In the most chaotic times of life, we maintain a white-knuckled grip on anything that remains predictable. It might be a close friendship or a gym routine. It might be something simple like how you fold and stack the towels.
Ever since it’s appearance in the late 1700’s, Sunday School has played a key role in teaching boys and girls how to read the Bible like they’re not Christians.
When I was a kid, I roamed the alleys and nearby fields with a pocket full of pebbles and a slingshot in hand. My grandfather had carved me the slingshot from the fork of a mesquite tree. I’d even burned my name into the wood using the sun and a magnifying glass.
Today the Spirit of God who brooded over the waters of a lightless creation
Swoops down with tongues of fire to kindle faith in the re-creating work of Christ.
The little psychologist within us is often hard at work to pinpoint the origin of our life’s problems. During marital strife, we sift through everything from sexual proclivities to spending habits to discover the source of our discontent. When raising a rebellious child, we replay every episode in his upbringing to determine where things may have gone awry. We want to know when Pandora’s box was cracked open, introducing mayhem into our lives.
If you like the wide open spaces of Nebraska, you probably don’t like the situations in which God often places you. For he hems you in on every side, presses you between a rock and a hard place, so that there seems no way out.
When I taught in Siberia several years ago, I returned home with a box full of Russian dolls to give as Christmas presents. These famous nesting dolls come in various sizes and colors; they depict everyone from politicians to biblical figures. My favorite was the Virgin Mary. Inside her was another smaller Mary, and inside her another, and still many more. I liked the combination of elaborate colors on this particular doll, but even more I liked the symbolism inherent in the nesting design.
A snake strikes up a conversation with a naked woman. A donkey chews out a cursing preacher on his back for whipping him. Ravens fly breakfast and dinner to a hungry prophet. All sorts of weird things happen in the Bible. But it’s not just with animals. A sea unzips its surface and bodybags a whole army of Egyptians. Rivers give a round of applause. Cypress trees and cedars mock defeated Babylon. All of creation has a part to play in the great saga of salvation. Let me tell you about one of those characters in this saga. It’s not a snake or a bird or a sea. It’s a mountain. I bet it’s a story you haven’t heard before. And I bet it’s one you’ll never forget.
There’s a young man, ropes around his wrists, and stretched out atop firewood that’s been arranged on a makeshift altar. There’s a father, standing above him, the hilt of a knife clasped in his hand, the blade lifted high. “Take your son,” God had told Abraham, “your only son, whom you love, Isaac, and go to the land of Moriah; and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains of which I will tell you.” That’s where they are. On Moriah. The place where the father is to sacrifice his son. Yet he doesn’t. A split second before the knife plummets, an angel stops Abraham. In the stead of his son, the father offers a ram caught in a nearby thicket as a burnt offering. Here is where the story begins. On Mt. Moriah, God provides a substitute to die in Isaac’s place.
Fast-forward a few centuries. In the latter years of his reign, David has incensed the Lord by commanding a census be taken of all Israel. Catastrophic casualties follow as a plague steamrolls through the land. Finally a skyscraping angel unsheathes his sword over Jerusalem. David hurries up Moriah, to a threshing floor owned by a local farmer. He buys the plot of ground and the oxen used for threshing. He builds an altar, kills the beasts, and flames fall from the sky upon the altar to consume their bodies. The plague stops, the angel sheathes his sword, Zion is saved. On Mt. Moriah, God provides oxen to die in order that his people might be spared.
The son of David, wise Solomon, built the temple of the Lord on this exact spot (2 Chron 3:1). On this mountain where the promised son, Isaac, had been spared by the sacrifice of a ram in his stead. On this mountain where Jerusalem was spared by the sacrifice of oxen in their stead. On this mountain, Moriah, the house of God was erected and the massive altar set up. Here, year after year, morning and evening, the blood of cattle, sheep, goats, and birds was spilled. Their bodies reduced to ashes. Until the time appointed, these beasts died in the stead of God’s people. They bore the guilt of sinners. Onto their heads was transferred the sin of the congregation. And through their blood shed and bodies burnt, the Lord provided cleansing and forgiveness to his people. On Mt. Moriah, God provided sacrifice after sacrifice in order that his people might be spared.
But the story of Moriah was far from over. For these three stories are but the pre-story to why this mountain is so important. For what Abraham and David and Solomon did not do, could not do, a greater one did.
Jesus wrote the last chapter of Moriah. He made this mountain his own. He climbed Mt. Moriah, to enter his Father’s house, time and again. He taught on this mountain. He turned over the tables of the money-changers like a madman on this mountain. On Moriah, he declared, “Destroy this temple and in three days I will rebuild it.” He spend the last week of his life on this mountain. And he brought this mountain’s story to its peak.
Jesus was not killed in Bethlehem as a baby, or in Galilee or Samaria as an adult. He couldn’t be, for it was necessary for him to die in Jerusalem, where Moriah is. He is the promised Seed of Abraham, the new and better Isaac. He is the promised Son of David, the new and better Solomon. He is the tabernacle and temple of God. And he is the Son who is not spared, but given up for us all. At his death, the angels outside Eden sheathe their swords and welcome us back into the paradise of God. He is the lamb of God, upon the altar of the cross, who transforms Golgotha into Moriah. He is the substitute, by whose sacrifice we are not just spared, but welcomed into the life and family of the Father.
When Abraham offered a ram in the stead of Isaac, he called the name of this place Yahweh-Yireh, meaning, “The LORD will provide,” as it is said to this day, “In the mount of the Lord it will be provided.”
Indeed, it will. And it was. God provided his Son. And in that Son, we receive everything.
Headhunters have a straightforward job. There’s a position to fill, usually in the corporate world, so they hunt down a candidate for that position. Of course, they’re searching for an employee with a top-notch resume, one who has the necessary experience and know-how. Headhunters don’t waste their time recruiting underachievers or amateurs. They’re matchmakers; they introduce just the right employee to just the right employer so that they’ll enjoy a healthy, thriving relationship.
And that’s why God would be, quite possibly, the world’s worst headhunter. Yes, often He does find people to work for Him who have extraordinary skills that they use for service in His kingdom. I have many friends and colleagues who are gifted in this way, and for them I thank God. But we cannot deny that the Lord also has a tendency to call people to do jobs for which they have little or no experience, not to mention few of the skills requisite for the task. In fact, some of them don’t want anything to do with the position. And, to make matters worse, when God strong-arms them into service anyway, much of the time they wind up making fools of themselves, making a mess of the work, or even telling God that He can take this job and shove it. It's as if sometimes the Lord asks Himself, “Now who would most people think would be a miserable candidate for this mission?” Then He goes headhunting precisely for that individual.
Case in point: Jonah. Calling this man to be a prophet makes about as much as sense as hiring an executioner to be the CEO of a hospital. To begin with, he doesn’t want the job, period. He lets his feet do the talking. When God says, “Go preach in Nineveh,” he boards a ship sailing away from Nineveh. Is he afraid of the people in Nineveh? No. Does he doubt his abilities as a preacher? No. Rather, those people he’s supposed to serve—they sicken him. Nothing would make him happier than for God to fry those fiends with fire and brimstone, to play the ole Sodom-and-Gomorrah card. They’re his people’s sworn enemies. They’re infamous as butchers. They make ISIS look tame. The problem is simply this: Jonah knows that if he preaches God’s word to them, they may actually repent and believe. And if they do that, God will do the very thing which angers Jonah most: He’ll forgive them. In His audacious, scandalous love, He’ll let them off scot-free. That Jonah can’t stomach. And if you remember the rest of Jonah’s story, that’s exactly what happened.
So why would the heavenly headhunter choose someone with such personal animosity towards his mission field? We could ask the same type question of any number of the Lord's other choices, many of whom have rather soiled resumes. Why would He choose Moses, a man with Egyptian blood on his hands, to lead one of the greatest act of redemption ever accomplished? Why would He let David, a renowned murderer and adulterer, remain on the throne of Israel, and even use his words of repentance in one of the most widely sung psalms in Christendom? Why would He fill Samson with His Spirit, a judge who's always getting caught with his pants down? Why appoint Peter as part of the apostolic foundation of the church, a man who publicly denied three times that he even knew Jesus? Why call Saul, a once blaspheming, murdering, Christian-hating Pharisee, to take the Good News throughout the Roman world? Why would the Lord of wisdom make such foolish choices?
