I Kings 13-15, Psalm 102, Acts 17
God in him we live and move and have our being
I Kings 13-15
Unfortunately, I only took one history course while attending Emory University. I missed an opportunity to study more of history, a subject which I greatly enjoy. The course that I took was an overview of modern history, but the teacher focused completely on sweeping impersonal, political movements. We studied nationalism, socialism and communism as though there were no individuals involved in these movements, merely ideologies that spread like viruses and motivated leaders and followers. It was boring.
After college, I tried to read a book on the American Civil War in an effort to learn more about this period of history. It, too, took a grand overview of the war, painting sweeping themes that occurred during this vital chapter of United States history. The book was dull, and I never finished it.
Then, while serving my second church, I baptized the great, great grandson of the famous Civil War General Jeb Stuart. The little boy weighed like a cannonball. His great, great grandfather had been a member of my congregation. Legend has it that he strutted into worship late, still wearing his riding spurs. All of the ladies’ heads would turn to see Lee’s great cavalry general enter the sanctuary. After baptizing this little boy, his grandfather gave me a copy of his favorite biography of Jeb Stuart. I read it and developed a great interest in the Civil War. Within a few years, I read ten books about what southerners sometimes call “the recent unpleasantness” or the “war of northern aggression.” One man’s personal story became my entry point into a period of history that is extremely fascinating.
Likewise, 1 and 2 Kings tells the story of many kings. We read of good kings and bad kings. After a while, they all seem the same. Their names run together, and it is hard for us to sort them out in our minds. Sometimes, it is good to step back and examine one king at a time such as Jeroboam.
Jeroboam rose to power in response to the oppression of King Solomon. Despite his great wealth and wisdom and enormous number of concubines and his vast army of chariots, Solomon was a builder on an unparalleled scale. He used slave labor to create his empire, much like Qataris are now using virtual slave labor to build the soccer stadiums for the World Cup in Qatar, where over 560 migrant workers have died since January 2014.
Although Jeroboam rose up to challenge Solomon’s repression, Jeroboam is remembered best as a king who divided and weakened the Israelite nation. The authors of 1 and 2 Kings use his name more than 20 times to pass judgment on later rulers who did not obey God, but rather “walked in the way of Jeroboam, and in the sins which he made Israel to sin.” (1 Kings 16:26)
The economy then was like the economy today. Many people were forced to relocate to find work. As a young man, Jeroboam left his home in the hill country of Ephraim and travel to find work, serving on the new public building projects of King Solomon. He proved to be an industrious and smart laborer, and was later given charge over all of Solomon’s forced laborers. (1 Kings 11:28) Here Solomon had a clear view of the oppression of his own people and observed their deep resentment. Not only were the laborers forced to live in slave-like conditions, but Solomon organized the work groups in such a way as to break down tribal loyalties and center all of the power on the monarchy in Jerusalem.
As we have read, Jeroboam then encountered Ahijah, who prophesized that Yahweh would tear apart Solomon’s kingdom. Ripping his own robe into 12 pieces, Ahijah told Jeroboam to take 10 of them, indicating that Jeroboam would eventually oversee ten of the 12 tribes of Israel as well as his own.
After Solomon died, Rehoboam took over and then Jeroboam succeeded him. Both men probably had their names changed when they became king and were given the suffix “boam” as their names echo one another. Rehoboam means “may the people increase,” while Jeroboam means “may the people be great.” It was not uncommon for kings to be given new names upon ascending to the throne.
Once in power, Jeroboam sought to avoid any possibility of the people focusing on Jerusalem, which could have led to a rebellion and a desire for his people to overthrow him and return to Rehoboam’s fold. Hence, Jeroboam revived worship centered on the northern shrines. He rebuilt Shechem and made it his capital. This was an ancient site associated with Abraham and other patriarchs. Next he rebuilt Penuel, the place where Jacob had wrestled with an angel and renamed “Israel,” which means “one who struggles with God.”
In today’s reading we learn that Jeroboam dismissed the priestly tribe of Levi, who alone claimed to serve as the temple priests. The Levites were now unemployed and in all likelihood fled to Jerusalem, where they could continue to serve the temple. Jeroboam now created priests from every tribe and social strata of society. From time to time, he himself functioned as a priest and offered sacrifices. He altered the religious calendar as well, moving the Feast of Booths from the seventh to the eighth month.
His reign, however, was greatly hampered by border disputes with the southern kingdom of Judah, first under Rehoboam and then under Abijah and his grandson Asa. Then an unidentified man of God appeared to him as Bethel, making a bold pronouncement and indicating that the end was near, “O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: ‘A son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name; and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who offer incense on you, and human bones shall be burned on you. Despite the warning, Jeroboam continued to offer sacrifices on the high places and worshipping sacred poles and cast images, which angered Yahweh.
