. Questions get stacked on questions till they reach the sky. Anger gets poured on anger like fuel on a fire. Things are discussed here that were never mentioned before, and hardly since. This is heavy stuff. You can tiptoe carefully around, gather a few nice lines, and ignore what most of it means. But that's a dishonest way of using the Bible, and very misleading.
When we first meet him, Job's a rich man, and a happy man, and a godly man. Who can ask for more? Job is what we all desire to be, a good illustration for anyone's commencement address. There it is, young people. Get out there and work hard and this is what you can be too!
Ah, but how swiftly ruin may come. One distracted moment on a nice winding road. One suspicious test result in a doctor's office. One downward turn in a son or daughter's life. One ring of the phone or stroke of the clock in the unsuspecting middle of any night.
Lightning flashed and the sheep all died. The Chaldeans rode in and the camels were gone. Sabeans got the rest of the livestock and killed the servants. And then came a whirlwind that hit the house as only a whirlwind can, and all seven sons and all three daughters are dead.
Now the man isn't rich, and isn't happy, and whether he's still godly remains to be seen. But there in the wake of that first wave of troubles, it sounds incredibly like he is. For hear him say: "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord."(Job 1:21)
Can you say something like that when your own trouble comes? Death, divorce, bankruptcy; failing crops, failing grades, failing health. Who can hold lightly to the best of life's gifts because he holds more strongly to the one who gave them? And so be able to bless where others curse?
"Blessed be the name of the Lord"–how easy to say it in church! But how hard when Satan throws you down in the dirt and robs you of all you own.
The Bible tells us that in it all Job did not sin, nor charge God with being unjust. He even said, "Shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?"(Job 2:10) As if he'd learned what Jesus later taught, that the Father sends rain on the just and on the unjust. That he shows no partiality.
The Lord and Satan were having a running conversation about all this. The Lord says, "Ha! I told you the man had it in him. Everything gone, and he still worships me. What do you say to that, old Devil?" And the Devil says, "Well you've taken what's his, but you haven't touched him. Let me do that, and you'll see how things change." And the Lord says "O.K. then. Do anything except take his life."
So Job's trouble isn't over. Like the man who saw light at the end of the tunnel and it was a train coming at him! Job is smitten with running sores from head to toe, and is in agony.
Is there pain so great, that a man will wish to die? Is there pain so great that a man should be permitted to die? Richard Dreyfus made a movie about that. It was titled "Whose life is it, anyway?" The question remains unanswered in our society. Something in us says yes, and something else says no. But none of the speculation is a help to the person in Job's circumstances.
He sits in ashes and scrapes himself with a piece of broken pottery. His skin is on fire. There's no drug for his ease, and no remedy in sight. And now his words get more dark and more desperate.
What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient? Is my strength the strength of stones, or is my flesh bronze? In truth I have no help in me, and any resource is driven from me." (Job 6:11-13)
Job curses the day of his birth, and wishes he'd never been born. He prays strange prayers like this:
"Thy hands fashioned and made me; and now thou dost turn about and destroy me. Remember that thou hast made me of clay; and wilt thou turn me to dust again? Didst thou not pour me out like milk and curdle me like cheese?" (Job 10:8-10)
He struggles with the ultimate question of life: "If a man die, shall he live again?" And most of his answers are answers of despair. Answers like this:
"But man dies, and is laid low; man breathes his last, and where is he? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so man lies down and rises not again; till the heavens are no more he will not awake, or be roused out of his sleep." (Job 13:10-12)
He spends time in sad remembrance. Ronald Reagan's question–"Are you better off now than you were?"–burns in his brain. He isn't better off, and the gulf between then and now overwhelms. The magazines tell how to go from rags to riches, but what about the man who goes from riches back to rags?
How does life seem to a man in Job's condition? Here's how. "Man that is born of a woman is of few days and full of trouble. He comes forth like a flower, and withers; he flees like a shadow, and continues not." (Job 14:1-2)
Flowers, shadows, troubles. And right after giving that dismal philosophy, Job calls on God to leave him alone, to "get off his case." He says "Lord, this life you've given me isn't long, and isn't much. So why complicate it with all your demands and expectations? Why can't you just let us be happy what little time there is?" (see Job 14:1-6)
You see how honest and plain he was about it. You think as you hear him that maybe a man shouldn't talk to Almighty God as he does. For he questions God, and struggles with God, and at times comes close to cursing God.
But Martin Luther, a struggler with God himself, said the curses of the damned may be more acceptable to God than the hallelujahs of the pious. They at least take him seriously and not for granted, which is the worst of all blasphemies.
Job's wealth was gone, his children dead, his faith in jeopardy, and his body tortured. What has he left?
Well, he has a wife, and he has three friends.
His wife deserves some credit perhaps. Being married to a man in trouble isn't easy. And those were her dead children too. But she keeps advising Job to curse God and die and get it over with. And he called her a "wicked fool of a woman." So there wasn't a lot of mutual support, to say the least.
And Job's friends–Eliphaz and Bildad and Zophar–their common theme was that God prospers the righteous and punishes the wicked, and Job must have sinned and needs to repent. They lacked a theology that could deal with unmerited suffering. They even preached sermons to Job like this: "Happy is the man whom God reproves; therefore despise not the chastening of the Almighty"! (Job 5:17)
Their theology didn't die when they did. You hear it spoken all the time. "Why did this happen to me?" "Why did that happen to him?" As if suffering is a human abnormality, which it isn't. As if the Lord inflicts it for his own amusement, which he surely doesn't. As if whatever you get is what you deserved. If that's what you believe, then you'll never make sense of Jesus Christ.
In all the Old Testament, nothing points toward the Cross more than the story of Job. For he, a righteous and blameless man, was "despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and [they] esteemed him not." (See Isaiah 53:3)
The troubled Job is a lonely man. Before his great calamity there likely were crowds around him often, as the rich are prone to have. But now he has one nagging wife, and three accusing friends, and that's all. He learned about the leprous tendency of suffering. Even your best friends begin avoiding you. The divorced, the depressed, the delinquent, the diseased, the alcoholic, they all find this. And sometimes it's the hardest part to cope with.
Well, what happens? Something always has to happen. I have said to people in crisis something like this: "I don't know how you'll come out of this, but I know one thing: you'll not stay the same, especially with God. You'll either get closer to him, or farther from him, one or the other. And I hope it'll be the better of the two."
What happened with Job was, this went on for awhile. And his wife and friends were no help, but his faith was in the end. The God against whom he kicked and screamed became more real the longer he did it. One by one his questions tired out. He began accepting what he had no choice but to accept. And to love God, who daily bore him up.
He said to God: "I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted . . .. I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know . . . (and) I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee." (Job 42:2-5)
His time of troubles passed. All he'd lost, he gained back in full measure. And "Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons' sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days." (Job 42:16-17)
He was God's man at last. Drawn from the brink and back to the fullness of life. He'd learned how suffering may fit us for the will of God.
And from his ash heap in the Old Testament, we get a glimpse of that Cross upcoming in the New. Where God himself will play Job, to the saving of us all.JOB.05
Chapter 6 – Of Kings and Men
"In the morning David wrote a letter to Joab, and sent it by the hand of Uriah. In the letter he wrote, 'Set Uriah in the forefront of the hardest fighting, and then draw back from him, that he may be struck down, and die.'" 2 Samuel 11:14-15
"In the spring of the year, the time when kings go forth to battle, David sent Joab, and his servants with him, and all Israel; and they ravaged the Ammonites, and besieged Rabbah. But David remained at Jerusalem." (2 Samuel 11:1)8
The Old Testament can't get its mind off David, nor can most students of it. He attracts you, then embarrasses you. He bewilders and then inspires you. No matter what you think or say about him, there's always more to think or say. You never get done with a man like David.
His story is as troublesome as he was. Although it gets told in Sunday School classes, it seems not to belong there, especially with the children. You can't give the story of David's life and then say "now, boys and girls, let's all go out try to be like him!"
It's the kind of story losers tell one another to help them hang in there. The account of someone as rough and prone to error as we are who made it after all. Someone the Lord loved in spite of all his messing up. Someone who could probably write the 23rd Psalm, leave it lying on his desk, and hurry off to some shenanigan.
But just listen to him pray!
"Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that thou hast brought me thus far? . . . What more can David say to thee? For thou knowest thy servant, O Lord God! Because of thy promise, and according to thy own heart, thou hast wrought all this greatness, to make thy servant know it. Therefore thou art great, O Lord God; for there is none like thee . . .." (2 Samuel 7:18-22)
He viewed his life in relationship to God–always. Even as King he did. Sometimes his deeds were the glory of God, and sometimes the shame of God. They rose higher when they rose up, and fell lower when they fell down. And as we join him now, he clearly is about to fall.
"David remained at Jerusalem." Others went out to war, and he remained. How unlike the David of old. Whose men once formed a committee on his safety because their leader had a habit of fighting the enemy himself and scorned having bodyguards. So they kept inventing reasons why he should stay back at headquarters instead of risking himself at the front.
This, after all, was the adult version of the lad who'd slain the giant Goliath. And he carried all his life that same need to prove himself, and it was always threatening to be his ruin.
There are many forms such proving takes. Men prove themselves against men, and men prove themselves with women. Women prove themselves with men, and against other women. And then we find a need of women to prove themselves against men, and men against women, so that much is always in the process of being proved or disproved.
Now "it happened late one afternoon, when David arose from his couch and was walking upon the roof . . . that he saw . . . a woman bathing." It happened.
Things like that do happen, of course. Have happened and will. With every normal man or woman, young or old, saint or otherwise, who happens to see something somewhere, and it looks good.
The woman David saw was Bathsheba. And she was beautiful, especially beautiful. So he sent. Kings send. Kings move people around by order. They have those who tend their needs and do it without question.
They tell the woman to come with them to the King, and she comes. She understood the way of kings too. And he was happy with her, and if it mattered she was happy with him. But Bathsheba doesn't say much about these things, doesn't have many lines to learn. When her cue arrives she can put it all in two words–"I'm pregnant."
Women had few choices then. No such thing as going to a counselor, telling how she'd been involved with this important man whose career and reputation were at stake, and had no desire for a baby right now, and what would the counselor recommend?
No, David has the problem of what to do, and sets out to solve it. He sends to where Bathsheba's husband is fighting and orders him home at once.
The king wants to talk, Uriah. Take a seat. Make yourself at home. Say, how's old Joab these days? And how are the soldiers out there? You deserve a break from this war, Uriah–we all do. So enjoy the time with that pretty wife of yours.
The man leaves, but not for home. He sleeps on the floor with the soldiers that night, while the king in his bed cannot. An innocent husband rests, while a guilty adversary can't.
They tell David about Uriah's night, and he discovers once more what a pain it can be to have an idealist around! For Uriah refuses to sleep with his wife because his buddies are out there lying woman-less in their tents.
Uggh! What use has a man like that with a wife like Bathsheba? But you know the man won't change his mind, unless . . ..
David will make one more effort. Which means Uriah has one last chance. The king will have him in for dinner and see that he drinks. Perhaps a loosened up Uriah will finally go home and give himself a reason to think the baby his. But no, he still doesn't.
So David sends Uriah back to war. He sends in his hand a sealed letter to Joab, the commander. On orders of that letter, Joab stations Uriah in a perilous place, and withdraws all support. A man who refused to sleep with his wife out of loyalty to his friends will die abandoned by them. Word comes that this has happened.
And now it is all over, or is it? David sends for Bathsheba, and she becomes his wife and bears him a son. But the Bible says, "the thing that David had done displeased the Lord."
Sins compound like interest does. One leads to another, and adds to another. To adultery have been added lying and deception. To lying and deception have been added treachery and murder. And you think no good can come from any of that, but wait and see.
We have here a man after God's own heart. We have here a man the Lord will never give up on, who will never give up on him. We have here a prodigal son about to be driven toward home. We will see here why older brothers know so little of the father's love. We have here a hope for sinners like ourselves, though not an easy hope.
David has been sending people to and fro, and now the Lord sends someone of his own. "The Lord sent Nathan to David."
Nathan, who was a prophet. Nathan, who has no power except the power of faith, and what of it dwells in the heart of David. Nathan who was called by God to speak truth to power, in the chambers of power, and take all the risks that go with doing that.
Bishop Tutu of South Africa comes to mind, Brother Falwell notwithstanding. To preach about the world from a guarded mansion in Virginia seems pretty safe. We pay more attention to the man whose life is on the line. Like Sir Thomas Moore, refusing to bend to the demands of Henry VIII.
Be careful, Nathan! you have dangerous business here. Uriah is dead already, and you may join him. Yours is that tricky business of trying to serve God while minding the needs of your own preservation. You must pray to be subtle. You must keep out of this yourself, and be the voice by which God speaks.
Be careful, David! how you hear him. Much is to be decided here. Listen!
Two men lived in a certain city. One was rich like you, David. Always sending people here and there. Eating the best foods, entertained with the best amusements, clothed with the richest clothing. You know about that.
You know about the other man too. For he was poor, like the shepherd you used to be. He lived a simple life and had few worldly things. But he was happy.
David, he had one small lamb, and it was a pet. It lived in his house like one of the children. It ate from his table. It had a name.
And the rich man had many such lambs, more than he or anyone knew. But still he was greedy. He hated to give up anything that was his. And he was used to getting whatever he wanted.
The poor man slept well at night, but the rich man tossed and turned. Someone was coming to visit. What to put on the table?
The rich man had money to buy with–anything he wanted–but he hated to spend. He had lambs to spare, but he hated to use one.
You know what he did? This is what he did, David–this! He sent and took that poor man's lamb and killed it for his table!
Now the heart of David had listened well. And there rose in him what should rise up in anyone who sees injustice by those in power. He saw another person's greed and how ugly and loathsome it was, and he shook in rage.
Be careful, David! For the sin that looks most hideous in someone else is the one that has a claim on you. And the blame you place is an effort to cover up something in your own soul. What seems clear as you look at others gets clouded as you look at yourself. But Nathan is about to change that.
David says, "the man who would do such a thing deserves to die."
He is righteous and innocent in that moment. He has God's approval while it lasts. But now he must learn what else is there in the story he must deal with.
"You are this man," Nathan says.
If his courage ran high, perhaps he pointed with a finger that shook as he said it.
You my King, to whom the Lord gave much, were greedy still for more. Why have you despised the word of the Lord, to do what was evil in his sight? You killed Uriah as with your own sword. You took his wife to be your wife. And now, behold, says the Lord, I will raise up evil against you out of your own house.
There are choices now for David. He can be angry at Nathan, or be angry with the Lord who sent him. Or he can call for his singers and forget the whole thing. He could sink into black despair, as Saul before him would have done. Or he can stand tall in this crisis and let us see the man he is.
David answers, "I have sinned against the Lord."
And Nathan says, with no hesitation at all: "The Lord also has put away your sin. You shall not die." (2 Samuel 12:13)
But the child that was born of this time of troubles did die. Yet Bathsheba continued to live as the wife of David. And the next son she bore they named Solomon, and the Bible says the Lord loved him. And life went on, though perhaps more sadly.
After the shooting of President Kennedy, someone asked Patrick Moynahan what this would mean for friends, and he said:
"We all shall laugh again, but we shall never be young again."
You might suppose the same of David. Except that in the Lord the old do become young again, the tired find strength, the weary rest, the guilty peace, the lonely comfort.
He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Trust in him with all your might, and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will direct your path.
However twisted the way it takes.
Chapter 7 – A Desolate Woman
"So his servant put her out, and bolted the door after her. And Tamar put ashes on her head, and rent the long robe which she wore; and she laid her hand on her head, and went away, crying aloud as she went." 2 Samuel 13:19
If you've been depressed lately, this story may not be for you, at least not now. It's a story from the Bible,9 but the theme is common to the dark side of every day's news. It's a story of ancient people and their problems, but the problems are still with us. So this isn't just their story, it's ours too.
Uriah the Hittite is dead, and Bathsheba, who was his wife, is now the wife of David the king, as he wanted. Their first child died, but Solomon has come along and is doing well. The king is doing well. The war against the Ammonites goes well. But a new and dreadful thing is about to happen in the royal family.
Besides baby Solomon, David has three children. The oldest is Amnon, the youngest Absalom, and in between an only daughter–Tamar.
By all accounts, she is lovely. Lovely to look at, and lovely in her manner of life. The sort of woman men dream of, but in their better dreams. The sort that if they lusted for, they might catch themselves and be ashamed.
But Absalom's brother Amnon does lust. Absalom's brother, who is, of course, Tamar's brother too. And he "was so tormented that he made himself ill because of his sister Tamar; for she was a virgin, and it seemed impossible to Amnon to do anything to her." (2 Samuel 13:2)
Here is a powerful man, the first born son of the king, used to getting what he wanted, impotent in his desire. He'd watched the ways of the powerful. He'd seen how his father took Bathsheba. But this is no stranger's wife, seen from a rooftop. This is his own sister. It made him ill just thinking.
Something will happen, but what? Something bad will happen. Think the worst of all things you can imagine, and it might be that. Let's see.
Amnon "had a friend," it says. Nothing wrong with that of course. Don't you have a friend? It's usually good to have friends. But there are other times. When friends make suggestions that lead to something. When friends know things about you they shouldn't know.
Amnon's friend is named Jonadab, and he is a cousin, and the Bible calls him "a very crafty man." Tamar is "very beautiful" and Jonadab is "very crafty," and you can ponder which it's better to be. We're going to find that craftiness had the advantage.
Jonadab wants to help Amnon, sure. Jonadab doesn't help just anyone, of course, but a royal son he does. So he comes to Amnon and says: "O son of the king, why are you so haggard morning after morning? Will you not tell me?"
No son of a king should be weak and thin and sitting lost in his thoughts. No heir apparent should want something badly and fail to get it. All problems have solutions, even those involving women. "So tell me, Amnon, what is this downcast look you're wearing?"
Amnon's reply is a sentence with only six Hebrew words.10
"Tamar, sister-of Absalom, my-brother, I desire."
The object of the verb comes first–Tamar. Each remaining word begins with the same letter, aleph, giving the impression of sighing when you say it. With breath left over to go ahhah! at the end.
Notice how Amnon designates the object of his desire. "Sister of Absalom." As if his brother is the major obstacle here. Remove him and this female he wants would become accessible. As if she is vulnerable and about to be caught up in a rivalry of men in power.
His friend's questions lead to plans being made. Amnon will lie down on his bed and pretend illness. His father will come and ask if there's anything he can do to help. And the son will say, "not really Dad. Except you could ask my sister Tamar to come over with some bread for me to eat, and prepare food in my sight, that I may see it, and eat it from her hand."
Is that what women are for? To be nurses for the sick, and cooks for the hungry? "That I may see," Amnon says. And David thinks he means "see her cook." But he means see her. Amnon calls Tamar his sister here, for the father's benefit, and things move on.
David sends and tells Tamar, "Go to your brother Amnon's house and prepare food for him." His words are more of an order than a suggestion. She goes and finds Amnon lying down. And she takes dough and begins to knead it, and he watches. And she shapes it and bakes it, as he watches, and then takes it to him. But he refuses to eat it right then.
He sends all the servants out of the house. Did they glance at one another as they went? Did some man smile a knowing smile at some other man? Anyway, potential witnesses are out of the way. And now the king's oldest son and his sister are alone together.
Amnon says to Tamar, "Bring the food to my bedroom that I may eat it there." And she obeys, as women were used to doing in those days.
And whether she did it with alarm, or suspicion, or simply in trusting innocence, we don't know. But this is what happened:
"When she brought them near him to eat, he took hold of her, and said to her, 'Come, lie with me, my sister.' She answered him, 'No, my brother, do not force me; for such a thing is not done in Israel; do not do this wanton folly. As for me, where could I carry my shame? And as for you, you would be as one of the wanton fools in Israel." "But he would not listen to her; and being stronger than she, he forced her, and lay with her." (2 Samuel 2:11-14)
"Her . . . she." There in the moment of this crime the narrator hints at Tamar's powerlessness by speaking in pronouns. The male characters have names and are called by names, even when a "he" would do. But Tamar is no longer Tamar, only "she."
Amnon's physical act, in the plan of God, was meant to be an expression of love and trust. Instead, his is one of violence and lust. The next sentence reads:
"Then Amnon hated her with very great hatred; so that the hatred with which he hated her was greater than the love with which he had loved her." (2 Samuel 13:15)
And you look at that sentence and find hatred four times, and love twice, and see rather clearly what the situation was.
Now the man who'd said "come lie with me, my sister" is saying "get up and go, you woman." And the word "go" he uses is the same one his father used when he said "go to your brother Amnon's house."
In sending her away, Amnon adds insult to injury. Listen to Tamar as her useless words pour out:
"No, my brother; for this wrong in sending me away is greater than the other which you did to me."
But he would not listen to her, it says. He called the young man who served him and said:
"Put this woman out of my presence, and bolt the door after her." (2 Samuel 13:16-17)
Just awhile ago, Amnon had wanted Tamar in and the servants out. Now he wants the servants in and her out. She's become a disposable object, a throw-away. And where most translations give the words "put this woman out of my presence," the Hebrew literally has "put this out of my presence." Not my sister, not even this person, but this object, this thing.
That's a crime all its own. Using people as things. We were meant by God to love the people of this world and use the things of this world, but we keep getting it backward. We love the things and use the people in our efforts to have them.
So beautiful Tamar goes out toward her future. Today is the first day of the rest of her life. Yes, sure. She rends her robes as she goes, and piles ashes on top of her head. And cries aloud her misery all the way down the long road.
But where to go? Where can she go? Where will she?
She goes to her brother Absalom, and now see:
"Absalom her brother said to her, 'Was Amnon your brother with you? Now, my sister, be quiet; your brother is he. Do not take to your heart this deed.'"
He seems to be saying, "just forget it my sister." It seems a plea for silence in the name of family loyalty. It seems advice designed to excuse his brother's crime. But something is underneath all this. Absalom has a plan. Absalom is Tamar's friend.
He will someday get revenge, Absalom will. But the thing about revenge is, it won't really help Tamar. It will change nothing about her situation. It'll be just another of the games men play while women sit at home and bear their pain in silence.
Perhaps friends stop in from time to time and try to say "just shake it off." "It's all over now. It wasn't the disaster you've made it into. Cheer up, Tamar, and count your blessings. Then get on with your life." And all those friends mean well, but they help nothing.
And then comes the most heart-rending line in this story of human misery:
"So Tamar dwelt, a desolate woman, in her brother Absalom's house." (verse 20)
What does "desolate" mean? "Barren, laid waste, devastated." "Having the feeling of being abandoned by friends or by hope." "Solitary, lonely, forlorn." The list goes on: "ravaged, lost, wretched, inconsolable." The desolate person may be aware of others' efforts to give comfort, but cannot be comforted.
The Hebrew word "desolate" is used sometimes of a person destroyed by enemies, or torn to pieces by wild animals.
Why must we live in a world where harms like that can come to innocent people on any unsuspecting day? Why?
The better question is likely how. For the why lies out of reach, somewhere in a world apart, lost in the vastness of the mystery of our making. But the how we can know something of, and do something with. We can trust in God and try to know and do his will for our lives.
What should be our prayer for Tamar? And for all the butchered, and betrayed, and martyred children of this earth?11 And for ourselves, in our own most desperate hours?
O Jesus, grant me hope and comfort;
O let me ne'er in sorrow pine,
My heart and soul, yea, all my being,
O Jesus, trust alone in Thee.
Thou Prince of Peace, Thou Pearl from heaven,
True God, true Man, My Morning Star!
O Jesus, with Thy advent quiet
My restless soul and anxious mind.
In true humility I welcome Thee,
Jesus Christ, my Joy divine.
My thoughts, desires, and all my longings
I dedicate, O Christ, to Thee.
O come Thou precious Sun most radiant,
Thy beams illumine my heart and soul.
O come Thou precious Sun most radiant,
Thy beams illumine my heart and soul.12
People can sometimes reach the place those words define. But sometimes they can't. Tamar never could.
Things happened, but none to help or change her desolate condition. She'd lived a beautiful virgin in the house of a king. Now she lived as a violated thing in a house of pity.
David was angry when he heard news of this. But he never rebuked Amnon. Male had joined male. David knew about
Time passed. Some people forgot, but Absalom hadn't. Absalom was still waiting for the right occasion.
Two years later it came, and Amnon paid with his life while drunk on wine. The crafty Jonadab explained it to David: "By the command of Absalom this has been determined from the day he forced his sister Tamar." Absalom fled, and David mourned.
Three more years passed before Absalom returned. And the Bible says "there were born to Absalom three sons and one daughter; her name was Tamar." And she became "a woman beautiful to behold." (2 Samuel 14:27)
Absalom had named a living memorial to his sister. As if there were something here that men would like to forget but must not be allowed to. As if he wished for more he could do, but would do this at least.
Let the story end with that, for it's about the only thing good to be remembered.
Chapter 8 – The Price He Paid
"I will abolish the bow, the sword, and war from the land; and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the Lord." Hosea 2:18-20
This is the story of a prophet of God who was married to a whore. I assume you know the term, and what it means. I assume, too, that you might be a little unsettled to see the word featured in a religious book.
So I counted the times that "oldest" profession is mentioned in the Bible and got 92. That compares with 10 times for "physician," 13 for "carpenter," 32 for "soldier," and even "shepherd"–23rd Psalm and all–would you like to guess? 78 times. There you have our latest Bible trivia lesson.
Now I'm not saying my count shows the proportion of people in those various occupations! But I am suggesting how straightforward the Bible is about such matters. One of the people in that "Hall of Fame" which is the 11th chapter of Hebrews is a woman named Rahab, who is called "Rahab the harlot."
We must remember the oppressed state of women in that day. They were treated as the property of men. Doubtless there were marriages as loving and respectful as you could want. Doubtless there were women who beat the norm and got the upper hand. But legally and usually it was a matter of male ownership.
The man had his right to divorce an unsatisfactory woman, but a woman had no right to divorce the worst kind of man. A man's infidelities were taken lightly, a woman's very seriously. And sometimes when a woman changed hands, money changed hands too.
So it was that a woman named Gomer was up for sale. And her husband from the past, her husband she'd left to be a prostitute, her husband who'd tried to give up on her but couldn't, who still was trying his best to raise their three children, bought her. Bought her back. Bought her, he tells us, for fifteen shekels of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley.13
It was no top price. A shekel of silver was about the weight of a half-dollar. The homer was five bushels of grain. The lethech was only half a homer. Gomer's value on the market had been declining as the years moved along. Men no longer sought her as they once had. She'd been used, and nearly used up. And to say that was her own fault only adds to the pain of her situation.
It was no top price, but for a poor man raising three children it was high enough. It may have taken whatever savings Hosea had. And what a strange and incredible sight that day at the market.
Imagine it. There stands this shamed and aging woman, up for sale to the highest bidder. And there stand men, looking her over, making crude jokes.
"I had her once," a soldier brags. "She wasn't bad." "I'll give my wife and half a shekel," someone else calls out, and the crowd roars.
And a businessman says he'll give fifteen, which was half the price of a slave in good health. And then a stranger bids. Fifteen plus some barley.
No one knows who he is. This isn't his place. His place is distant to the people who do business here. They move in different worlds.
The man beside him turns with a puzzled look. "Why bid on her?" he says. "The best ones come later." And Hosea whispers, as if to no one–"she's my wife." And they see tears in his eyes.
He calls her his wife now. But earlier, in his rage, he'd said "she is not my wife, and I am not her husband." And he'd said:
"I will punish her for the feast days of the Baals when she burned incense to them and decked herself with her rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, and forgot me . . .." (Hosea 2:2,13)
So the question becomes then, why is Hosea here? Why hasn't he given up? Why didn't he say "enough" long ago and wash his hands of the whole sorry mess? We can't answer that question now. It has to wait.
They had three children. And the names of those children show clearly how troubled the marriage was, and how it got worse and not better as time passed. It seems Hosea gave the names, and that other distress was on his mind too.
Remember he was a prophet of God. His double burden was, things weren't right at home, and weren't right in his service of God either. And the two became mixed in his mind. You can see how that would happen.
The unfaithfulness of his wife seemed close in kind to the turning from God he saw in the land. The things that lured her seemed much like those that emptied the places of worship. It seemed all one great adultery, and the names of his children show this.
The first child he named Jezreel. Jezreel was also a valley where many a battle was fought. Moreover, it was a place where treachery had often been carried out. There Jehu had slain Jehoram, slain Ahaziah, slain Jezebel. And in Hosea's day, Tiglath-pileser had come there to slay Jehu and his friends. And Hosea names his first son for that place of treachery. Like a German Jew naming a child Auschwitz.
Next was a girl, and she was named Lo-ruhamah, which means "not pitied." As if the factor of human sympathy that ought to operate in the land had quit operating. As if the will for pleasure had won out over decency and kindness.
The third child was another boy. His name became Lo-ammi which means "not my people." Some think this shows suspicion on Hosea's part that the son might not be his. It surely reflects his growing despair as a prophet of God. He thought he'd heard the Lord say "call his name Not-my-people, for you are not my people and I am not your God."
In Alan Paton's novel Too Late the Phalarope, a police captain in South Africa comes to tell a father how his son has committed a grave and disgraceful crime. And the old man hears it, sits silent for a minute, then calls for the family Bible. He opens to the page where the names of children have been written down for a hundred and fifty years. And not once, but many times, he crosses out the name of his son.
Then he takes the Bible, which he knew well, and turns to Psalm 109 ("which are the most terrible words that man has ever written, and should not be in any holy book"). He reads:
". . . let him be condemned; and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless, and his wife a widow. Let his posterity be cut off; and in the generation following let their name be blotted out . . .."14
He closed the book, stood up, then went to his room. No one knew what to say, except the police captain, who said:
"If a man takes unto himself God's right to punish, then he must also take upon himself God's promise to restore."
Sometime along his way that idea broke in on Hosea the prophet. His moods had been a constant swing from rage to pity, from despairing to hope, from hatred to love. He'd seen himself as a fool, and said so often. But he'd filled up other hours with writing words like these:
"Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth." (Hosea 2:14-15)
Mercy is winning out, but how painful it must have been. Seldom is the love of God seen in such depths of personal agony. Perhaps in all the Bible only the suffering of Jesus Christ can compare with it.
He and Hosea shared a common name. Both names mean "salvation." Both knew heartache and alienation. Both walked a lonely way.
Hosea the prophet, and Gomer his wayward wife. He loved her, yet hated her. He loved the person she was, but hated the ways she followed. And he must have hated the pain she gave him. Yet love was going to win.
The Lord and us. He loves us, and yet he hates us. He loves us as his children, but hates the ways we follow, and the pain we give him. Yet love is going to win.
That's what this story means. It shows what God is like. It shows that with him there's always reason for hope. It shows how love can be steadfast even with a broken heart. It shows how suffering can be redemptive. And in it we begin to see the outline of a cross.
Hosea learned that the price of love is involvement in someone else's pain. Love means exposing yourself to rejection and betrayal. As God did when he sent Christ to show his love for us. He came to his own, and his own received him not. But he was faithful unto death, even death on a cross.
Long before that, God chose Hosea to show how living in love is a victory all its own. The story doesn't even bother to tell how things worked out. You think surely Gomer learned her lesson, but who knows? You think it must have had a happy ending, but can't be sure.
What we do know is this: that as for prophecies, Hosea's or anyone else's, they will pass away; as for tongues, even mine, even yours, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will vanish away.
But love is of God, and love lasts. Nothing in the world is stronger than love.
Chapter 9 – What Enemies Deserve
"And the Lord appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah; and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights." Jonah 1:17
The Book of Jonah is a strange book–so different from most books of the Bible. Many people are confused by it, and don't know what to make of it. But when you understand the truth of it, it's as relevant as a book can be. Also it's a marvelous piece of storytelling.
At least the book doesn't confuse you with a lot of strange places. In fact, there are only three places in the whole story. There's where Jonah was, which was Palestine. There's where God wanted him to be, which was Nineveh, the capital of Assyria. And there's where he went, which was Tarshish. Tarshish is in modern Spain.
Palestine you know, but let me explain about Nineveh and Tarshish.
Nineveh was east of where Jonah lived. It was the capital of an enemy nation, and a hated place. It was a place no Jew in his right mind had a wish to go. It was a place Jonah had no wish to go.
He went instead to Tarshish, which was west. Tarshish was as far west as anyone traveled in those days. It was the end of the world, as the world was known. It was as far from Nineveh as possible. That means it was as far as Jonah could get from where the Lord wanted him to be.
But why in the world did the Lord want Jonah in Nineveh? Remember Jonah was a prophet, and what do prophets do? Prophets preach. The Bible says God wanted Jonah to preach in Nineveh.
That was like asking a South Korean pastor to sneak across the 38th parallel and preach on the streets of North Korea. Or a rabbi to go and talk religion with the Arabs in Iran. It was a risky thing to do, most would say a foolish thing.
The Lord tells Jonah that Nineveh is a wicked place, which he already knew. He probably thought he knew more about that than the Lord himself. It's about to be destroyed by its own wickedness, the Lord tells him. And Jonah says . . . "good!"
Is that the right attitude for a prophet of God? Is that the right attitude for anyone who claims to believe in God? Is that the right attitude for any human being to have about anyone else who lives on the same earth?
Take this example. Let's say a Russian submarine gets in trouble and sinks. Something goes wrong and it sinks to the bottom with all its crew. How should people in a country like the U.S. feel about a thing like that?
Many would say "ha! serves 'em right!" They'd say "let's all go down to the bar and have a beer" on hearing that their enemies are dead. But they'd never do that if the sub were one of "theirs," you see. For that there might be a "national day of mourning."
In 1986 the U.S. Space Shuttle "Challenger" blew up and killed its crew of seven, including a school teacher. The President cancelled his State of the Union speech scheduled that evening. Prayers were said all over the land, and counselors were sent to talk with children in their schools. Commemorative paraphernalia was rushed to the stores, and moments of silence were observed at ice hockey games. Can anyone imagine our doing those things if the ship had belonged to an "enemy?"
Same thing with Jonah being happy over the fall of Nineveh. We're about to find out if that's pleasing to the Lord or not.
Jonah wanted his enemies dead. What was bad news to Nineveh was good news to Jonah. So when God calls him to go help the heathen there, he gets other things on his mind. God says "maybe you can save them," and Jonah heads in the other direction. He sets sail for Tarshish.
Jonah knew what kind of God he was dealing with. Later on we'll find him saying: "I knew that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love." (Jonah 4:2)
Not everyone knows that, but Jonah did. Jonah knows the Lord will be kind to enemies if he possibly can. But Jonah wants to be hard on them, you see. He wants to see them dead. And remember he's a prophet of the Lord. He decides to slip away from there and let things take their course.
Well, we'll see about that. We have a conflict of wills here. The Lord wants one thing for Nineveh and Jonah wants another thing. God has a controversy on his hands.
Maybe he still has a controversy with most people on the same subject. We have a very hard time remembering this world of separated nations is all one family. We love war and despise peace. What God wants and what we want are far apart. As far apart as Nineveh and Tarshish.
I'm not saying Nineveh wasn't wicked. The Lord had his controversy with them too. But the Lord also had a plan for their salvation, and Jonah was part of that plan.
It was like Jeremiah's vision of the potter's house. The potter made a vessel on his wheel, then found it flawed. He could have thrown it in the trash, but didn't. Another man might have sent it to the bottom of the sea like that Russian submarine. Instead he puts it on the wheel to be reshaped. He patiently and lovingly does that. God is the God of second chances.
Jonah's ship sets sail for Spain and runs right into a storm. Jonah is sleeping down below, while the sailors watch and worry on the deck. A man who's running from God thinks he has it made, but while he sleeps a storm is coming to change that.
The sailors tried hard to fight it out, but it wasn't really their storm. It was Jonah's storm, but they were the ones who had to fight it. And they prayed for help, but not to Jonah's God. They were what Jonah would call "the heathen." Still they were awake praying and Jonah was asleep not praying. And their praying made them believe that the Lord must be angry with someone on the ship, which was exactly right. So what to do then?
The sailors weren't mean, but they were frightened. And frightened men often turn mean. They kept on fighting the storm–throwing things overboard to lighten the ship–but then they began to think that what needed throwing overboard was the man God was angry with. They finally decided they must do it. And after it was done, the storm immediately ceased.
So out there behind them was Jonah, struggling in the water with the ship disappearing in the distance. Surely a little preaching duty in Nineveh would be better than this! But the Lord wasn't through with Jonah yet. A great fish comes along and swallows Jonah whole. He spends three days and nights in the belly of that fish. And now the man will pray.
There's a park in Washington where I sometimes go to run. One day I passed a man sitting alone on a bench beside the path. He had his coat wrapped tightly around him as he stared at the ground. An hour later I was back that way and he was in exactly the same position. He seemed depressed and never looked up either time. I think he was in the belly of a whale.
It's hard to imagine a more miserable state than Jonah's, but even so, it wasn't hopeless. Jonah prays and begs the Lord for mercy. He says he'll pay his vows if only he can get out of this. And the Lord who hopes to deal kindly with Nineveh deals kindly with Jonah. The fish gets tired of messing with this bad-tasting prophet and spits him out on dry land.
That brings us back to the main question–what's going to happen to Nineveh? The Lord who didn't forget his prophet hasn't forgotten the prophet's enemies either. But time is running out on them as it was on him.
"Now will you go to Nineveh for me, Jonah?" Jonah says "yes, Lord." Jonah gets a second chance, and goes.
But he goes with no mercy in his heart. He goes because he's being forced. He goes with no love in his message, only doom and judgment. "Your city is about to be destroyed," he cries. "Destroyed by God," he adds. And they wait and listen as if there might be more, some advice or hope or something, but Jonah doesn't give them any more than that.
He talks like the Lord who's just spared him would never in the world spare them. The man has learned nothing from his days in the belly of that whale.
Imagine yourself a dweller of Nineveh, and here comes such a preacher. How will you respond? Remember you hate him as much as he hates you. And you know nothing of the god he's preaching, you have your own. And what you'll get in Jonah's sermons won't be much–only shame on you for this and that, and there's doom ahead if you don't watch out.
But the Spirit of God can help people get good from the poorest of sermons. (I take great hope in that!) Those Ninevites saw their doom ahead–that was something Jonah told them. But they also believed there was still hope. That was something Jonah didn't tell them.
They began to repent and turn to Jonah's God. They fasted and prayed, and sat in sackcloth and ashes. All of them did that, even the king.
And you should know what the Lord will do in response to something like that. But the unanswered question is, what will Jonah do? The Lord hears all those prayers and says "Great news! This is what I hoped for all along!" And you wish the story ended there. If it ended there you could say everything turned out fine, and the preaching was successful, and let's all have a word of prayer and go home.
But what does Jonah do? He sees what's happening and goes off to sulk. The Lord's mercy toward him meant nothing when time came to have mercy on others. Showing again that what we learn from history is, we don't learn from history.
Jonah sits on the side of a hill outside the city and wishes to die. What he once hoped for Nineveh he calls down on himself. He is worse off now than he was in the belly of the whale.
What a contrast. There on that hill sits an unrepenting believer, watching over a city of repenting unbelievers. Which shows how a person's standing with God is subject to change at any time. That's a lesson Israel never learned. They believed they had a wrestler's hold on God and he couldn't get out of it. But they were wrong, and the story of Jonah proves it.
No one is so in God's favor that he can't lose it. And no one is so out of God's favor that he can't gain it back.
The book of Jonah was written at a time of growing Jewish prejudice toward other peoples. It was meant as a satire on their attitude. It shows the contrast between what people wish on one another, and what the Lord wishes. Jonah is meant to be laughed at, or cried about, or both.
There's a Jewish story of the Exodus that says the angels burst into song when the Red Sea closed in on the Egyptian army. But a voice thundered at them from the throne of God, saying: "My children lie drowned in the sea, and you would sing?"
Go back once again and take one last look at Jonah sitting sullen on his hillside, for the story ends there. Hear God ask his final question–"Did you do well to be angry?"
Good question, "Did you do well?" "Is this doing any good?" Jonah was pointing a finger at Nineveh, but the Lord was pointing a finger at him. While the people of the city wept, he had no weeping for them. And now that they're rejoicing, he sits on his hill and pouts.
A strange thing happens then. The sun is hot and God causes a vine to grow up over Jonah for shade. It grows up all at once and shades the place where Jonah sits. And he was happy about that, of course. It was the first thing Jonah had been happy about for a long, long time.
But the vine was to have a short life. The next day a worm comes along and cuts it down. It withers and dies and is gone. And now the sun is back in full force. Jonah has his own taste of destruction. Destruction like he used to preach about. But it doesn't come to the city, as he had hoped. It comes to him.
The Lord uses that to preach his own sermon. "You care for a plant," he says to Jonah, "but I care for people." Your concern is your comfort in life. Mine is that city you hoped to see perish.
We aren't told what happened to Jonah, for the story leaves him sitting there. We're left to ponder what all this means for us.
Are we doing the will of God, or going in the other direction? Are we anxious for the good of all people alike? Are we ready to follow the calls that come from God, even calls to places like Nineveh?
Will the mercy shown to us be brought to others through us?
Chapter 10 – Wild Honey
"Now John wore a garment of camel's hair, and a leather girdle around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey." Matthew 3:4
When Herod was king of Judea, there was a priest of the Lord named Zechariah. He was a good priest, and a good man. His wife's name was Elizabeth, and they were happy together except for one thing. They had no children, and they were getting on in years.15
They'd prayed about a child, but had no answer to their prayers. Until one day Zechariah was on duty in the temple, and a strange thing took place. An angel of God appeared to him there, said his wife would have a son, and said he should call the boy's name John.
Well, old Zechariah could hardly believe this. In fact let's say he couldn't. For he says to the angel, "now what's going to make me believe a crazy thing like that?" And there he learned that you don't ever want to say a thing like that to an angel! For this angel said, "Hey now, I'm Gabriel. And the Lord himself sent me to tell you this. And the way you're going to know is, you won't be able to say another word until this happens!"
Zechariah didn't say another word until it happened. And how that came about was funny, too, because right after he was born they were arguing about what to name him. And Zechariah had been told his name, you remember, but couldn't say it. Nine months and he hadn't said anything. But then all of a sudden they saw his eyes grow large, and his mouth move, and he said . . . "his name is John."
Notice he didn't say, "I have a suggestion for a name"! He spoke with authority. After nine months of silence he seemed entitled to. John.
Now you'd think an only son named John, born to a priestly family, would have made a priest himself. But he didn't even come close. This John was born to be a prophet. There's a lot of difference between the two.
A priest is employed, a prophet isn't. A priest gets a housing allowance, a prophet doesn't. A priest is loved and respected, prophets are scorned and hated. A priest carries on traditions, prophets overturn them. Priests do all the proper and expected things, while a prophet does whatever he feels the Lord wants him to.
He might even leave town and live out in the wilderness. He might wear garments of camel hair, and feed on locusts and wild honey. He might preach to the best-dressed and most cultured citizens that they needed to repent and get right with God. He might point to doom ahead, which no one likes to hear. He might even criticize the king and put his life in jeopardy.
Zechariah's son grew up to do all those things and more. He rejected the life of comfort to be a voice crying in the wilderness. He preached that the kingdom of God was at hand, so powerfully that crowds began expecting it.
Some said he must be the messiah. Others said no, but the time was surely close. Multitudes came streaming out of town to stand in the sun and listen, and those who believed he baptized in the river nearby. They began to call him "John the Baptizer."
What was it like? Here's one glimpse: "The multitudes asked him, 'What then shall we do?' And he answered them, 'He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.' Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, 'Teacher, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Collect no more than is appointed you.' Soldiers also asked him, 'And we, what shall we do?' And he said to them, 'Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.'" (Luke 3:10-14)
You can tell he was no crowd-pleaser. He seemed to set himself against the crowds, but still the crowds came. There's a certain fascination about a man who tells it as straight, who cuts no corners, who speaks like the Lord himself might speak. Some went away furious, then came back the next day, and the next, and later came forward to be baptized.
Did you notice the social tone of that preaching? John preached about the poor and the rich and the duty to share. He preached about economic justice, and the unfairness of some taxes. And about violence and oppression, especially by those in authority. And about falsehood, and the size of wages. And if the man were alive today, he'd surely have a lot to say on those same subjects. And if he said it, even in some churches, there might be a lot of anger and trying to shut him up, as happened back then.
He never tried to take matters in his own hands, but he preached that they were in God's hands. He preached the accountability of man. "Even now," he said, "the axe is laid to the root of the trees: every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire." (Matthew 3:10)
He not only tried in his preaching to change men's present lives, he pointed to the future too. He spoke of one to come after him, someone he was making ready for, whose sandals he was unworthy to bend down and untie. "I baptize you with water," he said, "but this man will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." And they wondered what that might mean, and when it might take place.
One day when this had been going on for some while, a stranger came to be baptized. He came from Galilee, and John the Baptizer hesitated. He didn't know what made him hesitate. But he knew that somehow this was a different case. He'd hesitated about baptizing others because their religion seemed too shallow. Now he hesitated because this man's seemed so deep.
They went together to the Jordan, just the two. And they must have talked as they went along. And when the moment came, John said, "This isn't right. You're the one who ought to baptize me." And the stranger said, "just do it." And John did. And all heaven seemed to open wide above that scene. And a voice seemed to say, "That's my son there! Boy, I'm proud of him!"
Time passed, and John kept preaching. The stranger from Galilee began preaching too. And John's followers started becoming his followers, which was O.K., for the two were the best of friends.
One day some soldiers came and arrested John. Herod was worried about his growing popularity. And also he'd heard about remarks John made that criticized his recent marriage to Herodias, his brother Philip's wife. Herodias wanted something done about it. Herod had John put in prison.
It's amazing that even in prison John continued to keep up on things outside and be an influential figure. That can happen sometimes. There was Gandhi in the prisons of India, and the power he wielded there. And Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing saintly letters during Hitler's Reich. And Martin Luther King, Jr. with his letters from the Birmingham jail. And in revolutionary America, in Culpeper, Virginia, Baptist John Ireland once preached to crowds through the bars of his cell in the struggle for religious liberty.
John kept up on things as best he could, and longed for the day of his release. Especially he kept up on the man from Galilee.
He knew now who he was, or thought he knew. Most days he was sure of it, but a few days he doubted. Prison may have had something to do with that. And on one of those not-so-good days he sent a messenger to ask, "Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"
Excuse the man his question–Christ surely did. He took no offense. And he answered it this way. "Look around, you messengers. Look around, then go back and tell what you've seen." They went back and told of blind people receiving sight, the lame walking, lepers healed, the poor helped, and many such things. It was the answer of good deeds.
After the messengers left, Jesus had things to say about John. He called him a prophet and more. He said there was none greater. He spoke of how strong and steadfast he was, no reed shaken in the wind, he said. But still Herod kept John in his prison.
The Jewish historian Josephus speaks of this and tells which prison it was. And that he died there.
He died like this–it was strange. As we saw, Herod had a new wife who was angry at John for remarks he'd made about her. She apparently had tried to get her husband to do something about it before now, but he'd refused. Then there was a party. Herodias had a daughter, and she did this dance. And afterward Herod motioned the girl over and said "is there any favor I can do for you?"
No man should ask that of a woman whose dancing he's just been watching! Herod did, though. And some others heard him. "You can have whatever you want, young lady!" And she went like a good little girl and asked her mother what she wanted.
Her mother said, "You want the head of John the Baptist on a silver platter." What a shock Herod must have felt then. In his offer he must have assumed things like money or clothing or perhaps a trip to some exotic place. Herod was going to be sorry for this, but he did it. He was going to be haunted by it, but he went ahead.
Josephus tells us that people later said the defeat of Herod's army was an expression of God's wrath for what he did to John the Baptist. And later on when Herod began hearing about the miracles of Jesus, guess what he said?
"John the baptizer has been raised from the dead; that is why these powers are at work in him." (See Matthew 14:1-2)
The disciples of John came and asked for his body, to give it proper burial, and that was granted. The Bible also says they went at once and told Jesus.
Who knows if there might have been the sound of accusation in their voices? Or a hint of it in their eyes? Jesus had made no effort to save John's life. Maybe people thought he should have.
John's death may have had a decisive influence on Jesus. In Gethsemane, as he faced his own death, he may have pictured John in his prison cell. On the cross, when he cried "My God, why have you forsaken me?" he might have been reminded of John's last despair and might have said to himself, "why, I sound like him!" And when they dared him to come down from the cross and save himself, he may have been thinking that John found no such solution.
Their lives intertwined in God's redemptive plan. Each told his truth, and each taught a lesson on the cost of discipleship.
The way is narrow, the way is hard. But it leads to life, and that more abundant.
Chapter 11 – You're Never Too Far
"But when he came to himself he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father.'" Luke 15:17-17
There was a man who had two sons, and this is the story of the younger of those sons.16 We sometimes call him "the prodigal." It means "wasteful" or "wayward" and shows how we feel better about a situation when we have a descriptive label for the people involved. That saves us from having to inquire so much–we can just assume.
But I mustn't be defensive about this son. He had a problem, and was a problem. But still there's a lot more to say about it than just tha
Funny thing when a man has two sons, how different they can be. Why, his brother had always been so settled, so sure of what he wanted, so willing to behave himself to get it. He seemed grown up long before he was. You can guess he never gave his father any trouble.
But that younger boy was the kind who never seemed grown up as long as he lived. Always trying something new, and often something foolish. And you'd tell him about it but it wouldn't do one bit of good.
This was a Jewish home. And the Jewish scripture had its stern admonition about prodigal sons. Listen:
"If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son, who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they chastise him, will not give heed to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious, he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones; so you shall purge the evil from your midst; and all Israel shall hear, and fear." (Deuteronomy 21:18-21)
That's one way the story could have worked out. Something like this:
A certain man had two sons. The older of those sons served and pleased him every day, but the younger was stubborn and rebellious. And it came to pass that as this continued the father rose up and said: "No more shall you be called my son, and no more shall you enjoy the shelter of my roof and the nourishments of my table. Try the jails instead. And never come near me again. I have one son now, and it isn't you."
But it didn't go like that, it went like this.
That younger son came running in one day and said "Dad, I've got an idea!" If you knew him, and especially if you were his father, you put yourself on guard when you heard him say that! You felt around to make sure you still had your billfold! This boy didn't mess with routine ideas. You knew he wasn't about to propose a change in the family breakfast cereal! ("Have you read about Branola, Dad? I hear it's good for the system"!) No, that's what his older brother would have had on his mind. But not him.
He said "Dad, I'd like for you to give me my inheritance now. I'm going to take it and go away for awhile."
Huh! Now I don't think anyone would suppose that was a good idea. The father could have gotten a lot of free advice along those lines from people who weren't involved in the situation. He had to deal with it, though, and it left him with three options.
He could say "that's stupid, no!" Or he could say "that's stupid, sit down and let's talk about it." Or he could say "that's stupid, yes."
That's what the father did. His other son and all his friends must have thrown up their hands in horror. How can a father who loves his son say yes when he's about to be stupid? Let's hold that question for right now. Anyway, he gave him the money, and the boy got ready to go.
Where would you like to move to if you could? California? Florida? Denver? Boston? Or what about Hawaii or Scotland or an island in the south Pacific? Take your money, pick a spot, say goodbye and go!
We don't know where this son went, but we know some of his options. Egypt, Babylonia, Italy, Greece, North Africa. To somewhere like that he went, and we have no reason to believe he went with bad motives. He may have gone dreaming he'd make his fortune there. Come driving home in a Rolls Royce convertible one day, dressed up in a white suit, silk tie, designer sunglasses, matching leather luggage. And they'd all say, "Well he sure surprised us!"
But no, that was not to be. Where he went, wherever it was, life was good for awhile, but not for long.
There's a saying that money can't buy happiness, which is true. But it can buy things that help for awhile. It can buy booze, and some of his funds went for that. It can buy chips at the gambling table, and he tried that too. It can buy the company of people who'll do what you want them to do and say what you want them to say, and that can be pleasurable and flattering, even if it's hired. And the boy did some of all that and more.
During that time, there must have been a voice inside that sometimes accused him. "I shouldn't be doing this," he'd say. "I'm going to be out of money soon."
But there's a certain euphoria about the state he was in–a denial of reality that holds the upper hand. And so he went on. He was in one of those times in life where things have to get worse before they get better. And the person who wants to help out has nothing to do but watch. So watch.
Watch as the money runs down like a gas gauge till it sits on empty. Watch as a famine comes and life turns dreadful in that land of his dreams. Watch as now for the first time this rich man's son is forced to look for a job. Watch him get turned down place after place, till at last he takes the only thing left, the most humiliating work a Jewish son could do. He's feeding the hogs, and they're eating better than he is.
The Talmud had a saying, "Cursed is the man who tends swine, and the man who teaches his son Greek wisdom." And it had another: "When a son has to walk barefooted, he remembers how well he had been treated in his father's house."
But what he doesn't need right now is someone else to tell him what a mess he's made of his life. He knows that. What he doesn't need is some pious talk about getting what he deserves–he knows about that too. He has a problem with self-esteem right now. His chief activity is hating himself.
Have you ever hated yourself? Have you had a loved one who did? If so, you know it's a hell of its own. And it has in it danger, but also an opportunity. For there's this about it, and you can mark it down, he couldn't have hated himself unless there'd been a good man in him to do the hating.
Depressed persons take life too seriously, but at least they take it seriously enough. It's bad to hit bottom, but it sure has a way of getting your attention. It's good to get people out of their trouble, but sometimes they may need to sit there awhile and think about things.
This boy did. He thought about his father and his home. That made him cry and hate himself even more. So he'd bring himself back to the present and try to figure something out, which of course he couldn't. And this went on for awhile before he reached a decision and started for home.
His decision was this: that the father who loved him enough to let him go must love him enough to let him come back. And if he could get himself into this mess by his actions, he could get himself out the same way. And looking foolish to other people isn't the worst thing in life, unless the fear of doing it keeps us from being decisive when we need to.
"I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me as one of your hired servants." (Luke 15:18-19)
Those were struggled-over, hard-fought words. There are plenty of folk who'll point a finger at others and declare that "he has sinned" or "she has sinned." Some people make a hobby of that. It causes them to feel holy and superior. But the Bible tells us "God resists the proud and gives grace to the humble." And the person with the real guts is the one who can point to himself and say "I have sinned." That's where our critical faculties pay off.
According to the Bible we all have need to do that. All have sinned and come short of the father's will. None is righteous, no not one. Except you repent, you shall all likewise perish.
The turning point of the story has just occurred. That he comes to his father is only an extension of the movement begun when he came to himself. The rest of the story depends on what other people do, but the first depended on what he did.
As he went, the road seemed to carry him along. Even the hunger in his belly was forgotten. The branches on the trees and the grass in the fields were waving just for him. If you'd been a policeman on that road, you'd have turned on all the lights and started up the siren.
Not everyone at home felt so delighted. Perhaps the boy himself didn't feel that way yet. But that's how heaven felt, because in heaven there's more joy over one sinner who repents than over 99 hypocrites who think they don't need to.
You know how the story ended. Think for a minute though, while we give him time to get there, how it might have ended.
What if his brother had seen him coming first? What if he'd gone out to meet him with bitterness in his heart? What if he'd scolded him, saying Dad had suffered enough and had no wish even to speak with such a son? And what if the prodigal had taken the blame of an older brother as the attitude of his father, and turned away?
There are other possible endings, but that's the one that haunts you. The prodigals of this world have a precarious way to the father. They often encounter older brothers first! And if those despise them, they may think he does. If they try to send them back where they came from, they may think there's no welcome with him either.
But that isn't so, and how the story really ended shows it.
The father saw and knew his son a great way off in the distance. He ran to meet him. He was hugging him and kissing him all the time he was trying to make that speech about the hired servants, and his being treated as one, etc. He gave him gifts and planned a party. He kept saying the music of that word son–"my son was dead, and now is alive–my son."
Now is the time to ask that question we left for later: "How can a father who loves his son say yes when he's about to be stupid?"
Not easily, but it's the way of love to do it. Your Father in heaven has done it with you more times than you know. Right this minute he loves you. But you may go out and do something stupid yourself. And he'll love you still.
Later on, when you come to yourself, the thing that will draw you back is knowing that's the kind of Father you are blessed to have.
Chapter 12 – Where the Party Waited
"But while he was yet at a distance, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him." Luke 15:20
There was a man who had two sons, and this is the story of that man.17 Although we speak of the "parable of the prodigal son," some believe that misses the point. They say the point of the story is this father, not his son. They say we should call it the "story of the loving father," or something like that.
Not everyone agrees. In fact, there's one view that our story is actually the parable of a prodigal father. He was the problem here, they say. Another permissive parent who let his son down and caused his problems. As if he read and followed the writings of Dr. Benjamin Spock! He never should have given that boy money in the first place, they say. Funny the ways you can look at a thing.
Our effort here is to look at what happened from that father's side. To see what he saw, face what he faced, and try to feel what he must have felt. Also, we can be thinking if this is one family's story, or more than that. Is something being taught about the family of man as a whole? And about the Father who's the father of us all?
Well, let's look. This man had two sons, and one came and said he wanted to leave home.
That's nothing unheard of, is it? Many parents have faced the same thing. It's all a kid has left sometimes. Dad frowns and raises his voice to football coach level and says, "you live in this house and you'll live by the rules of this house." So the kid says, "Well, then, if that's the way it is, I'll be going." He thinks he was asked to. And he sort of was.
The next line for his father is, "Well you do that if you want to, but I'll tell you this: if you walk out of here now, don't you ever come back."
That's been said too, hasn't it? And meant some times. But whatever might have gone on between the two in our story, this father didn't say that. In fact, we can't be sure how intense their problems actually were. Only that the boy left, and left with money.
He asked his dad for an early distribution of the inheritance. "Give me now what's coming to me later," he said. Unusual, but not unheard of. It was no right of his to demand, but a request he made. And it put his father in what we call a bind.
Maybe he said, "Well, son, I'll have to think about that," and went out for a walk in the garden. And as he walked, he said to himself:
Well, if I do this, the money's as good as gone. But on the other hand, maybe he'll learn his lesson. If so, then it's money well spent.
But I could tell him no and try to keep him here. Then he'd be angry and leave anyway, I suppose. He'd say I care more about my money than I do about him.
Goodness! my friends and his brother will say I'm crazy if I do this. And he may not appreciate it. But still, the thing I have to figure is: what will turn out best for my son?
I don't want him here if he doesn't want to be here. But wherever he is, I want him to know he's wanted here. I want him to know he's more important than this house, this land, or anything else I own. And he's more important than what anyone thinks. I want him to know that.
I'm going to say yes. I'm going to take the chance. I'm going to give him what he asks and tell him this will always be his home. Then I'll just pray that he'll be safe. What else can I do–what else?
The father does that. And not many days later, sure enough, the boy takes the money and leaves. And thus begins, for that father, a great blank space of silence. For we know how the story moves along from there, but he doesn't. He knows his son is gone, and his money is gone, and that's all. Except that just as he guessed, his friends are calling him a fool, and his other son has been real quiet lately.
An accusing finger seems pointed in his direction. Some days he feels like a prodigal father. All the "what if's" come around to call. If only he'd said this or done that, tried this or tried that. The days become weeks, and nothing happens.
He does have hope though. He watches every day. "The boy will learn his lesson and come home soon. I know he will." And yet he knows he doesn't know. But he knows he still hopes. And the weeks become months, and still nothing happens.
What do you do when there's nothing to do but wait? When you're waiting offstage to say your part, but the time never seems to arrive?
That boy, wherever he was, had a lot of things to do. His fortunes rose and his fortunes fell, but he always had things to do. Never did he have the problem of sitting around and waiting for something to happen. But his father did.
Are there situations where the only possible thing is to hope and pray? Ronald Reagan faced his Lebanon hostage crisis when, like it or not, waiting seemed the only thing to do. A man of action, forced by circumstances to remain inactive. It's a lot easier to say "well, he should do something" than to say what should be done. Ask Jimmy Carter about his choices in Iran. There are times when no reasonable choices exist, when a thing is totally out of your hands, and anything you try is bound to fail.
Don't think, though, that nothing matters at such times. What did we say were the things to do? Hope and pray.
This father did that. True parents do that. Faith, hope, love–and the greatest of these is love. That's what is shown when you hope and pray. And that can change things when nothing else can.
But oh! the hurting of it. The pain in a father's heart for his son who went away. The pain of rejection he felt every day. The fears for his safety that nagged him. The pain of his sorrow and alienation.
Have you considered the why of such pain? Why we hurt over others like we do? Why we can't just say "well I'm glad it isn't me" and go on our merry way? Why we're told by God himself to "weep with those who weep," and why that kinship of suffering is often our strongest bond?
Could this be what our making in the image of God means? That he gave us means to feel the anguish of others we care for, as he does? "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem! Killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!"(Luke 13:34)
In fact, God so loved this world that when he considered how lost and hopeless in sin it was, he sent and sacrificed his only son, that all who would might come and be saved. Not that he had to do that. Not that it came easy. But he did. It's the risk you take when you love someone that someday you might have to do something like that.
So the father of the prodigal son waited, and you might even guess that months became years. And nothing happened.
Oh yes, things like that can go on for years, you know they can. The pain can last for years. And people can hope and pray for years, and pain be as strong at the last as it was at the first. Oh yes.
Fortunate is the wayward son with a father like his. A father who still loved him dearly. For love is, after all, the strongest power in the world. Why, you could send out an army and not get that boy back. If you did get him that way it wouldn't be worth it. And blame will fail. And a bribe will fail. And all harsh words will surely fail. But love is going to win!
The days turned to weeks, and the weeks months, and the months years. And all the while, wherever he was, that son's thoughts kept turning to his father's house, again and again. Until one day when things were at their worst, he said "enough–I'm going back home." He knew he still had one. And back he came.
His father saw him first. Dim-sighted as he must have been, he saw him first. From a great distance he saw and knew him as his son. And old as he was, he went running out to meet him, calling and crying: "He was dead, and now he's alive!" "He was dead, and now he's alive!" "Rejoice with me!" "My son's come home!"
This, of course, is where the television crew would really get in the swing of things. Zoom in close and show those expressions. Get a microphone up there and ask that old man how long he's been waiting for this. And the boy, "Hey Boy, could you step over here a minute? We understand you've had quite a time over there where you've been! But could you tell us now Son, what plans do you have, now that you're back?"
We really don't have to stay for all that. If you've seen one party, you've seen them all. They had a lavish feast. And they drank and dined and danced till late in the night. And maybe one time during the evening that son tried to talk about the past. And maybe the father put a finger to his lips and said "Shuhh! there's no need."
Someone missed out on that party–someone who should have been there. The man's other son refused to come. Too busy, he said.
The father knew, of course, that his feelings were hurt. And he went to him and asked him in the kindest, gentlest way a person could. And all he got back was some nonsense talk about never giving as good a party for him.
And the father was patient as always, and he didn't try to force. But he didn't call off the party either. Even the best things that happen in this world, someone won't like.
I imagine the father shook his head at last, and went on back where the music was. People who let the bad things ruin all the good things won't have many of them. And this one he'd earned.
The victories of love! The joy of a time like that for a father and his son! The relief he must have felt!
Here was a pure experience of life at its best. And it shows once again how our greatest joys aren't found in the absence of problems, but in problems faced and solved through love. Someone lost but then found; someone dead but then alive again.
It's the business of parents. And the business of God.
Chapter 13 – No End of Blame
"Now his elder son was in the field; and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what this meant." Luke 15:25-26
There was a man who had two sons, and this is the story of the oldest of those sons.18 We usually call him the "older brother," although Jesus calls him the "elder son." But he was both, and we don't know his name, so perhaps it doesn't matter.
Some people see his story as the point of the parable, by the way. What Jesus was doing here, they say, was holding up a mirror in front of the Scribes and Pharisees. "Here fellows, see right in here. This is what you're like. How do you like it when you see it in someone else? How would you like to spend the day in a fishing boat with this guy, huh?" Anyway, the story.
There was this man who had a kindly father, and one confused and confusing kid brother. He didn't really need a kindly father. A stern and demanding father would have served just as well. For he was that type himself. He worked hard, saved his money, went to bed early and got up early. He read his Torah, went often to the Temple, paid his debts if he ever had any, and thought highly of himself.
He had no need for a kindly father, and was surely troubled about the sort of brother he had. Especially when he learned his brother had gone to their father and asked for a share of the family inheritance. Had plans to take a trip, he said. But everyone had a good idea what would come of that, with so much money in his pocket.
If the brother's opinion was consulted, I'm sure he urged his father not to do it. And maybe he gave that opinion anyway. In any event, we can be sure that was his opinion. But the father gave the money, and away the youngest son went.
Perhaps the brothers said goodbye, perhaps not. Needless to say, there was no love lost. And the older brother was sure of his attitude about this thing, and that everyone else had the wrong one. He was a man who was always sure he was right.
The scene moves on to where the prodigal son went. And sure enough, he got in trouble there. And lost his money and disgraced himself and his family. And did a lot of things you don't hear much talk about in church.
But all the while, back home, was that family of three now reduced to two. So this is a good time to speculate about how things were between that elder son and his "poor mistaken father."
He was a loyal son, you can know for sure. Worked hard, did things right, handled money well, had a good eye for investments. He was honest and moral. He always earned his own way in life, and did his best at things. In fact, those were his main concern. In fact, he was such a totally self-centered person that he had few friends. For who can love someone who loves only himself, whose only use for you is to get something he wants?
The father would have said he loved that son. And he did as much as anyone could. But there were limits. The younger son you could love more, because something came back. This son you respected, but that's not the same as love. There was always something between you and him. He loved himself so much it left little room for anything else. The father had gone as far as he could, but there was an unapproachableness–if that's the word–he could never get past.
As time went by and no son came back, an attitude "I told you so" began to increase. It must have been delicious to think it, even if he never said it.
Hey there old man, now what do you think? He took your hard-earned money and blew it, just like everyone knew he would. Everyone but you. We stay here on the farm and work, while he runs around and lives it up. And he's never even bothered to write!
"I told you so."
We have here a person who always felt sure in his opinions, but never sure in his relationships with others. Ill at ease with his father, at odds with his only brother, and with no real friends. He was there alone in his self-regard and critical attitude. And none of his self-assumed goodness made up for that.
Now even if a person like that manages to be right 98% of the time, the public lives for the other 2% when his feet of clay stick out beneath his robes of righteousness.
Once in Tennessee we were building something at the church, and two men and I went to a dry creek bed to get a truckload of rock. The man driving never liked me too much. He thought I was liberal. Anyone who used a Bible other than the King James Version had to be liberal.
He was a narrow, straight-laced man, especially about women. Particularly about contact between men and women. Even eye contact! He and others like him were the reason Baptists of the opposite sex weren't allowed to swim in the same swimming pools for many years. Anyway, we'd loaded our rock, and were driving along down this creek bed to go back to the church.
It was July, and there was a woman there loading rock into the trunk of her car. And she had on shorts. And she was young and attractive. Which the man driving our truck wasn't supposed to notice, of course. But he did. Because what he said was–and he said it with his jaws swelled up and shaking–"Woman like that ain't got no business out in a place like this."
I was his pastor and have a way of keeping quiet when I don't have anything I want to say. So I kept quiet. And the brother in the seat between us, he kept quiet too. We both said nothing. But we could feel through our touching shirt sleeves the other one thinking that a man who preached you shouldn't notice women had just noticed one himself!
As you read the New Testament, you find how Jesus dealt with two very different groups of people–Pharisees and Publicans. The righteous and respectable folk, and the sinners who collected taxes for those miserable Romans.
And you might suppose that if Jesus Christ was to be called the friend of anybody, he'd have been called "Jesus–the friend of the righteous." But instead, he was called . . . "Jesus–friend of sinners."
He said he wasn't there to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. He saw more hope for them than all who were so sure they needed no repentance. Back to our story though.
When you've already said "I told you so," and then things change, it leaves you holding the bag. Then someone else can say "Ah! but didn't I tell you so?"
The younger brother came back home one day. Sure enough, the money was gone, but he was sorry about it. He said he was. He said in tears and on his knees just to let him live with the servants from now on. He wasn't fit to be a son anymore, he said. And no one could doubt that he meant it.
His father was so happy about this turn of events! He hugged him, and kissed him. He gave him presents and acted like he'd come back a hero. And his brother heard, and was angry, and refused to have anything to do with it. Why?
Perhaps because of a well-kept wish that he could find out about the other side of life like his brother had. Or resentment of his father's love, which he thought was wasted on the undeserving. Perhaps it was his lifelong grudge that, crazy as it sounded, people liked that younger brother better than him!
Maybe his greed was offended by all the money wasted. Or was it his general disapproval of fun and merriment? Or maybe his inclination toward law and order, and away from love and grace?
His father went out and tried to talk with him. He said, "This is your own brother, son. I thought he was dead, and now he's come home. And he's sorry for what he did. I think he's learned his lesson. Come on, let's go see him."
But he would not. Even for his father he would not. It might have been the first time in his life he failed to do what his father wanted.
All his bottled-up anger came pouring out:
I've served you all these years. I've done everything you said to do. When did you ever give me a party like this? Now your son has come back home–your son who threw away our money on harlots–and you want me to celebrate? Not on your life!
I think Jesus wanted us to raise a question here. What was the worst thing done in that story? What was the lowest moral point, the greatest offense to God, the most damaging and disgracing act?
If you're the older brother type you say that affair with the prostitutes, and what went on in the far country. But if you're the father, you say it was this attitude of his one son toward the other.
Is it possible that a self-righteous, unforgiving, unloving attitude toward the sinners of this world is worse in the long run than the sin itself? Yes, it is. Is it possible that here we have demonstrated for us the "unpardonable sin"? Maybe.
"Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive others theirs." "If you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Heavenly Father forgive your trespasses."(See Matthew 6:9-15)
Someone bared his soul out in the yard there, and this holier-than-thou said he wasn't impressed. Someone repented whose own father forgave him, and a brother found fault and said this shouldn't be?
For how long do you suppose the blame was held? The story doesn't say, because it ends there. But we have good reason to believe it stayed, and stayed, and never changed.
What you're left with then is very clear choice. You have the party in the house, or the anger in the yard. You have the father's love and grace, or the brother's unforgiveness. You have trust in what a person can do on his own, or faith in what can be done for him.
You have life at work, and death. Choose life.
Chapter 14 – Three Times Worse Than None
"And he said to him, 'Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.' He said, 'I tell you, Peter, the cock will not crow this day, until you three times deny that you know me.'" Luke 22:33-34
It begins in the upper room where Jesus met his disciples for their last supper. The words were said to one of those twelve, but the rest heard too.
"Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren." (Luke 22:31)
"Simon, Simon"–you can tell this is more than casual conversation by the way it starts out. The man had two names, one his parents gave, and one Jesus gave. Jesus called him Peter, a nickname that meant "rock." Rock as in rock of Gibraltar.
But Jesus isn't using that name now. He's using the man's formal name, and notice how he said it twice.
My wife sometimes calls me "honey." Sometimes. That's a sort of nickname. Then other times it's "Ed." But certain other times it's "Edward." I know those times well! And a few times I have heard "Edward, Edward"! What does "Edward, Edward" mean? You don't want to know, but you do know! So there's no mystery when the Lord says "Simon, Simon."
"Simon . . . Satan." We don't usually say a good friend's name and Satan's name all in the same breath. That, too, is a tip-off about what's to come. "Satan demanded to have you that he might sift you like wheat."
We forget, as we peacefully observe our Lord's Suppers, the chaos that surrounded their beginning. The disciples met in a secret place, with curtains drawn tight as those with a price on their heads. They learned soon about a traitor in their midst. They heard it said plainly that their leader was to die. And afterward some of them got into a nasty argument. Then came this startling word to Peter. And on it went from there.
Simon Peter. The man was a saint rough-cut. A man of extremes, he could rise higher than most, or fall lower. He could say the best thing in the meeting, or the worst, and you never knew which was coming. He could be faithful one minute, and faithless the next.
He lacked nothing in self-confidence and never would have needed assertiveness training! Anytime he got the barest chance, Peter spoke up.
If Jesus tells him he's in for a fall, what will he say? "You'll deny me, Simon–three times. Three times before this night is over. You're going to turn your back on me."
"No, Lord! Why, I'd go to prison with you, or to death for you. I would never in this world deny you. Some of these others might, but not me. Never, never!"(See Luke 22:33)
He says "never, never" like Jesus said "Simon, Simon." He was loud and bold, but his loudness and his boldness hid what he was right then–a saint about to fall.
Even saints fall. Good people don't like to speak of it, but they do. Sometimes they fall far. Sometimes they fall hard.
It's heart-rending when a true saint falls. The fall of a phony saint is a thing to make heaven laugh. But not this. The fall of a true saint makes heaven cry. So as those twelve make their winding way toward Gethsemane, we know there's about to be crying.
Heaven will cry, and the saint will cry. And if we but cared as saints do, we might cry too.
I have a friend who's a saint for sure. But I was with her once when she was a sifted saint. Sifted like wheat, sifted as by the devil himself. She had always spoken about the Lord's nearness before. But during that time, in a prayer, I heard her tell the Lord she wasn't sure if he heard her prayers or not.
The Lord understood that. The Lord holds that kind of thing against no one. Hard times come to saints like anyone else, and the Lord is there with them in those times, whether they see it or not, feel it or not.
Peter won't know that. Until the end he won't know it.
Saints in their falling seldom know that the Lord is there the whole time. Until it's over, and then they do. Saints in their falling feel far from God until they face him again, and then they know better.
Peter is a saint about to fall, but remember his fall will be the exception. Give the man his due. He's followed, and served, and struggled, and suffered long. As Jesus watched the crowds turn their backs and go away, as he spoke discouraged to the twelve, he said "are you going too?" And it was Peter who answered: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." (See John 6:68)
They walk to the garden of Gethsemane where Jesus liked to pray. He seemed, as they went, to know exactly what lay ahead. But the others didn't.
They all went, all except one. One went somewhere else. One went to some men who paid money for what he knew.
Because of that, others will come to the garden too. Not to pray, but on business. Nasty business. Officials and some soldiers. They'll be there to make arrests. And Peter now will have the chance he spoke about to go to prison or to death. We'll see if he's willing as he said he was, or if that was just talk.
It's a precarious thing to declare in strong language what you'll do in a situation you're not actually in. What Peter said he'd do back there in a room with the curtains drawn tight may not be what he'll do in this garden when the crowd and those soldiers arrive.
Watch out for loose talk about what you'll do or not do if so-and-so happens or doesn't happen. Watch out about telling what you'd do if you were someone else. You're not him, are you? You never will be, will you? That means you can't say.
Peter and the Lord have a clear disagreement. Peter says he'll do one thing, and Jesus says he'll do another. Peter says "I'll stick with you," and Jesus says "no, you'll deny me." So would anyone like to make a bet?
Jesus prays earnestly in that garden. This is where he prays "not my will but thine be done" and his sweat drops down on the earth like blood.
Jesus prays, but Peter sleeps. He's been told to pray, but he sleeps anyway. He may have still been sleeping when the soldiers came. He may have seen soldiers when he first opened his eyes.
Now the thing about soldiers is, they're a welcome sight if they're yours. But if not, if they're the enemy, then it's fight, or run, or surrender–one of the three. Jesus didn't run, and Jesus didn't fight. He goes with them, under arrest.
The others run. At least they slip away and aren't seen for days. And Peter?
He slips away too, but then begins following at a safe distance. He has an urge to leave, and another urge to stay, and he tries to split the difference. He aims for everything, and will end up with nothing. When you try what he tried, that's easy to do.
Peter tries to blend in with the crowd. He won't be the last Christian to do that. It's one of our biggest problems, in fact. Our lights don't shine. We hide them under bushels, except now and then when we uncover them in church. The world doesn't know who the Christians are because Christians don't want it known. We're timid in our faith. We follow afar off.
Jesus is being led to court, and Peter's back there in the crowd traveling incognito. They get where they're going, and he stands around waiting with others who are standing around waiting too.
Time passes, someone builds a fire. Peter eases up to warm the back of his robe. And all of a sudden, someone's voice from out of the dark says, "Weren't you with that man Jesus?"
It was no official. It wasn't even a soldier. It was just a servant girl. But it scared Peter like a sword drawn and pressed against his throat. And the Bible tells us this saint cursed and swore and denied it was so.
If I put in such swearing here they probably wouldn't print it, so imagine a string of unprintable words! Imagine what those words would look like carved in marble on the facade of St. Peter's Church! Or engraved on a religious medal around someone's neck!
No one is more jumpy about a thing than someone who's been running from it already. Peter is terrified! All his words of bravery vanish like last year's leaves. And not just once but three times that long night of his soul, this same thing happens. And the third time, Jesus hears it.
What does it mean when Jesus hears something? Something of yours, perhaps? Hears you say you "tried your best" when that's a bunch of nonsense. Hears you make a deal that isn't quite right. Hears you hurt a friend or lie about something you did. Hears you talk some phony pious talk that means nothing at all to him.
Jesus hears, and Jesus says nothing. But he looks right at Peter. And Peter sees him look.
We don't know what kind of look it was. It might have been a sad look. It might have been angry. It might have said "I told you so." It might have been a smile, or even a wink. But now, like a person who's been walking in fog, Peter is awake and has a nightmare on his hands.
He can't imagine a worse thing than what he's just done. And while he stands there trying, Jesus is on the way to his cross.
Peter begins to wish all the wishes that can do no earthly good. And when this is finally over, all that's left to do will be to cry.
So he cries. And somewhere else, about that same time, another of the twelve is caught up in similar distress. He decides to put a rope around his neck and jump off a cliff. Peter may be thinking along those same lines. You can seriously imagine him starting out to do it. Why didn't he?
On a better day, he once asked the question: "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him–seven times?" The answer he got back was "seventy times seven." (See Matthew 18:22) And Peter learned then and there that the way God wanted him to be toward others was the way God was toward him. He learned about forgiveness, and the grace of God. And that's what made the difference here.
God doesn't deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities. "For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust." (Psalm 103:10-14)
Peter has his cry, and would have another when he learned what was done on that Friday. But still, as we say, he hung in there, down but not out, all the old cliches. And the best time to see about Peter's standing with the Lord is on Easter morning, three days later.
Some women come early to the tomb. Some women find Jesus risen and alive again. They see him with their own eyes, and hear his words. And as he leaves them he gives these instructions: "Go tell my disciples . . . and Peter."
Chapter 15 – Was It the Money
". . . and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him." Matthew 10:2-4
Like all churches, our church has a treasurer. His first name is the same as mine–Ed. His wife, who also calls me Ed, has a way of calling Ed "my Ed" when she's talking with me. Ed's been our treasurer for several years and done a fine job.
Sandy's Ed is also a nice guy. He's quiet and smiles easy. He's steady and dependable. His family members brag on him. Also he and I are friends. In the ministry you soon learn to be friends with the church treasurer! But I think I'd have been Ed's friend anyway.
One day I had to pick up a washing machine at Sears and install it in the parsonage. You don't do that by yourself. You call a good friend who's healthy and ask for help. Someone like Ed. Ed helped me as long as I needed. He probably would help anyone who needed it.
Now that you know my friend Ed, can you imagine what a shock if I got up one Sunday and told the congregation he'd turned out to be a crook? That he was having secret meetings with enemies of our church? That he was out to get rid of me, and some other leaders too?
Can you imagine how quiet it would get in there? How tense the air would become, especially with Ed sitting in his usual seat and listening to every word?
The disciples of Jesus had a treasurer. And as far as anyone knew, he was a good one. You can bet they all considered him a fine man, because no group elects someone treasurer who isn't thought of that way. It's a requirement of the job. Their treasurer was Judas Iscariot.
The name Judas was common enough. There are at least eight others by that name in the Bible. But "Iscariot" is another thing. Some claim it means "assassin." Some say "a false one, a liar, a hypocrite." And there's even a Greek word that suggests "carrier of the leather bag."
But others believe it's a reference to where the man was from. "Man from Sychar," "man from Issachar," "man from Jericho," "man from Kerioth"–those are some ideas. The bottom line is, we don't really know. As we know so little about the man himself.
There's a tendency to make a hero's story brighter than he really was, and a villain's story darker. And the name of Judas may have suffered from that tendency in a way the Master would never have approved.
When Lee Harvey Oswald, the killer of President Kennedy, was murdered himself, it was hard to find a Christian minister in Dallas to conduct the burial. After a number turned it down, a police chaplain did the job. That was a Christ-like act, it seemed to me. The sort of thing Jesus himself might have done. And it shows again that his toughest example to follow is being "a friend of sinners."
