What Can We Do When We are Powerless?

The letter of James remains a popular hunting ground in the New Testament by Christians looking for something to read. Its mixture of proverbs and snippets of wisdom seemingly offer instant guidance to our lives. It is, in most people’s opinion, full of ‘practical’ instruction.

James asks his readers to remain patient until the Lord’s coming, and reminds them that the Lord’s coming is near (James 5:7-9). The phrase ‘you have hoarded wealthy in the last days’ (vs 3), adds additional weight to the possibility that we are just entering ‘the last days’ and the return of Christ. Many Christians (in the West), now view the increasingly negative view toward Christians as the ‘signs of the times’ which point to the Lord’s return. However, I think it unlikely he is referring to the physical return of Christ that is taught elsewhere in the New Testament (ie: 1 Thess 5:1-11; 2 Thess 2:1ff; Matt 16:27).

The imminent appearance of the Lord James refers to is defined by the preceding verses of our reading in 5:1-6. There we see that he is referring to their exploitation by the rich – and the Lord is going to deal with them. If the first fives verses make uncomfortable reading for the rich, verses 8- 11 will for the Christian. The Lord is going to judge them as well on the basis of their behaviour of grumbling (vs 9). James’ audience were the working poor and were being exploited by the rich (1:6), who were absentee landlords. What can we do when we are powerless, without the law’s protection and being exploited? We can worship (vs 13); pray for healing (15), confess our sins (16) and seek those who wander away (19-20). James pastoral heart wants a church which will support each member until the Judge comes. Their actions will reinforce God’s promise to be with them through this trial (1:12).

The Law of the Lord Applied to Daily Life

Occasionally when reading the Bible we must ask ourselves the question: ‘Who is this material I am reading written for and why?’ In the case of our OT reading (Prov 31:10-31), whose voice do we hear and who are they instructing? (The answer is probably a woman, perhaps King Lemuel’s mother, addressing her son (31:1-3). These two questions will clarify why the book of Proverbs ends with the description of a godly wife who is industrious, entrepreneurial, noble and a vital equal to her husband in society. Throughout the Proverbs, wisdom (ie: the LORD’s wisdom), has often been pictured as a woman and contrasted with the seductive behaviour of a wayward one (1:20; 6:20; 9:1, 13). The quiet, but firm voice of the father (1:9, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1), instructs his son to make a choice between the two and consider the outcome which will follow if he chooses the loose woman who seeks to seduce him (5:3ff).

At the conclusion of the book, another image is given of the type of woman who will be an ideal wife for any man who is ‘wise’. Her wisdom is evident in her actions – and also in her speech (vs 26). The admiration of her strength, normally showered on a man, is given her (vs 25). Israelite men, like men throughout history, were prone to demean women as ‘the weaker sex’. This hymn of praise is to correct the cultural perception by men and to refocus their attention on what ought to be valued when considering marriage or when one is already married. Thus, the Book of Proverbs is primarily addressing young men, offering them guidance about the blessings of God’s wisdom, contrasted with the destruction and death which follows those who are foolish. The book will be of course, relevant to any generation or gender because its counsel takes the Law of the LORD and applies it to daily life.

No Commentary Offered

Commentary is now offered on our televisions, radios and Internet on every conceivable issue. It is now both expected and also tolerated as part of daily life. This might be due to the era when men brought their heavy transistor radios to the football matches, with long ariels poking out the back. Commentary on sport became the norm. But I wonder, is the commentary necessary when the game is right there before your eyes? Perhaps. It does add to the atmosphere of the game and it is certainly useful when listening to a test cricket match. Some noise is needed to fill the silence when nothing much is happening on the field.

Even the commentary has continued about the recent change of prime ministers and the reasons for the change. Cooking shows serve up commentary about a contestant’s ability and renovation shows thrive on it. Sometimes it offers insights and helpful background, such as when the Olympic games are being broadcast. But most commentary is really, just an opinion being aired or someone stating the obvious and retelling it, over and over again.