Jeroboam ordered his soldiers to seize the unnamed prophet, but the king’s arm immediately withered as he pointed toward the prophet. The king had to beg the prophet to restore his arm. We read,
Even after this event Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people; any who wanted to be priests he consecrated for the high places. This matter became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth. (1 Kings 33-34)
While Jeroboam ruled in the breakaway northern kingdom, Asa now succeeded Rehoboam in the southern kingdom of Judah. We read, “Asa did what was right in the sight of the Lord, as his father David had done. He put away the male temple prostitutes out of the land, and removed all the idols that his ancestors had made. He also removed his mother Maacah from being queen mother, because she had made an abominable image of Asherah; Asa cut down her image and burned it in the Wadi Kidron.” (1 Kings 14:11-13)
Judgment soon came to Jeroboam. The prophet predicated that his son, Abijah, would die. The king instructed his wife to go in disguise to visit the prophet Ahijah, who had prophesized his ascent to throne. Recognizing her despite her disguise, Ahijah predicted that her son would die the moment that she returned to the city and the lineage of her husband Jeroboam would be devoured by birds of prey. Soon after, Jeroboam died. His son Nadab ruled for two years before he was assassinated by Baasha and his dynasty disappeared.
I have spent a lot of time lately in the hospitals, visiting people who are facing great health issues as being at the side of one of them as she transitioned from this life as we know it to eternal life. “Death be not proud…” wrote poet John Donne, who was the Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and one of the finest preachers that the Church of England ever produced and one of Britain’s finest poets.
Before the onset of death, there are often multiple complications. Various organs are not functioning properly. The effects of chemotherapy or radiation weigh in. Various medicines that the patient is taking can lead to complications or limit what can be done. Diabetes, low blood pressure, blood thinners or pneumonia may limit the options of what physicians can offer to treat a patient. Those who are seriously ill often become miserable while lying prone in a hospital bed, when what is needed is movement and proper rest in a familiar setting, which is not what hospitals can always offer.
The psalmist laments like the people I have been visiting in the hospital lately. He writes,
Hear my prayers, O Lord;
Let my cry come to you.
Do not hide your face from me
in the day of my distress.
Incline your ear to me;
answer me when I call.
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace,
My heart is stricken and withered like grass;
I am too wasted to eat my bread.
Because of my loud groaning
my bones cling to my skin. (Ps. 102:1-5)
But the psalmist does not end in despair. While many psalms lead us into “the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps. 23:4), they rarely leave us there. Like a good novelist, the psalmist knows that there is more – more to the story than merely ending in heartbreak or futility. Hope resides and is discovered even in the darkest places of our relationships and experiences – even when we encounter death; for the Christian death is a transition from life to eternal life. In the preface for commemorating the dead, the celebrant prays during the Eucharist at a Burial Office, “For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place eternal in the heavens.” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 382)
Hence the psalmist notes,
Let this be recorded for a generation to come,
so that a people yet unborn may praise the Lord:
that he looked down from his holy height,
from heaven the Lord looked at the earth,
to hear the groans of the prisoners,
to set free those who were doomed to die… (Ps. 102:18-20)
We humans shall come and go, but God shall reside forever. We will be drawn to God after we have drawn our final breath. We will be called home to that place where those who has passed before us reside and eagerly await their glad reunion with us. We read,
Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth,
And the heavens are the work of your hands,
They will perish, but you endure;
they will wear out like a garment.
You change them like clothing,
and they pass away;
but you are the same, and your years have no end. (Ps. 102:25-26)
Our ultimate hope is to rest in God, who never changes, never diminishes, but endures as the essence and source of all life and love. It is a hope well worth clinging to when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.
The book of Acts tells us that Paul went in to the synagogue “as was his custom.” We are told the same thing about Jesus in the Gospel of Luke, where we read, “When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom.” (Luke 4:16) Something happens when we honor the Sabbath and take time to refresh our soul in worship each Sunday. It does not happen always, and it may not happen the first time that we attend, but over time it happens. When we put ourselves in God’s presence and say to the Lord, “I am setting this time aside for you. I am here for you. I am here to listen and to learn. You have my undivided attention. Speak to me. Warm my heart. Inspire my mind. Quicken my soul so that I may be motivated to serve you and others this week,” God does not leave us empty, but responds.
So for three Sabbath days Paul argued with the Jews from their own Scriptures, “explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead…” (Acts 17:3) This was no easy task. The Jews were poised to expect a Messiah who would destroy their enemies and restore their freedom and self-rule so that they could live in peace and enjoy prosperity. It is like those who dream today of a day where Syrian, Iran and Egypt are no longer surrounding Israel like thieves with daggers drawn. The vision of the Messiah that the Jews were expecting in Jesus’ time was that of a warrior king who could alleviate them from Roman oppression.