Jesus and Judas must have been good friends, at least to some point, and perhaps to the end. The clearest thing we know about Judas is, Christ choose him as his follower. And remember he spent a long night in prayer before he made that decision. The next morning Judas was there on the list of twelve. Why? Why unless Jesus saw great potential in the man?
What potential? That we can't know for sure. But it might have been charm, or intelligence, or a gift for leadership. He may have been charismatic and persuasive. Or maybe he was more the loner, but gifted and creative. Or what if he was chosen as the sensible conservative in the group, to balance the reckless enthusiasm of a man like Simon Peter?
There's some evidence for that, as a matter of fact. In the Gospel of John, chapter 12, Jesus is visiting in the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus. After supper Mary did a really extravagant thing. She anointed the feet of Jesus with a whole pound of expensive perfume.
If you've bought any perfume lately, you know you don't buy it by the pound! And if you use it, you don't use it by the pound either! But Mary did. And Judas protested that this was a waste and the money could have done more good if used for feeding the poor.
I have observed that church treasurers not only write checks, they also have opinions on when to write them. And they tend to lean toward keeping money in the treasury. The Bible suggests Judas had an ulterior motive for doing that.
In any event, the love of Christ had reached out to Judas, claimed and called him. And in the beginning, at least, he must have responded with excitement and devotion.
He may have preached sermons that moved people's hearts. He may have taken little children on his lap and made them laugh. It may have been Judas who asked the best questions when the twelve met for discussions. He may have prayed the best prayers any of them heard. He may have been the most devout of their number, the antithesis of a hypocrite, and it was devoutness, not hypocrisy, that led to his ruin.
We do know that after three years of ministry and close association, Judas betrayed his Lord. Or at least that's how it was looked on. He went to the people in charge and gave information that led to his arrest.
Something happened at supper earlier in the evening that was far from clear. According to Mark's Gospel, they're sitting around the table and Jesus announces one of them will betray him. No one has any idea who, which tells you something, and each one asks if it's him. Jesus only says, "it's one of you here" and that's all.
In Luke's account, they question each other as to who this might be. They dare not ask Jesus, and they never reach a conclusion.
In Matthew, though, they do ask him. And he seems to tell them. Judas asks, "Is it I, Master?" And Jesus replies, "you have said so." A strong hint at least.
But in John, when they ask him, he says it's the person he's going to give a piece of bread to. And then he hands it straight to Judas and tells him to do whatever he has to do, and Judas leaves. But John adds that even this exchange was misunderstood as some matter about the treasury.
As they head toward Gethsemane, Judas goes on other business. Judas goes and makes a deal. He meets with the chief priests, who've already decided they have to get rid of Jesus, but aren't sure how to do it quietly. And now they have their answer. Judas tells them where he is, all alone and in the dark.
The accounts agree that Judas came personally with the group that made the arrest and took him away. There seems no doubt that he did it, what we don't know is why. The casual reader might say it was the money.
But no, it wasn't that. He got 30 pieces of silver, the price of a common slave. Small change to a man of means, sort of a token payment. There had to be something else, more than the money. Let's imagine some what-if's?
What if Judas believed, as many did, that God's Messiah was to be an earthly ruler, restoring the kingdom by force? What if he'd now given up on that hope, sadly concluding that Jesus of Nazareth was an impostor? What if he sincerely believed he was doing God a service?
Or what if Judas believed that Jesus was the Christ but should display his power openly so the nation would follow him? What if he'd been disappointed that Jesus hadn't done that up to now, and did this to force his hand? What if he was convinced the Father would send ten legions of angels before he'd let his Son be harmed? What if this was a believer's misguided effort to resolve doubts in the minds of people and cause the nation to turn to God?
You see, we don't know what were Judas' motives, they could be better than we suppose. A lot of efforts by misguided believers have been just as bad and brought them far less blame. Could it be that everything Judas did on that terrible night was covered by a prayer said on the cross next day: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do"?
We think we know Judas knew what he was doing, but maybe not. Maybe he meant better than we suppose. Maybe God in heaven has already accorded him a better place than we have.
You are wondering now what crazy kind of book you're reading? I can almost hear you asking, "well, why'd he kill himself then?" So you remember about that?
Well, he did it all right. He went back to the priests and walked in and threw down their silver on the floor. Then he went out and hanged himself.
He was distressed, disillusioned, angry, depressed–all the classic moods of suicide. But we still had better be careful about this, lest we judge more harshly than God does about it.
I've had suicidal thoughts, haven't you? Has life been so easy that you never have? Not even for a moment? If a Christian does have such thoughts, does it prove he isn't one? No. Did it mean Judas wasn't? No.
Life can get heavy on a person, unbearably heavy. Enough to think about saying to the great schoolmaster, "I believe I'll skip out on this course and maybe catch the next one." And no God of steadfast love and tender mercy has any less of it for the soul in that most extreme of human situations.
We think of Judas as a tormentor, but maybe he was more the tormented. He was surely an intense man, for those who take life casually never come to such moments. And as tragic as his suicide was, as any suicide is, it still makes an affirmative statement about the man himself. Let me explain.
What if he'd taken the money and gone out to a bar to laugh and drink and live it up? What would that have said? That would have said we have on our hands a hopeless devil.
But the suicide tells us we may have a misguided saint instead. The suicide shows how seriously the deed was taken by the one who did it. How something may not have turned out as intended.
We've all been misguided–somewhere or sometime or in something–and we will again. We must surely pray that we'll never be in such despair as Judas was. But even in his story, there may be a ray of hope. If I seem to have baptized his memory, it's because I feel there's this other side.
For the bottom line may be that "the love of God is greater far than tongue or pen can ever tell; it goes beyond the highest star, and reaches to the lowest hell."
The hell Judas made for himself was low enough. But what if the love of God won the victory even there?
Chapter 16 – A Blindness Overcome
"Thus I journeyed to Damascus with the authority and commission of the chief priests. At midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, brighter than the sun, shining round me . . .." Acts 26:12-13
No Washington Redskin fan will forget the Monday night game in 1985 when we watched Joe Theismann's leg break in slow motion in a game against the New York Giants. It must have been shown a dozen times in replay. They kept saying don't look if you're squeamish. I watched three times and said not again.
People do get hurt. And other people want to see, but then have problems when they do. You pass a wreck beside the road–two cars smashed together. A driver thrown out of one that turned over is lying in a ditch. Lying like Theismann did, waiting for a stretcher. Everyone slows down. Everybody wants to see what's left to see. But watch out! You may not be unaffected.
Let's visit a similar scene. Where bones are broken and blood has spilled out. Where some will look, while others turn away their heads.
This is no accident, though. This is where men with strong notions have clashed into violence. Where those with lives invested in religion are faced with a threat to its existence.
They are Jews of Jerusalem, and he is Stephen, who believes in Jesus of Nazareth. They had him nailed to a cross, but Stephen has preached that he rose from the dead and is alive for evermore. That he was Messiah, God's own Son in fact, and that to him we all must someday give account. He believes this enough to die for it, and does.19
They stoned him for blasphemy. But not before they heard him call out, "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit." And then, more amazingly, "Do not hold this sin against them."
Now a young man was there that afternoon. He didn't throw any stones himself, but he held the coats of those who did. He was born in Tarsus of Cilicia, so he was a distance from home. His Jewish name was Saul and his Gentile name was Paul. His father had gotten Roman citizenship, and was a man of wealth and standing.
Paul got a fine education in Tarsus, and later in Jerusalem. Tarsus was noted for its culture. A contemporary scholar named Strabo says the people at Tarsus devoted themselves so eagerly, not only to philosophy, but also to general education, that they surpassed Athens, Alexandria, and any other place where philosophers taught.20
So what on earth is a man like that doing in the middle of a mob like this?
He's being true to his heritage. He's playing out his role as a serious-minded young man, devout in the religion of his fathers. Thinking back on it later, he would write:
"I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If any other man thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee, as to zeal a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the law blameless." (Philippians 3:4-6)
Ah, the zeal of serious-minded young men and young women! I remember it well from college days. Going out on week-ends to preach in jails and on street corners. Proposing fiery resolutions in the Student Ministerial Association. And the records I used to keep trying to force my conformity to ideals I thought should be my goals. And the time I tried to break a certain bad habit, and swore on my knees that if I failed again I'd put a large amount of money in the offering plate at church, and ended up having to do it!
There at Stephen's stoning is this young Jew from Tarsus. And now we begin to understand why he's there. He's proving something to himself and those mainly older men who came to do the work. And we can speculate what lay ahead for a bright young man so zealous in his religion. What might have happened?
In the first place, he might have continued on the course he was following, becoming a leader in Judea, and famous, and finally elected High Priest at age 52, serving 20 more years until he died, leaving writings that are respected even today.
Or he could have become more and more fanatical, an embarrassment, something of a terrorist, until he was judged out of control by his kinsmen, who disavowed him. He might have gone away then and done one thing after another and finally died fighting in a mercenary army sent to squelch a disturbance in Ethiopia.
Or he might have gone on from that stoning in pursuit of other Christian heretics, but come to a reassessment on the way, having had some sort of vision, becoming converted and a Christian himself, one of their leaders in later years and to the end of his life.
That's what happened. And of course it takes something rather tremendous to turn around a man so driven and dead-set in another direction. So let's find out what that was. By the way, this likely took place no more and probably less than five years after the crucifixion, with Paul about 30 at the time.
He is on his way to Damascus. And they may not be ready for him, but he's ready for them. He has authority to arrest any man or woman who believes what Stephen did. He will arrest them and bring them to trial.
It's hard for us to imagine the mind of the persecutor. What causes someone to plant a bomb at an abortion clinic, let's say? Risking the murder of people inside, and jail for himself if he's caught. All for the sake of his strong opinion on the matter, which he's given every right to express in a lawful manner. How often will such a person be changed to oppose what he once supported, and support what he once opposed?
Something exactly like that is about to happen to Paul, but it may not have been the sudden thing it seemed. Perhaps from the time he stood holding those coats, it had kept him in turmoil. And the harsh way he treated others reflected the harsh way his own doubts treated him.
He'd seen a saintly man willing to die for his faith. Willing like Jesus had been. Who prayed like Jesus did, and forced the choices Jesus forced. And maybe he was thinking those thoughts as he went along the way to Damascus.
He wasn't alone as he traveled, he'd brought help along. And those who came with him were about to wonder what on earth was happening. Nothing would be real to them like it was about to be with Paul.21
First there was a blinding light that surrounded and knocked him down. As he lay with his face in the dirt to hide it from the glare, perhaps he thought he was blind for good. He turned out to be blind temporarily, for three days in fact. But during that time the eyes of his soul were opened to see things as he never saw them before. He would always be sure that this was the doing of God.
Sometimes it takes a lot to get a person's attention. Man doesn't live by bread alone, but bread is what we have our minds on most of the time. So an illness or tragedy may have its good side, because we face the ultimate questions that are usually left aside.
A blind person listens with a different sort of listening. And whether the voice came at once, or after a silence, we have no idea. But you know that when it came it hit him like the lightning bolt it was.
"Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? And isn't it hard on you? Aren't you just tormenting yourself?"
And the sightless young rabbi from Tarsus, half believing already, asks the only question that seemed to matter.
"Who are you, Lord?"
Take a guess, Paul! Try Moses or Elijah. Hope for some dead relative sent by the God you already worship. Don't let yourself think this might be the one Stephen called on at his dying. For then you'd have to hate what you once loved, and love what you once hated. "Who are you, Lord?"
"I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." (Acts 9:5-6)
His companions picked him up and led him by the hand and brought him to Damascus. And it was three long days before the promised instructions came. For the Lord had to speak to a disciple named Ananias, who knew the reputation of Paul, and convince him this was something he should get involved with.
Ananias has to argue.
I've heard about this man, Lord. I know why he's here. And you can say it's fine and not to worry, but I have to worry. If you're wrong and I'm right, then it's a long trip for me to somewhere I don't want to go.
But he went. He took God at his word and went. And must have decided on the way that he might as well do it right if he was going to do it. Be brave, he said to himself–nervous won't help a thing.
So he found the house, went in, and began by putting his hands on the man he feared most. You know that power had to be at work in a touch like that. And he said,
"Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit." (Acts 9:17)
And the first thing Paul saw was the face of a Christian who'd called him brother. And the first thing he did was to be baptized. And they ate and talked, for there was much to talk about. Everything in Paul's life was in for change. Like the spreadsheet on a computer, where the putting of one new figure in one cell of one column causes the recalculating of those in every other column.
The new formula in Paul's life was this, as the Lord explained to Ananias: "He is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name."(Acts 9:15-16)
But Paul would finally say of that suffering: "Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him." (Philippians 3:7-9)
Stephen might have said the same.
Chapter 17 – Of Foods and Folk
"He went in and found many persons gathered; and he said to them, 'You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a Jew to associate with or to visit any one of another nation.'" Acts 10:27-28
In the days of the Roman Empire there was this soldier, an officer, and one would suppose a fine one. A man can make soldiering his life, and maybe this man had. But now he was onto something else.22
He'd decided that being a general wasn't all he wanted. In fact being the emperor, if he ever let himself think those thoughts, that wasn't enough either. Nothing in the realm of the military or political or economic–none of that would do by itself. The man had an urge for God.
As a Roman he knew, of course, there were a lot of nonsensical things called gods, but those he smiled at with a certain necessary indulgence. It wasn't the gods, it was God he longed to know. God who made the world, God who made him, God to whom he felt accountable. God the General of all generals, the Emperor of all emperors.
He'd read carefully what now we call the Old Testament, the Bible of Jews and Christians alike in the day he lived. And he felt his soul stirred. He read, marveled, and began to pray. And his prayers were that the God he was reading and hearing about might be known to him as to prophets and priests and psalmists who told the stories he was reading.
He still was a soldier. He still did all his work, and did it well. But his friends knew something was at work they couldn't explain. Maybe he couldn't either.
He was a man possessed. The discipline that made him a soldier in the first place was now making him something else. And in whispers his friends wondered what that might be.
A soldier of his rank made money. Rome paid its leaders well, especially in the military. And as part of his new turn in life, this man began giving money away. To beggars, to lepers, to the hungry, the sick, the prisoners. And every time he did that, it did him good. But still it failed to do him all the good he wanted.
His journey took him to the temple where they read aloud from the scriptures. The people there were different, of course, for they were Jews and he was a Gentile. And he wished sometimes that he had been a Jew. And wondered once if God was meant for them and no one else. And once he asked about becoming a Jew, and was told it was possible, but rather unusual, and actually there was a kind of surgery he'd have to have first.
And the man wondered about a God who requires strange and unneeded surgery, and kept praying. And his prayers made him believe there surely was another answer. By the way, the man's name was Cornelius. Time passes.
In those days there was a Jewish Christian by the name of Simon Peter. He had the thick country accent of a man from the north, from Galilee, where he used to fish for a living. He was one of the twelve disciples Jesus chose, but that was years ago. Now he spent most of his time in and around Jerusalem, the center of the Jewish world. A world ruled by Rome, and Roman soldiers. Gentiles.
Something is about to happen to Peter and Cornelius both. It may be hard to say who'll be affected by it more. A man used to thinking like a Jew is about to be challenged. Issues that used to seem simple are about to get confused.
When I was a boy growing up in the South, there were signs as you entered buses that instructed persons of colored races to sit in the back, and they did. I still recall the wording: "Colored to the rear." But as the bus filled up, the whites in the front and the blacks in the back had to sit closer to one another, and the dividing line might get unclear.
Carlyle Marney told a story from those days about a well-dressed lady on her way to introduce a speaker to her Women's Club. There being no other seat to take, a black man sat down beside her and it led to a scene which she was the cause of. But the issues there were about to become confused. For when she got to her club, still in a moral huff, she discovered that same man there. And he was the guest speaker she must introduce!
Simon Peter is in a similar unreconstructed state as he goes to a town called Joppa, and lodges in the home of one Simon, who was a tanner. And our army man with his itch for God is in his own unsettled state as he sits at home in Caesarea, some thirty miles away.
He has a vision there. Both men have visions, in fact. The army man's vision is that he should send to Joppa for a man named Peter at Simon the tanner's house.
A vision doesn't have to be such a complicated thing, you see. Cornelius tells his servants, and they begin the thirty mile trip up the sea coast.
Now Peter was staying in the home of Simon the what? The tanner. And what does a tanner do, pray tell? He takes the bloody skins of killed animals and makes leather from them.
Perhaps all people have some horror of dead and bloody things, but the Jew had a stronger case of it. And a man raised Jewish like Peter would have had that in the back of his mind, Christian though he claimed to be. And the issue of animals clean and unclean was small compared with the fact that he had a similar problem about people.
Already on the way to Joppa were men who would say: "We're here to take you to Cornelius so you can give him the message from God." And they'd be the kind of men Peter thought he had no business with. So the great question is, who does he have business with?
Peter isn't ready for their arrival. Don't have them come knocking yet! Let there be traffic on the road, or rain to slow them down. There's something for Peter to get straight about first. And as you read the history of man, it may be the hardest lesson God ever has to teach. No ordinary vision will do for teaching this.
Here's what happened. It's about noontime and maybe Mrs. Tanner is fixing lunch. Peter goes up on the roof–we assume a flat one–to do some praying, he says. He falls into a trance there, which means he became oblivious to things around him. And the Lord began to deal with that "fisher of men," who always thought it meant some fish but not all of them. He begins to see things, things that disturb, things that aren't pleasant.
The Lord has taken over for Mrs. Tanner. The Lord delivers something to eat. "Here it is, Peter; kill and eat."
And down out of heaven comes something like a great sheet, let down by its corners, north and south and east and west. And Peter looks once and can't look again. Inside are all the animals Jews called "unclean." Others might have eaten them, but Jews weren't about to.
Peter is in a daydreaming civil war because God is asking something God isn't supposed to ask. God is supposed to feel the same way Peter feels. So he cries out, "No, Lord, never in my life have I eaten such things. They're unclean."
And there must have been something like thunder at that. Like the Lord saying:
Am I hearing what I'm hearing? I'm saying these are clean, and you call them dirty? You who'll be dirty forever unless I make you clean? We have an argument here, but there is no argument. What I've cleansed, don't you call common or unclean–ever again!
Knock, knock. The men are there. And Peter will go with them for God will make him. And now those two will meet, this unlikely Christian preacher and his first Gentile convert to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Thirty miles later it was funny how the agenda of the meeting was still in such doubt. Cornelius keeps saying they're gathered to hear what Peter has to say. And Peter keeps asking them what they want him for? The man could be a slow starter.
He may have been mumbling to himself, "why me?" There are a lot of us preachers, why me down here in this home where I feel so out of place?
The "why me's?" of life. Why me with no job? Why me on jury duty? Why me to have a foot with no toes? Why me with a heart attack? Why me the husband of that woman and father of those children? Why me an American and not a Tahitian? Who but God can answer any "why me's?"
Some things we seem to bring on ourselves, but others get brought on us. They just happen, or do they? Is there a providence that brings some things to pass, at least? Things like this meeting between Peter and Cornelius?
Each one had something the other needed. Peter had his Gospel of Jesus, and the heritage of the Old Testament. Cornelius needed both. But Peter was narrowly confined within that heritage, and close at times to denying its universal gospel. He needed a world view. He needed a Gentile outlook in place of his Jewish prejudice. And the army man had that. So bring them together!
After some hesitation, the preacher finally preaches. He preaches about Jesus, the doer of good, the friend of the oppressed, delivered unto death but raised the third day to be judge of the living and the dead.
Cornelius believes this preaching as the answer to his prayers it was. And Peter who preached it now delivers a sermon to himself:
"Truly I perceive that God shows no partiality, but in every nation any one who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him." (Acts 10:34-35)
And then and there the army man becomes, as far as anyone knows, the first Gentile baptized a Christian.
That's the end of the story, except to say that it wasn't the end of the story. Some of Peter's friends were angry that a man from the back of the bus had been invited to sit in front with one of them. And there were conferences about the matter, and debates. For you see, no person settles this for anyone else. We deal with prejudice one by one. And even after that it may sneak around and surprise us from the rear.
The Lord who spoke to Peter, and was serious with him, is serious with us. All peoples of this earth are his dear children. And nothing pleases him more than the joining of hand with hand, and heart with heart. And nothing is his sorrow more than striving and fighting among us–race against race, class against class, tribe against tribe.
Peter, Cornelius, we need you still. Help our world see what you learned out of the conflict you both went through.
Shake hands, tell of God. You could even embrace.
After all, you are brothers now.
Chapter 18 – Tough Man in A Tough Spot
"Setting sail therefore from Troas, we made a direct voyage to Samothrace, and the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is the leading city of the district of Macedonia, and a Roman colony." Acts 16:11-12
Have you ever thought about being in jail? I mean really in jail. Tried and convicted and sentenced and sent there. Lay your wallet and watch and rings down there on a table to go in an envelope with a number on it. If you get out of the jail, they get out of the envelope. No need to think about that now though.
You get a hair style you don't want, and wear those loose clothes with the wide stripes. And get locked in a 6 by 8 cell that stinks and has one window you can't even see out of. You sit on your bed and think that even if you manage to survive the murderers and rapists and who-knows-what-else? you have to do it for years.
Have you ever wondered what you'd likely get put in jail for? I mean, what talents do you have?! Or maybe you'd be there by mistake, is that it? Or at least for some civilized thing, like being the president of a Savings and Loan and stealing 14 million dollars or so. Nothing to hurt anybody.
I've been in jail. In more than one. Dandridge, Tennessee has a jail I was in. Dandridge is a county seat town near Douglas Lake, if you know where that is. In the back of my old King James Bible, I still have the name of a prisoner I "won to the Lord" in that jail one Saturday afternoon. Came back to school that night and reported on it to the Ministerial Association.
I don't remember how impressed they were, but I know I was impressed. Those men looking out with stares as hard as the iron bars there between us, locked up in cages like tigers at the Knoxville Zoo.
I remember I got talked into going out to the drug store to buy cigarettes and candy for a man who implied it was my Christian duty to do that. The Lord called me to do good for my fellow man, and that was him, and he needed a smoke. I was big on Christian duty back then, so I did it.
And I remember the jailer going through that bag I brought back in. Like I might have gone to the hardware store for hacksaw blades! And I remember his amusement over an 18 year old boy doing that. And I remember he seemed a different kind of man–different like those prisoners upstairs were. A tough customer–not a person you'd mess with. And I supposed most jailers were like that, and I suppose they are.
I have a story about a jailer–one from the Bible.23 Yes, they had jails back then too. No ice cream or light bulbs or matches or zippers or magazines, but they had chains and locks and jails. There was one in Philippi. And two preachers once got put in there, only not to visit.
Philippi was more than just a county seat town. Philippi was a Roman military colony. It was a leading city of the district of Macedonia. Once it had been a town named Krenides, but Philip of Macedon came there and fortified it and humbly renamed it in his honor. After Brutus and Cassius were defeated in 42 B.C., Augustus enlarged and made it a colony. Its title was "Colonia Augusta Julia Philippensium."
But that wouldn't mean a lot to a jailer. He wouldn't be up on the local history. He wouldn't be very active in the literary society either. And the visitors to Philippi he'd get to meet wouldn't ordinarily be your better class of folk.
But it was a little strange about those two preachers he had in there now. What they were in for was sort of strange.
There was this young woman in town–the jailer knew about her. A lot of people knew about her. She was a slave girl, and the Bible says "she brought her owners much gain." Owners.
It's bad enough to have one owner, she had more than one. But I guess if you can bring in "much gain" then that's the way it might go. She seemed to have almost been incorporated. Maybe that was on her door sign: "Soothsaying, Inc." Soothsaying was like fortune telling, and that was what she did.
Well that was 2,000 years ago, and they were primitive people then. But I happen now to live close to the University of Maryland, which of course is no primitive place. It's a place of excellence in psychology, and biology, and sociology, and anthropology, and history, and philosophy if not theology. And yet right next to that citadel of sophistication is a soothsayer who's been in business at least the last 12 years.
I don't know how many academic matters have been decided in her place, but I know it's there!
Well, to get back to the story, Paul and Silas, these two strangers in town, were on their way to a prayer meeting and they met this young woman. And exactly what happened depends on who you ask.
The Bible says she began to follow them, crying out "these men are servants of the Most High God, who proclaim to you the way of salvation." And Paul didn't take that as a sincere compliment, because it annoyed him, and he turned and rebuked her. After that the soothsayer found that her sayer was all soothed out! Like one who recently sued for and won money from a hospital that CAT-scanned her and destroyed her psychic powers in the process!
But what would that jailer have been told, do you suppose? Perhaps that two religious fanatics came from out of town, and took it upon themselves to start an argument with Madame Lois right on the city street. And the police had to be called, because the crowd got involved. And now Madame Lois is in a state of shock–because she's a very sensitive person, you know. And her psychiatrist says it may be a long time before she can go back to work again.
Anyway, Paul and Silas were arrested, and questioned, and beaten, and put in jail. They were put in the most secure part of the jail. And their feet were put in stocks. Not socks, stocks. And the jailer was told he better not let them out.
I don't think they had to tell the jailer that. Jailers know that. Jailers back then knew it especially well, because the law made them personally responsible for their prisoners. If you lost one you not only lost your job and your retirement benefit, you lost your need of a retirement benefit!
Now what would you expect from two such prisoners if you were the jailer? You knew they weren't violent men, you knew they were talkers–professional talkers. So you'd expect a lot of mouth, a lot of protest. "We did nothing wrong." "No one had a right to hit us." "Somebody's going to pay for this and pay big." That kind of thing.
But what the jailer heard, what other prisoners heard too, was singing. They were singing hymns of praise to God.
Praise to the Lord, who doth
prosper thy work and defend thee,
who from the heavens the streams of
His mercy doth send thee. Ponder anew
what the Almighty can do, who with His love
doth befriend thee.24
Something like that. And you don't hear that kind of thing in a jail very often. That got the jailer's attention. That got everyone's attention!
Distinctive Christian behavior. People who've been born again are supposed to be different, to do things that stand out and get attention. This is how the faith spreads. "When they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they wondered; and they recognized that they had been with Jesus." Words from another story in Acts.25
Well, the jailer was amazed. He sat in the office listening. Maybe if someone else was there, he said "what do you make of that?" Maybe he was under conviction about it, even before the earthquake started. Earthquake.
In the middle of that night it started. The ground was shaking, and things were splitting open and falling down, and people were screaming and running. Hard as it is to scare a jailer, this one was scared. If the earthquake didn't get him, the Romans would, because people were loose and there was nothing he could do.
The man had actually taken out his sword to kill himself when Paul and Silas rushed in. They told him no one was going to run away, and that he was still in charge.
But actually, by now, they were in charge, or the Lord was, because that jailer was determined to have some of whatever it was they had. He looked at them urgently and said, "Men, what must I do to be saved?"
A few minutes ago you'd have thought that meant, "How can I get myself out of this mess?" But he was out of it now already. So it was something else he was speaking of.
It's easy to go through life dealing day-to-day with the little situations that come along and ignoring the big situation. People save up this or that but aren't saved themselves. People get God's gift and play around with the ribbon and the wrapping, but never open the present.
What must he do to be saved? What must anyone do? Paul puts it simply. "Believe," he says. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ."
Why that? Because he's the way, the truth, and the life. How to do it? Just by "faithing" that what it says is so. And when? Well, right now, Paul tells him.
And that jailer did it, then and there. And afterward he was baptized with all his family, right in the middle of the night. And he took Paul and Silas home, and tended their wounds. And next day the officials learned they were Roman citizens, and apologized and let them go.
So in less than 24 hours, this jailer became a Christian. It seems too quick and easy to us. It seems like he certainly had determination, but not much information.
True. But that's a better state than having a lot of information and no determination! Do you know what I mean?
If you have determination, as he did, you'll get the other soon enough. But if you've loaded yourself with information and still have never gotten enough motivation to move one degree off dead center, then chances are you never will.
Unless something out of the ordinary happens.
Doesn't have to be an earthquake, doesn't have to come from out of town. But something to get your attention.
Appendix – On Storytelling
Bill Lufborrow, president of Goodwill Industries of Houston, has published a book of "inspirational thoughts" that can be "combined with text and theology to enhance a sermon or talk." His title is both clever and appropriate–Illustrations Without Sermons. The point that listeners remember the stories and forget the sermons is perfectly true. Luftborrow's expressed concern is for using more stories in sermons. Mine is to use them as sermons.
Flannery O'Connor wrote a story about a short story writer, Miss Willerton, who was trying to write one herself.26 To say the least, the lady was having a hard time of it. Over and over, various starts were made, various schemes tried. Nothing seemed to work. The story was awful.
But just when the reader was screaming "enough!" O'Connor took the story and began to do things with it. Several pages later you sat amazed. What you were ready to pronounce dead had come to life! Something moved in a valley of dry bones. What a difference the telling makes. No story is so good that a bad telling won't hurt (kill?) it, and none is so bad that a good telling won't improve (resurrect?) it. This applies to Bible stories like any other.
Interest in storytelling has risen in recent years. The works of C.S. Lewis and his colleague J.R.R. Tolkien have experienced revivals. The face of Garrison Keillor has appeared on the cover of Time magazine. An English actor named Alec McCowen has memorized the Gospel of Mark and presented it as one long story on a stage bare of props. Who would have predicted its smashing success in England and the U.S.?
Studies of the human brain by Robert Ornstein and others suggest one possible reason. Each of the hemispheres of our brain controls a separate mode of thought. Left brain functions are rational, logical, and sequential. Right brain functions are imaginative and intuitive. Everyone has the capacity of learning in either mode, each in his own combination. But an "advanced," technological society tends to force our use of left brain functions and starve us of right brain opportunities.
I saw this once in a church where we decided to have summer Vacation Bible School for all ages, not just the children. We scheduled it evenings so adults could take part as well. And we planned handwork for the adults in addition to their "serious study."
The handwork was the hit of the week! For the first time in years, adults did finger-painting, woodwork, whittling, gluing, paper-cutting, and other childhood nonsense. They loved it! They were as proud of their creations as any six-year-old. Somewhere in a box I still have my own copper tooling of a large and splendid parrot! "Except ye turn and become as little children . . .."
Fathers and mothers remember that tug on the sleeve, and the voice and large eyes pleading, "tell me a story." Any story. One of the old ones will do just fine, if not better. The old ones become familiar rituals and get better with age. And who says this is only childish entertainment? Who cannot tell that this is the learning of life?
Every parent or grown-up has a child inside who wants to sit and listen to stories again. And wonder at new things. And laugh at the funny, or cry about the sad, and sometimes be uncertain which to do when. And then hope for another story when that one's done.
She lives in a world that runs on reason. She gets paid to find the most economical distance between two points. The clock goes off on time every morning. But she wants to feel something now and then. To feel what she once felt, or might have felt, or might still feel if time enough is left. Stories help. Stories tell of life.
People dulled by overloads of left-brain labor will pick up on stories. And the outcome may be much more than just entertainment. There are ways to teach and preach as stories are told. The Bible is a book that shows how.
Much of the material preserved by the biblical writers is in story form. Even the poetry of the Bible abounds in story.
When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.
The more I called them,
the more they went from me;
they kept sacrificing to the Baals,
and burning 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 cords of compassion,
with the bands of love,
and I became to them as one
who eases the yoke of their jaws,
and I bent down to them and fed them.
How can I give you up, O Ephraim!
How can I hand you over, O Israel!
But very often we de-story the stories of the Bible for our (more sophisticated?) use. "Serious Bible study," we call it. We change them from right brain style to left brain style in order to be more comfortable with them. In the process we often miss the point. Someone asked a dancer to explain the meaning of her dance. Her reply was, "If I could have said it, I wouldn't have danced"!
Dylan Thomas used to say he had little interest in poetry, only poems. Some people had that backward, he thought. He agreed with Kierkegaard's principle that the particular is always higher than the general. Stories, like poems, belong to the particular.
Why does the Bible use all those stories? Why doesn't it just tell us what it wants to tell us and be done? "Just give us the facts, man"–why? Perhaps because you find the lesson in and through the story, but you'll miss it any other way.
Someone is pulling with insistence at your sleeve and asking, "Now what is the point of your story?" He wants something with a solid ring to it–something conclusive. Like "moral injustice in an ambiguous environment"! "Unperceived risk factors in interactive relationships." "Peer pressures as determinative in anti-social adolescent behavior." He'll tuck that away and not have to ponder the story. He'll think he's one ahead.