Someone might say that the messenger doesn't matter but the message does. I disagree. In fact, the messengers do matter—they matter greatly. In fact, they are part of the word that God is speaking. And that word is that God is the God of the cross, the cross that is “foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God,” (1 Cor 1:18). God has chosen the foolish things and foolish people of the world to shame the wise. God has chosen the lowly things and lowly people of the world to shame the high and mighty. God has chosen the weak things and the weak, broken, soiled, despised people of the world to shame the powerful and self-righteous. He chose tax collectors and prostitutes and renegades and doubters to show the religious establishment that they didn't know their theological ass from a hole in the ground. He even chose a mule-headed prophet named Jonah to demonstrate that He can be as stubborn in love as people can be in judgement.
God's kingdom is a wild and wacky place. It's pregnant with seeming contradictions. A God who's a man. A king who's a servant. A priest who's a sacrifice. Shepherds who get fed to wolves. Men and women with scars proclaiming His healing. Pastors with skeletons in their closets revealing a bodiless tomb. Preachers with soiled resumes uttering words that wash us white in the blood of the Lamb.
All this seemingly contradictory work God does, however, not to be vague and sneaky but to show us that it's okay to be weak. It's okay to be broken. You don't have to fix yourself so you're good enough for God. Christ loves you in your brokenness. His light shines through the cracks in your soul. His cross is for you, where He was broken to heal you, to cleanse you, to make you better than okay. In Christ not just your resume, but your whole body and soul are as pure as snow.
Blessed are the soiled, for in Christ they are clean. Blessed are the weak, for in Christ they are strong. Blessed are the despised, for they leave the temple justified. Blessed are the Moseses, Davids, Samsons, Sauls, and Jonahs, for in Christ they are God’s chosen leaders, poets, warriors, apostles, and prophets.
While David’s soldiers were fighting in the field, the general was surrendering at home – skulking around his rooftop, peeping at exposed flesh, luring the woman in and letting his lust have full rein. In the regal door, between the regal sheets, out the door again – there goes the daughter of Sheba, the mistress of David, the wife of Uriah. The whole nasty affair would have been easily hushed up had not David’s wild oats, sown into forbidden soil, taken root and begun to grow. Nine months later, not a single “Hosanna” greeted this son of David. He came in the name of the Scarlet Letter. The erstwhile husband of his mother had been cut down on a battlefield, neatly killed by his father’s treachery. The child of an adulteress. The son of a murderer. Ugly, so pitifully ugly, is the whole mess.
We don’t even know his name. He is stricken by the Lord. As if a sad emblem of how bad, how utterly spoiled, is this world God once crafted in seven days, the child is sick, then still sicker, then sick unto death in one week’s time. This son of David never makes it to the 8th day.
Who of you does not shudder to think that this is what your sin does? Oh, we giggle at our faults, we downplay our wrongdoing, we yawn during confession. But whose eyes are dry and whose heart is unfeeling when the tiny casket is lowered into the cold, dark earth?
Repent. For David and his lover have more than a little in common with you. For their lot is yours and yours is theirs. For it is not only the man who says he says no sin that deceives himself, but also the man who says he has only a little sin. And be it lust or be it pride or be it greed, whatever it be, its wages are still paid in that currency called death.
Yet as we mourn, but unlike those who have no hope, so also we repent, but unlike those who have no absolution. For we though we weep, there is a hand that dries all tears. And though we confess, there is a mouth that answers, “I forgive you. I have taken away your sin; you shall not die.”
David arose from fasting and weeping after the death of his child for, as he said, “I shall go to him, but he will not return to me.” And why should he return, for had he not gone to Abraham’s bosom? Circumcised as the heavenly Father’s own or commended to Him by David’s weeping and tears – either way, this son of David, who heard no Hosannas at his birth, was greeted by angelic choirs when he left this veil of tears. And David awaits the day he will join his son.