Some devout Greeks and leading women were inspired and accepted Paul’s proclamation, but this only served to antagonize other Jewish listeners. Hence, we read that the Jews dragged Paul and Silas out of the assembly and attacked Jason’s house and dragged Jason and some believers before the city’s authorities in Thessalonica and said, “These people have been turning the world upside down…” (Acts 17:6) Perhaps there is no truer line to be found in the book of Acts. When Christians are at their best, we are always turning the world upside down.
Christianity also turns our world inside out. Most of us are inherently selfish. We think that the world revolves around us. We are at the center of our own universe, like the sun around which all the planets spin. Paul, Silas and Jason, however, were suggesting a Copernican revolution to those who thought that they were the center of the universe.
My heart warms when I read how the Jews in Beroea were “more receptive than those in Thessalonica, for they welcomed the message very eagerly and examined the Scriptures every day to see whether these things were so.” (Acts 17:11) My clergy colleagues and I have tried throughout our professional lives to draw people to church in order to honor the Sabbath. What many of us have failed to do is to inspire the vast majority of our parishioners to read the Scriptures daily. We succumb to thinking that if we have a Bible study or even a few ongoing Bible studies in our parish that we are doing what we need to do spiritually for our people even when usually less than five percent of our church members attend a regular Bible study.
Even in these settings, the Bible is often picked at like a cadaver lying on a dissection table before a group of medical student studying anatomy. What is much more powerful and transforming is to encourage everyone in one’s parish to read the Bible on a daily basis and let the Word of God plant spiritual seeds each day in our hearts and minds, that will grow in stunningly beautiful ways and yield an abundant spiritual harvest in the lives of those who “examine the Scriptures every day.” It was because they “examined the Scriptures every day” that we read “many of them therefore believed, including not a few Greek women and men of high standing.” (Acts 17:12)
We read that Paul waited for his fellow evangelists in Athens, where it pained him to see that the city was full of idols. Here again he argued with the Jews in the synagogues but “also in the marketplace every day…” (Acts 17:17) There is a lesson for those of us who are clergy and those who are laity to learn here. Our religion cannot be contained in our worship places, but we must share it and debate it in the places where we lead our daily lives – in the workplace and marketplace, in grocery stores, gymnasiums, on soccer fields and golf courses, at car washes, schools and dentist offices and everywhere we go.
Paul was a keen observer. He noted that the city of Athens was full of idols. They brought Paul to the Areopagus, where we read that they “would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.” There are Christians like this today, who have never read the Bible or the great spiritual classics, but who will read some new and strange book about spirituality written by someone whose efforts will be completely forgotten 20 years from now. It may contradict all that the Bible says or twist and distort it, but it will capture their imagination because they do not know the Scriptures and they merely like “telling or hearing something new.” (Acts 17:21)
Paul then explains that he has seen the words on an altar that bear an inscription, which says, “To an unknown God.” Clearly, these Athenians were covering all of their bases. They worshipped gods for all occasions and just in case they missed one, there was an altar dedicated to “an unknown God.” Paul used this as a place to jump off and launch his appeal to the one, true God, who set the universe in motion and who gave each of us the unparalleled gift of life “in him we live and move and have our being…” (Acts 17:28) Here Paul quoted the Greek poet Epimenides.
Some scoffed as they heard him speak about the Resurrection of Jesus, but others said, “We will hear you again about this,” including one believer who came to join him named Dionysius the Areopagite” who was a judge of the Areopagus, who was converted because of Paul’s preaching and who reportedly became the first bishop of Athens. In the early 6th century, a series of famous mystical writings employing Neoplatonic language to elucidate Christian theology was mistakenly ascribed to him. Scholars now refer to this author as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopogate. Likewise, Dionysius is believed to have been misidentified with the martyr of Gaul, Dionysius, the first Bishop of Paris, Saint Denis. Hence, Dionysius the Areopagite and Saint Denis of Paris are both celebrated on October 3.
Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress. Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call. (Ps. 102:2)
My days are like an evening shadow; I wither away like the grass. (Ps. 102:11)
Long ago you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands. (Ps. 102:25)
These people have been turning the world upside down… (Acts 17:6)
…in him we live and move and have our being… (Acts 17:28)
In what ways have you opposed things that you knew to be wrong only later to accept them or stop fighting to bring about change? Where and how have you discovered hope when your body or spirit has languished? In what ways are you striving to share your faith in the ordinary places where you live, move and have your being?
O God, you are always with us and you never abandon us. Help us this day to trust in you and in your sovereignty and to know that we are never alone no matter what we face. You are at our side to strengthen, guide, support and sustain us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania