Sunday, August 19, 2012

A wise and understanding heart (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 19, 2012)

Both the Old Testament reading and the New Testament reading hold up wisdom for us as an ideal.

Solomon modestly prays for wisdom rather than power and wealth, but the Lord is so impressed that he gives Solomon not only the wisdom that he requested but wealth and power, too.

In Ephesians Paul exhorts the Christians in Ephesus to  “live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the Father at all times and for everything.”

Paul singles out two characteristics of wisdom. First, he tells us that it is wise to “make the most of time because the days are evil.” This is one of the most characteristic features of Paul’s letters. Paul believed that we are in the last days, that the return of Jesus was just around the corner.

But it seems that Paul was wrong. Two thousand years have gone by and yet Jesus has not returned. So what are we to make of this idea? I believe that Paul may not have been as wrong as we think. Consider two things:

First, we are finite. No matter how long medical science extends our lives, we will not live forever. We have a “sell by” date; our shelf life is limited. Jesus may not return tomorrow, but at any minute the trumpet may sound for us and, ready or not,  we may go off to meet Jesus. So in that sense, Paul was right and his advice is sound: Get ready; be prepared; exercise wisdom and make the most of the time that God gives you.

But Paul goes on to say that we are to be “filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.”

On the face of it this seems to be contrary to wisdom. To be filled with the Spirit is to be ecstatic. It is to be irrational. It is to behave like a Pentecostal! It is to speak in tongues, to sing at the top of our lungs, to dance before the Lord like David danced before the ark.

Life in the Spirit and wisdom are not opposed. Indeed, I believe that they are two characteristics of human nature. We are not whole human beings unless we have both, unless we know when to restrain ourselves and when to let go.

The great theologian Oscar Wilde once said that a fundamentalist is a person who is afraid that somebody, somewhere is having a good time. But that is not Christianity. The Christian faith tells us that a whole human being knows both joy and wisdom, freedom and restraint.

Another characteristic of wisdom according to Paul is that we are to “understand the will of the Lord.” And here I think Paul’s definition of wisdom connects with the story of Solomon. Solomon is presented to us as someone who understood the will of God.

One of the most interesting similarities between David and Solomon is that in both cases there is a significant disconnect between the way they are portrayed and the way they actually behave.

We are told that David was “a man after God’s own heart,” and yet David commits a dreadful crime: he has an affair with Bathsheba and arranges for the death of her husband.

We are told that Solomon is wise, that he asked God for wisdom and that God is so impressed that Solomon did not ask for wealth or power that he not only gives Solomon wisdom but throws in wealth and power, too.

And yet if we read the rest of Solomon’s story, we discover that Solomon behaves like anything but a wise ruler.

Here, though, we come up against a problem. Solomon, we are told, was a paragon of wisdom. And yet one of the first things we are told about Solomon is that he “made a marriage alliance with Pharaoh”, the ruler of Egypt, and brought Pharaoh’s daughter to his palace as his wife. As was common in the ancient (and even not so ancient world) marriage was an instrument of diplomacy and foreign policy. To cement ties with another ruler, a king would marry one of his daughters. Eventually we are told that Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines.

Even allowing for some exaggeration, this makes us question Solomon’s wisdom!!

But Solomon’s biggest mistake as a king was the fact that he levied huge taxes on his people and used forced labor both to build his own palace and the temple in Jerusalem.  These policies eventually caused the civil war that took place under Solomon’s son Rehoboam and the division of Israel into northern and southern kingdoms.

In this presidential election year it might be a good idea to ponder what a wise ruler would look like.

We are told that Solmon’s wisdom was astounding, and yet his internal policy of heavy taxation and forced labor and his external policy of making alliances with foreign rulers through marriage were unwise. Where are we to look for a wise ruler?

Consider Psalm 72. Psalm 72 is said to be a Psalm of Solomon.

Give the king thy justice, O God, and thy righteousness to the royal son!  May he judge thy people with righteousness, and thy poor with justice!  Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness!  May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor!  In his days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound, till the moon be no more!  May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!  For he delivers the needy when he calls, the poor and him who has no helper.  He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.  From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.  May there be abundance of grain in the land; on the tops of the mountains may it wave; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may men blossom forth from the cities like the grass of the field!