For the blood that would be shed by the greater Son of David covered them as it covers you. He who was in the womb dies for those in the womb. He who was an infant dies for infants. He who was a toddler and teenager and adult – He sums up all humanity in Himself and brings it through the day of crucifixion, through the day of burial, to the day of resurrection life. Yes, this Son of David makes it to the 8th day, and you He brings with Him. Your adulteries of heart or flesh; your greed of mind or hand; from the sin of which you have boasted to that of which you are most ashamed, He swallows it all in the cup of the Father’s wrath.
And so it is done. All is done well. Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord.
The national media would have been blood-drunk. Sex always makes for a catchy headline, especially when politicians are involved. But this was a bonanza of epic proportions. A national leader gets caught with his pants down. Rumor is his paramour is a military wife. But the story gets even juicier. Turns out she's pregnant, and her husband, who couldn't possibly be the father, was all-too-conveniently killed on the battlefield recently. And, as icing on this scandalous cake, the nation's leader makes the war widow his wife. When the scandal of David and Bethsheba leaked out, reporters would have descended upon the Jerusalem palace like locusts on a ripened field.
This story of lust and adultery, intrigue and murder, callousness and cover-up, captivates readers to this day. Perhaps that's because it's one of those ripped-from-the-headlines biblical stories. Perhaps it's because the characters in the narrative make "better people" feel even better about themselves. And perhaps it's because some of us see ourselves, and our own lurid personal narratives, reflected in this biblical story. For those of us in this latter category, a poetic outgrowth of David's sin, and subsequent repentance, is especially meaningful. I refer to Psalm 51, which according to its heading, David penned after his affair with Bathsheba.
I have prayed this psalm more times than any other. Its confessions and laments and declarations of faith express perfectly the bitterness and sweetness of the life of repentance, of dying and rising. Yet within this psalm, one expression had always tripped me up. Indeed, when I prayed it, I seemed to utter a half-truth, at best. It comes near the beginning, where David says,
Against You, You only, I have sinned And done what is evil in Your sight, So that You are justified when You speak And blameless when You judge.
"Against You, You only, I have sinned." How could you say that, David? You sinned against God, to be sure, but also against Bathsheba, Uriah, your family, your military, indeed, your entire nation. How can you possibly limit the scope of your sin, and need for confession, to God alone?
Perhaps the answer to that question is found in a parallel situation, this one related to the holiness of God. In her liturgy, the church sings, "You alone are the Holy One," (Gloria in Excelsis), echoing Revelation 15:4, "Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.” God alone is intrinsically, eternally, essentially holy. Yet, God is not stingy with His holiness; He grants it to people, places, things, and times. They share in what is His. The Lord, the Lord alone, is holy. And all else that is holy is holy because it is of Him. To desecrate that holiness is to do harm to the one with whom the Lord has shared His holiness, but the desecration is truly and ultimately directed at God alone, since He is the sole source of sanctity.
Similarly, when I seduced Bathsheba, when I stole from and murdered Uriah, when I brought dishonor to my family, when I failed in my office--when I was David--I sinned against all these people. Their forgiveness I implore. At the same time, against God, God only, I have sinned and done what is evil in His sight. For it is His law I have broken, His office in which I have failed, His people against whom I have sinned. All is from Him, so all I have taken, I have taken from Him. All others against whom I have sinned, I have sinned because they are of Him.
Within this confession, there is also a hidden beauty, a secluded comfort that is perhaps only truly appreciated when it is a lived reality. There were, I suspect, people in Israel during David's lifetime who never forgave him for his scandalous conduct, his lies, his lust, his bloodshed. He had sinned against them, to be sure, but even in his life of repentance, even as he sought their absolution, they withheld it, whatever their reasons might have been. Did their refusal to forgive mean that David was unforgiven? Did David's absolution depend on people's willingness to forgive? Absolutely not. For "against You, You only, have I sinned." Just as confession is directed fully and ultimately to God alone, so absolution is received fully and ultimately from God alone, in Jesus Christ.
There is the hidden beauty in this seemingly limiting confession of King David. For David's sin, another David would pay the price in blood. In Him, and in Him alone, would absolution for the world be earned and given. For that reason, this verse from Psalm 51 that used to trip me up, now is my greatest delight. For as much as it may hurt that others refuse to forgive, Christ does not. Against Him, Him only, have I sinned. And from Him, Him only, I receive absolution, full and free.