But quite often the story is the point. The story is all we're given. It isn't there to "illustrate" someone's philosophy, it is the philosophy. With the parables of Jesus, there's no need for a wrap-up at the end. The hearer has all he needs to hear. It's something like a joke–you either get it or you don't. An explanation will be the death of it.
We know now that Jesus wasn't unique in his use of stories. He was following the common practice of his day. His was a "story culture." When we ask a question we expect a straight answer. Back then you weren't surprised to wait through a pause and then . . . "Well I'll tell you, it's like this story I heard once."
"Rabbi, which would you say is the greatest commandment?" The two are standing face to face with others pressed around them listening. The question is one you could write a whole book about, as some have been written. But Jesus doesn't answer like a book answers. Instead, he pauses and then begins: "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho . . .."
Heads lean in. Everyone listens closely. They begin to imagine the scene of a robbery about to take place. They know it's coming even before it happens. Then they see that unlucky traveler lying there on the ground beside the road. He has blood in his eyes and dust choking his throat. As that long-robed and supposedly pious priest comes along and passes on by, they wince. They're thinking what it's like to lie hurt like that and hear the footsteps go right on. And also the story reminds them of something about themselves, some time when it was their turn to help and they didn't. Thoughts of that are still in the air as the Levite appears and passes by and there's silence on the road again.
What now? Tell us, come on! Don't let this be all. Don't let him die there. Surely not!
Another person must come along now, yes that's it! And he'll be one who cares for the fallen. He'll do what he can to help, isn't that right? He'll have nothing more important to do, like those others did, because there is nothing more important to him.
Before he even appears, they've created him–anticipating as all of us do in stories.
But what they don't anticipate, what will strike them now like a blow to the middle, is that the good man they long for is someone they hate. A Samaritan!
A low-down swine of a Samaritan? Oh, come on! We've heard everything now! A good Samaritan? There's no such thing!
All because of one story, then, there's anger and shock and confusion and denial–like a gang of demons let loose in their circle. And they may or may not change their minds about anything that day, but they will not be unaffected by what they've heard. It will come sneaking back to haunt their thoughts, again and again, maybe as long as they live.
Can anyone suppose a lecture on "Moral Priorities in Anonymous Personal Relationships" would have served the purpose better? Aren't there similar topics ready to reduce all the great stories of the Bible to a propositional state? But don't the stories themselves say as much and more?
Now the serpent was more subtle than any other wild creature that the Lord God made, and he said to the woman . . .
Take now your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go yonder to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering to me . . .
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth to a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph . . .
And the third day there was a marriage in Cana of Galilee; and the mother of Jesus was there . . .
There was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. The same came to Jesus by night . . .
At midday, O King, I saw on the way a light from heaven, above the brightness of the sun, shining round about me . . .
And I saw an angel come down from heaven, having the key of the bottomless pit and a great chain in his hand. And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years . . .
My interest in stories owes much to hearing and reading the work of Fred Craddock. His book Overhearing the Gospel27 refers to a quote by Kierkegaard which says:
"There is no lack of information in a Christian land; something else is lacking, and this is something which the one man cannot directly communicate to the other."
Craddock suggests that two prime factors in communicating the gospel indirectly (through story) are distance and participation. "Distance" means the hearer feels safe because all he's doing is listening to someone tell a story. "Participation" means that because of this he voluntarily allows himself to be drawn in and ultimately influenced by what he hears.
In the opinion of James Earl Massey, "No preaching succeeds so well as that which treats some biblical story and is true to a story-line in its substance and form. When preaching honors the principle of start, buildup, and resolution, especially as these relate to some person's experience of conflict or stress, it ensures immediacy, generates insight, and provides a means of hope, faith, change, and growth. Nothing stirs the chemistry of the consciousness and prods the self to commitment like good story preaching."28
Many churches now have "children's sermons" during Sunday worship. At that time, the minister is given permission to speak on a different level. He doesn't have to be scholarly, pious, penetrating, or whatever the usual expectations are. He can be himself. And the adults are listening in, of course. And the interesting thing is how they listen, and how often they get more out of those sermons than the other ones! Their guard is down–that's why. The method is far more engaging.
Charles Rice observes that "there is in the very nature of storytelling a posture, a leaning forward. And this is true of both the listener and the storyteller, as if the story cannot be told without this attentive bending to each other. We have all experienced it in one setting or another. The story may be one we have heard before, and it may not begin with anything even resembling 'Once upon a time.' The storyteller may be friend and confidant: parent, preacher, or child; a neighbor–or even ourselves, when some object or word or odor or the way the light comes into a room in late afternoon recalls a time previously buried in memory. When the story comes, in whatever form, there arises in us such a need to live in and to live ourselves into the story that we bend our imaginations and, it would seem, our bodies as well to the storyteller. 'Once upon a time' is a signal to pay attention to a discrete moment in time which can give meaning to all of time."29
A point made by argument begins at once to challenge the listener and create a defense. A story draws him in. It makes him a participant as he projects himself into one or more of the characters. It makes its point in a subtle but substantial way. The aim of storytelling is experiential. We do often learn things and understand things without experiencing them, but an experience is much more likely to make a difference in our conduct.
Prophet Nathan had a message for King David. Had he styled it as the rebuke it was, the message would have been doomed and possibly the messenger too. So he put it in a story. David was captivated.
Imagine, David, this wealthy man living on a splendid estate. A man who can have anything he wants. But a selfish, greedy man. And one day he has guests coming to dinner he must feed. And he hates to kill one of his own animals, so he takes a poor helpless neighbor's pet lamb and kills it instead.
David reacted strongly, his defenses disarmed. "Such a man deserves to die, and will, by God!" And now he was ready to learn the meaning of the story. He'd already accepted its premise. Now it would be hard to avoid its meaning for his own life.
Keillor has a piece from Lake Wobegon called "Letter from Jim." It's a sermon on adultery. Only it isn't a sermon, it's a story. Any adulterer or might-be adulterer (most people) will listen with great fascination. They have made no demand for sermons on adultery by their local pastor, but they listen to Keillor because his is a story. They listen like David did to Nathan.
The Bible opens with a story. The Old Testament is full of them. Jesus told them as the mainstay of his teaching. The Gospels that record his life do it mainly through stories. The Acts of the Apostles is a batch of stories about the early church. Letters like Philemon and 3rd John prompt our wondering what was behind them. The New Testament closes with a long story about good and evil in the world and how things will turn out.
Stories thrive on telling and re-telling. They serve different purposes and suit different occasions. They are adaptable to new times and situations. Witness the fact that Paul told the story of his conversion four times and differently each time. And of course we have multiple Gospels, not just one. There can hardly be enough stories or storytellers.
The basic thing about a story is plain enough–you tell what happened. "Uncle Ralph walked to town and got a haircut. On the way back he saw the postman and got his mail. Later on he took a nap." That's a story.
"Barnabas . . . sold a field which belonged to him, and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet." (Acts 4:36-37) That's a story.
But we want more in our stories if we can–more than just the "story line." What happened makes us eager to know why and when and how and where. And what was the day like then? What were its sights and sounds and smells? And how did it feel to be there and be part of such a thing? What made this so good, or so bad? And should our lives be different now for having heard about it?
James Cox suggests that telling most stories will follow a three-fold pattern consisting of situation ("A certain man had two sons"), complication ("And there arose a mighty famine in that land"), and resolution (He arose and came to his father").30
The fact is, you don't have to have a lot of "pure story" to make a good story. "A woman lost a valuable coin in her house, kept looking till she found it, and was relieved and delighted when she did." Jesus took that and made it unforgettable. People felt what that woman must have felt. They longed her longing. They remembered a time like that in their own lives. And they knew exactly what he meant about being lost and found.
The storyteller has a "stance" that's closer to her hearers than any other communicator. There are times she knows the story and they don't, but many times not. They may know it as well as she does, they just can't tell it as well.
In good storytelling, everyone listens–the teller and listener alike. There's a celebration of the story which both take part in. The teller and the listener both share ownership of the outcome. The audience is to a storyteller what fans are to the team. They take part. Don't try to tell them it isn't their game too!
The thing is not to lose the story or the hearers. Diversions can enrich the telling or kill it dead. Like an unknown path heading off through the woods, you can wander only so far without risk of getting lost.
This isn't to say a story must be told straight through. There's nothing wrong with starting at the end, then working back to the beginning. Or starting in the middle, going on to the end, then telling the beginning as a conclusion. But you mustn't lose the listener by utterly confusing him about the way things are going.
You can use variations of tense. Use the past tense for most of the story, then switch to the present. That gives the effect of looking back on most of the story, then seeing the conclusion as a contemporary event. All these things are possible, but a plan must be followed which the listener won't miss.
With that observed, the teller is free to explore an interesting path that leads off down the hill, or pause to watch minnows in the creek, or even crawl back in the cave and see what's there.
If you like, you can stop and speculate on things at the most crucial moment in the story:
David was bent over getting stones from the creek when he heard Goliath bellow . . ..
Now might be the time to mention those left-handed Benjamites who were very good with sling-shots too. David can stay bent over for awhile–people will remember. But not too long–it hurts the back!
You can temporarily leave the story to recall some current or other event. "Doesn't that remind you of something? Remember November 22nd, 1963? Remember how the country mourned?"
You can digress to give additional information. "Now we do need to understand what sort of place the city of Corinth was."
And you can speculate on the meaning of things. "Why do you suppose that woman cared for someone like him?" "What is at stake when a child says no to his parents' wishes?" "If things were like that today, what would happen to our national pride?"
The storyteller can use questions about the story as part of the story, once the hearers are involved.
"What would you have done if it were your choice?"
"What kind of prayer would you call the one just now?"
"Do you know what King of Israel did exactly the same thing?"
A good story is like a jewel with many facets. It can be appreciated from countless angles, and in many different kinds of light. Even the background you set it against will bring out something new.
So turn it. Turn it over and over, around and around.
What if . . .?
How come . . .?
Let's imagine . . ..
Just think . . .!
Let me tell you . . ..
Doesn't that remind you . . .?
Since the story is re-creating an event of life, all the senses can be involved. What did it sound and feel and smell and look and taste like?
One of Keillor's stories describes a thrown, large, over-ripe tomato impacting a boy's sister's fanny, who was bent over picking others at the time. As he tells it, you see it and hear it and smell it and feel it, all at about the same time!
There are things to be discovered about ourselves in stories. Things come out that never do in other situations. There is Carl Rogers' saying that what is most personal to any one of us is actually the most general for all of us.
We all have our stories locked away inside, but we think no one would understand them. Just tell them and see. Others may not know the characters or places, but they know what rejection feels like. They know embarrassment. They know the dread of the judgment of God. They know about the hunger for love. Then you discover that what you thought was your story is really the story.
"Nearing the mythical age of forty I fell in love with a young woman, and left a home that had been rich in care, in fighting, in lovemaking on Sunday mornings, in shared memories of the birth of children, in the myriad details that weave the lives of solitary individuals into a single family. Whether divorce was an act of courage or betrayal remains moot. Beyond question I found myself at mid-life in a radical crisis; like a plant whose roots had been torn from accustomed soil. One rainy morning I awoke alone in an apartment in San Francisco with the realization that my marriage had finished, my wife had remarried, my children were living far away, my lover had departed, and my academic career had been abandoned. My emotional capital seemed exhausted. My past looked infinitely richer than any future I might create. Depression lurked and easily invaded any empty moment. I had either to surrender to despair or mourn the death of my old life and find some way to begin again."31
We listen in on a story like that and hear a whole lot more than just its meaning to the teller. We make comparisons. We feel what he felt and then begin to feel how we felt in a similar experience which already has begun to jam the circuit board of our thoughts. So it wasn't just his story after all, now was it?
Edmund Steimle has said: "Scratch the surface of a rich, comfortable, self-righteous pharisee in our churches and you will find an anxious pharisee. Scratch the surface of a narrow, prejudiced deacon or elder and you're likely to find a frightened deacon or elder. Scratch the surface of a rebellious teenager and you'll probably find a scared kid."32
Stories do that "scratching" better than most anything. They work because we want them to work and let them work. We give them our permission. Tell me your conclusion and I get set to argue with it. Tell me your story and I get set to listen.
John Claypool gave the Lyman Beecher Lectures on Preaching at Yale Divinity School in 1979. Early on, he told the story of twin brothers who ran a store in the Midwest. One day a dollar bill disappeared from the store and they got into an argument over who was responsible. Accusations were made. Things got so bad each brother went his own way. A wall was built down the middle of the store. The brothers lived as enemies and competitors for the next 20 years. Then one day a stranger returned a dollar bill. He'd seen it through the window years ago and took it while no one was looking. And now there was no more reason for all the bitterness, as if there had been anyway. The brothers hugged each other and wept together. The partition came down.33
Who will long remember exactly how Claypool used that story? Or yours or mine or anyone else's. The easier thing is to imagine ways it might have been used–how it applies to life. And sometimes the better thing is not to "use" it at all.
Just tell it and let it use itself. For a story like that will strike the hearer in ways all its own. There are times not to even suggest what those may be.
Preachers often think they're obliged to control what conclusions people reach. But storytellers don't. Preachers shouldn't.
1 The central story presented here is found in Genesis 32:22-32. For the larger story and its background see Genesis 25:19-33:20.
2 Robert Frost, The Poetry of Robert Frost, Edward Connery Lathem, ed.(New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston) p. 255)
3 Most of this story is found in Genesis 19:1-38.
4 The poem is by Dorothy Leiser, quoted by Kenneth G. Phifer, Tales of Human Frailty and the Gentleness of God(Atlanta: John Knox Press), p. 35.
5 The Biblical narrative on which this story is based may be found in Numbers 13-14.
6 This story is found in Judges 13-16.
7 The Biblical source of this story is the entire book of Job. You will find, though, if you look at it in a modern translation that the narrative part is relatively short and concentrated at the first and last of the book. The bulk of the writing consists of speeches and dialogue in the form of poetry. These are important to the story, but deciding where they fit within it is not always sure or easy.
8 The story told here is found in 2 Samuel 11-12.
9 See 2 Samuel 13:1-14:27
10 For this and many technical and interpretive insights I am indebted to Phyllis Trible, Texts of Terror: Literary-Feminist Readings of Biblical Narratives(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), pp. 37-63.
11 A line from the movie "Sophie's Choice."
12 Words from a 17th century composition by Johann Wolfgang Franck.
13 See Hosea 3:2. Material for this story is drawn from the entire book of Hosea. The reader will find that, as in the case of Job, the narrative portion of the book is brief compared with the volume of sermons and poems, which are not always easy to identify with the narrative itself.
14 See Alan Paton, Too Late the Phalarope(New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1953), p. 252,265.
15 The Biblical background for this story is found in Matthew 3:1-17, 14:1-12; Luke 1:5-25,57-80, 3:1-22; and Mark 1:1-11.
16 See Luke 15:11-32
17 Luke's account is found in Luke 15:11-32.
18 See Luke 15:11-32.
19 The Biblical narrative of Stephen's stoning is found in Acts 6:8-8:3.
20 Arthur Darby Nock, St. Paul(London: Thornton Butterworth, ltd., 1938), p. 22.
21 The primary account of Paul's conversion is found in Acts 9:1-31. Other accounts are found in Acts 22:1-21 and 26:1-29. See also Galatians 1:11-24.
22 You will find this story in Acts 10:1-11:18. Also see Acts 15:1-35.
23 See Acts 16:1-40.
24 Hymn by Joachim Neander (1679) as published in The Lutheran Hymnal(St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1941), sel. 39.
25 See Acts 4:13.
26 "The Crop" from Flannery O'Connor, The Complete Stories(New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1953), pp. 33-41.
27 Fred Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), p. 9.
28 James Earl Massey, Designing the Sermon; Order and Movement in Preaching(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1980), p. 35
29 Edmund A. Steimle, Morris J. Niedenthal, and Charles L. Rice, Preaching the Story(Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980), p. 13-14.
30 James W. Cox, Preaching(New York: Harper & Row, 1985), p. 162-163.
31 Sam Keene, Beginnings Without End(New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1975), p. ix.
32 Quoted by Morris Niedenthal, Preaching the Story, p. 77.
33 John Claypool, The Preaching Event(Waco: Word Books, 1980), p. 37-40.