Psalm 72 tells us that a wise ruler will defend the cause of the poor and deliver the needy, that righteousness will flourish and peace will abound, that he will have pity on the weak and save the life of the needy. But it also says that his kingdom will be economically successful, that there will be abundant grain in the land.

When I was teaching OT at Samford, I once read this psalm to my students, and said, “What does this psalm make you think of?” And one of my students said, “Well, it sounds a lot like the Democrats!”

America is not a monarchy. We had our chance back in 1776 and chose another path and I suppose there is no going back so we will just have to carry on.

In 1870, Alabama's second bishop, Richard Hooker Wilmer, visited England. His hostess, knowing that Wilmer was very proud of the fact that he was a Virginian, asked him what he thought of his fellow Virginian, George Washington. "Well, I suppose that Washington did as well as could be expected under the circumstances." His hostess was shocked and asked him why he had such a low opinion of Washington. "Madame, were it not for Washington, today we would be the subjects of a gracious Christian queen instead of a drunken Tennessee tailor!"

America is a democracy, not a monarchy. This year we are charged with choosing a wise ruler, and I pray that we will not only choose a wise president but that we will be a wise people. IN a democracy, it is not only the responsibility of the ruler to rule wisely; it is also a responsibility of the people to choose wisely and to be wise citizens.

So not only in election years but in every year, may we heed the words of Psalm 72:

May WE defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor!  In OUR days may righteousness flourish, and peace abound. Amen.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Standeth God within the shadows (J. Barry Vaughn, Aug. 12, 2012)

According to industrialist Henry Ford, “History is bunk.” And at times it is difficult to dispute Mr. Ford.

More eloquently, the English historian Edward Gibbon said that, “History is the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind.”

The story of David and his family appears to give us more than enough evidence to prove that Gibbon and Ford were correct. It is a story more sordid and corrupt than anything that you could watch on HBO or in a summer blockbuster.

First, David overthrows King Saul. David, then, unites the quarreling tribes of Israel in a single kingdom; establishes peace; centralizes both Israel’s government and its religion in the capital of Jerusalem. David has arrived; he has it made. But at the summit of his power and success, in a move that makes Bill Clinton look like a choirboy, David takes Bathsheba as his concubine and arranges for the murder of her husband, Uriah, who is also one of his most loyal soldiers.

And when David is old and weak, his son Absalom leads a rebellion against his father. But while fleeing from his father, the handsome Absalom is undone by his long, flowing locks of hair, and while hanging from a tree, he is slain by David’s men.

“Avshalom, beni; Avshalom beni…” “Absalom, my son; Absalom, my son. Would that I had died instead of you…”

David’s lament is one of the most piercing and poignant in all of scripture. And it makes us question: Is there any point to history? Do all the “crimes, follies, and misfortunes” of the human race have any meaning, or was Henry Ford right when he declared it to be “bunk”?

I’m sure you can guess how I answer that question, but before I do, I want to share something that the columnist George Will said in Ken Burns’ wonderful documentary about Thomas Jefferson.

One of the most remarkable features of the life of Jefferson was his relationship with John Adams. The word “frenemies” could have been invented to describe their relationship. Adams and Jefferson became friends during the meetings of the Continental Congress. It was Adams who persuaded Jefferson that he was the right man to compose the Declaration of Independence, but their friendship soured and they became bitter enemies when Jefferson ran against Adams for presidence of the United States in 1800 and unseated him. Then some years after Jefferson left office, they became friends once again. The dozens of letters that they exchanged are one of the treasures of American history.

However, perhaps the most interesting fact about their friendship is that they died on the same day – July 4, 1826 –50 years to the day after the Continental Congress voted to approve the Declaration of Independence. John Adams last words were, “Thomas Jefferson survives.”

In Ken Burns’ documentary, George Will says, “There are many magic moments in American history that convince you that there is something miraculous about the American experience. And one of them is the simultaneous death 50 years to the day after the signing of the Declaration of Independence of John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.”

When we read the story of David and Absalom and when we look at the darker moments of America’s own history, it is tempting to believe that history is bunk, that it is nothing but a “register of follies, crimes, and misfortunes.” But I believe it is more than that.

David’s own history illustrates the point. One of the central convictions of the Bible is that David had a special relationship with God, that God chose David to accomplish an important task, or in the vocabulary of the Bible, that God established a covenant with David.

God chose David and established a covenant with David not because David was good and worthy. The story of David as recorded in the Bible makes it abundantly clear that David was as flawed and sinful as any person can be.

God chose David not because David was good but because God is good. God chose David like he chose Mary. The angel said to Mary, “Hail, O favored one…” What counts is God’s favor towards us, not our favor toward God.

The violent story we heard today of Absalom’s revolt, and the sordid stories we have heard the last two weeks of David and Bathsheba’s adultery and the murder of her husband Uriah, make us question God’s choice of David, to say the least. But history plays out on a large scale.

We can select many individual moments in history that make us wonder whether or not there is any direction or meaning in it – Absalom’s revolt; the Roman persecution of Christians; the torture of heretics by the Inquisition; the judicial murder of English Catholics by Elizabeth I; the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews; or Stalin’s policy of starving to death millions of his own countrymen. When I look at these events, I feel despair. Life and history  seem pointless.

But then I back up and look at the larger picture. The death of Absalom led to Solomon’s kingship; Solomon’s kingship led to the building of the first temple in Jerusalem. And eventually the line of David produces Jesus.

History is a vast mosaic. If we look at any individual tile in the mosaic, it is meaningless. Even if we look at 2 or 3 or a dozen of the tiles, they may appear to be a random collection of colors and shapes. But as the artist adds tiles, they began to take shape. Now a foot appears; then a hand. A face emerges from the chaos. Two figures emerge from the swirl, and then more. The story starts to take shape.

And so it is with history. To be sure, there are “follies, crimes, and misfortunes” but there is also courage and faith and leadership. A man trained as a surveyor becomes a soldier and rises through the ranks to become leader of the army assembled by the Continental Congress, and against all odds Washington defeats the world’s most powerful military. A country lawyer is elected president of the United States, and Lincoln brings together the divided states of the Union and brings and end to the buying and selling of human beings in this country. A journalist who has failed in politics becomes prime minister of Great Britain and Churchill and his country withstand the relentless assult of the Third Reich.

This is not the time or place to consider the meaning of American history, but I think there is something to George Will’s comment that there are enough “magic moments in American history to convince you that there is something miraculous about the American experience.” To be sure, America often gets it wrong, and slavery is only the most obvious example of that. And we must never believe that that our country needs no correction or criticism. But a remarkable pattern does seem to emerge from America’s short history.

Britain and Germany and Israel are countries founded upon nationality, upon a common language and culture and history and even religion. But America, as Lincoln said, is a country founded upon a proposition – “All men are created equal.” All too often we do not live up to that proposition, but it remains central to our history. And it may not be too much of a stretch to believe that America may, in some sense, have a divine commission to promote that proposition in human history.

But you may be wondering what meaning this has for you. It is all very well to say that history has meaning, but what about my life. Does my life have meaning or purpose? Does God have a plan for my life? Am I just a tile in the mosaic, a cog in the machinery of history? Or do I have some important role to play?

Just as history has meaning, just as God has a plan for David or Solomon or Mary, so I believe that God has a plan for each and everyone of us. Each of us has a role to play. Each of us is can be a hero or heroine in the drama of our lives.

Our role may not seem heroic, but I believe it is just as heroic and important to be a faithful husband or wife, mother or father. Sometimes the most courageous thing we can do is to be an honest businessman or woman.

In the midst of the Civil War, America’s darkest moment, poet James Lowell penned these words that used to be in our hymnal.

Once to every man and nation, comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision, offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever, ’twixt that darkness and that light..
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet the truth alone is strong;
Though her portion be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong;
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.
Your life has meaning. You are important. God has a plan for your life. And when you doubt that, remember Lowell’s words: “Behind the dim unknown / Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above His own.”