Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 18th, 2021

18:21
 
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Manage episode 278337801 series 1950523
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When we left David last week the tribes of all Israel had rallied around him, and his kingship effectively began. Only the lame Mepibosheth from the House of Saul remained alive. This Sunday marks the movement of the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem, where there is as yet no temple, but the religious significance of Jerusalem for what will become the Davidic monarchy is being made clear.

When last we left the venerable ark it was in Kireath-Jearim, to the west of the City of David, where it had remained, we are told in the first chapters of 1 Samuel, now twenty years. You will recall it had been taken away by the Philistines, who doubling down to avoid the fate of the destroyed Egyptians of Moses’ generation, routed Israel in battle. Good news, bad news, for the ark’s presence in their victorious midst caused tumors to break out throughout the coastal land. Sending it from one city to another to get rid of the freshly renewed and potent Egyptian-like plagues brought no better results. At Gath it was finally sent by cart, accompanied with sin offerings, on its way, where it promptly headed straight for home territory. A sign the priests had properly anticipated, meaning the judgment in their midst had been no accident. At its last staging point, the men of Beth-Shemesh dared to gaze into the ark and they were ominously slain. But the ark was how back home, back in its proper 20-year resting place in Israel. It is always intriguing to see what verses our readings may from time to time leave out—this Sunday, vv 6 through 12a, which appears to be a surgical excision from the middle of our chapter 6.

Here is the account of one Uzzah who reached out to steady the ark en route, on its mobile journey to Jerusalem, and was struck down, giving rise to a popular name for the place and event and striking fear in David. The ark can take care of itself as we saw clearly in 1 Samuel, traveling around the hostile Philistine territory. It steadies Israel; it isn’t steadied.

Parenthetically, I often find these “steadying efforts” in the lectionary readings, that is, leaving out the more challenging verses from our readings, a missed opportunity. David’s dancing and rejoicing and shouting, amid trumpet fanfare, happens not in diminishment of the ark’s sacred potency but in the light of it. It is dancing and rejoicing after great fear and respect have been experienced by David. The despising by Saul’s daughter, Michal, of which we read today, elides David’s genuine fear like a concerned lectionary editor, and leaves his leaping and rejoicing without a proper context for interpretation. “With all their might” means an exertion like as in battle, matched by the disciplined offerings of respect as they go. The terror-and-tumor wielding arc must be brought forward with care and exertion, such as David and his chosen men are capable of, after the years of discipline we have closely followed in previous chapters.

The psalm speaks of the founding of the seas and the stabilizing of the deep in the same breath as the ascent to God’s dwelling. Who can ascend, who can stand in his holy place? The generation capable of this must seek him with a pure heart and clean hands, untethered to falsehood. The King of Glory is entering his holy place. The Lord of Hosts, seated upon the cherubim. He is the King of Glory. He steadies, secures, defends, founds the seas and dwells in safety in his holy place.

The choice of Amos chapter 7 to come alongside Mark 6 draws our attention to the parallel between Amaziah and King Jeroboam in the northern kingdom of Israel and the Galilean King—better Tetrarch—and Herod. And also between the prophet Amos and John the Baptist, the former banished, the latter tragically beheaded, both prophets strong in word and deed. Lectionary comparisons are also useful for calling attention to kindred features and also to subtle contrasts, so sharpening our eye on what is being depicted.

The plumb-line vision is the third in a series of four vouchsafed to Amos, or five if chapter nine’s later vision is to be included. After each of the first two—locusts and judgment by fire—the prophet begs God to relent. Amos the stern is as well a dedicated prophet of intercession for a wayward people. And God relents due to his plea.

The third vision he receives is just as harsh. The sanctuaries and the royal house will come to an end. Amaziah’s banishing of Amos from the sanctuary tragically means the sole person able to plead successfully with God for Israel, and who has done so, is now silenced. Nothing will stay the judgment because of the priest’s banishing response. So the final vision confirms the reality. An end has come upon Israel. Amos sees qayits, “summer fruit”, God says qets. The end.

The depiction of Herod is more complicated than Amaziah’s. He likes to hear John. There is something compelling about him. “When he heard him he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.” This complexity may be entertaining to him, but his is a view of the matter not shared by his wife. John’s condemnation of Herod’s wrongful marriage to his sister-in-law – did Herod understand its sharp truth? Mark seems say so: Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man. But Herod is clearly a wavering, impetuous, weak ruler. A rash vow to a dancing daughter, his own or his wife’s, seals John’s fate. (Any commentary will disclose how inbred and overly Herod-named was the family tree). Keeping face before his guests, he has the order given and John is slain. A harbinger of the fate awaiting Jesus at the hands of those equally compromised and feckless, as Mark will in time report.

This tragic event is provided in retrospect by Mark, as a means of explaining that—while others had other explanations–Herod believed Jesus’ mighty work was being done in the power and risen presence of this John whom he beheaded. So much for getting rid of him, even by rash vow. Here in Mark’s Gospel we face the question of how to fit this Jesus into some known frame of reference. A prophet come back? Elijah? The carpenter, son of Mary surrounded by relatives?

In the scene that follows we have no report of John’s death such as Matthew supplies, but both have Jesus withdraw to a lonely place. One senses the somber atmosphere. Luke refers to the death but does not report the details. At issue is who Jesus is, and what is that going to mean in the face of this kind of demonic assault.

Our psalm speaks of mercy and truth embracing. The truthfulness of John and the righteousness and mercy of Jesus. The way of prosperity is a way of righteousness even into the jaws of death and demonic cruelty. John has prepared the way yet again, even at his death, and Jesus will follow and lead on, onto a new pathway of peace. Those who turn their hearts to him will know this peace passing all understanding.

Our Epistle reading for today shows the start of a new walk, leaving 2 Corinthians and entering now Ephesians. The big picture is in frame. The plan for the fullness of time is a mystery truly there from eternity, witnessed in the law and prophets, and now shown forth in boldness. We have been chosen according to this plan, from before the foundations of the earth. His death is part of this plan, it is no John-the-Baptist-tragedy: in Jesus we have redemption in his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses. John as well, even in death, is part of this same plan. The riches of God’s grace freely bestowed on us includes John, and is on offer for the sins of the whole world, including a wicked Herod and a dancing Salome. Who is this Jesus? Just this Jesus.

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