When we read the Bible, particularly the book of Proverbs ch 1,and the Psalms like No. 19, there is no commentary offered on how we are to understand them or how they are to be interpreted. It couches its truths in things like ‘personification’, that is, the description of an idea is presented as a person. Psalm 19 lays down its truths in paradoxes. The heavens have no speech, yet they speak to us about their creator, God. Then after describing the creation, the Psalm abruptly shifts to the OT Law and its ability to ‘speak’ and ‘illuminate’ our eyes. The Bible respects our intelligence and wants us to think about what it is saying. It is rare for it to offer an explanation or commentary. It leaves you, if you are wise, to have the ears that hear its message (Mark 4:9, 23; 8:19).

Wisdom on how to Live

Is it possible to know how to live in a way which will be life giving to us rather than stressing us out? Where will we find the guidance and values for families that will enable them to be a blessing to their children and others? Teenagers often look confused with the subject options and career possibilities and wonder what to do? There is no shortage of opinions offered to us which claim to be ‘the way’, or ‘the truth’ to find meaning and purpose in life. Weekend newspapers, radio talkback or books circulating in our community are some of the voices we hear which offer an answer to these questions. The more cynical will point to the emptiness of materialism, but be limited in offering an alternative.

For the Christian, however, there is a surprising resource already available which provides wisdom on how to live. It is the book of Proverbs in the OT. It guides those seeking life in God with a confident voice, teaching them the meaning of life and the values which will provide a deep and meaningful lifestyle. How does it do this?

It achieves this by making a practical application of the OT Law to daily life so that we might love both God and our neighbour. It provides the principles on how to live out God’s laws in daily living, and by doing this, we find life (in God), and meaning to our existence. It offers insights into the value of adhering to God’s standards and the consequences of ignoring them. Often they are memorable with no part of daily life escaping comment, be it a whinging wife, the stupidity of a man pursuing an adulterous affair or the blessing of honesty in business dealings. Even ants, an author notes, can teach us something we find, if you look at this world through the eyes of God. And for those seeking to know God’s will – look no further!

God’s desire to dwell among his people

Throughout our long history as God’s people, we have periodically seen and heard God affirming that he is with us. Think of Christmas time when we often hear the words (referring to Jesus): ‘Emmanuel: God with us’ (Matt 1:23). John’s Gospel begins with the tremendous affirmation that ‘the Word dwelt among us and we have seen his glory’ (Jn 1:14). As the people of God wandered for 40 years in the wilderness before entering the land promised to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they were guided by the presence of God revealed in the cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. The Ark of the Covenant which was housed in the tabernacle, accompanied Israel and into the promised land where it was the focus of national religious life. Eventually David brought the Ark of the Covenant into his new capital, Jerusalem. Despite his desire to build a temple, a more permanent structure, he was prevented by the LORD. David had shed blood. It would be his successor Solomon who would build it. Today’s reading in 1 Kings 8, this achievement and affirms God’s desire to dwell among his people. But Solomon’s temple eventually misled Israel into thinking that its mere presence would protect them against disaster or conquest by their enemies (Jeremiah 7:3-14). Trust in God had shifted to trust in the building and it became in effect, an idol. Another problem was that it reduced God to a particular locality and they lost sight that he was a universal God, who more than filled heaven and earth. This is why it had to be destroyed. But something better replaced it: God’s indwelling Spirit, not in a temple of stone, but in the Church and also our bodies (1 Cor 3:16; 6:19). See also Acts

Prayer and Wisdom

In 1 Kings 2 we meet Solomon for the first time, famous now for his wealth and glory (“surely Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed …”), for his 700 wives, for his meeting with the Queen of Sheba and for building the first temple to God.  But he is renowned most for his wisdom.  He is the second son born to David and Bathsheba, and the first born in wedlock.  He has just become King on the death of David.

God appears to the young King in a dream and says: “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”  If God appeared to us in this way, how would we respond?  We are used to asking God for many things in our prayers, but with confidence that he will lovingly sift our supplications and grant only what is truly beneficial.  This seems like quite a different proposition, and one that needs careful thought.

Solomon is thankfully free of the hubris of youth and deeply aware of the daunting job he has inherited, so he asks for wisdom and discernment so that he will govern well.  God is so pleased with this answer that he also grants Solomon what he did not ask for – wealth and honour.

Wisdom is not just intelligence or knowledge.  We all know many clever people who are not wise.  Wisdom is not a quality we seem to value any more in our culture, so it is not surprising that it seems in short supply.  If we look back through the world leaders we have known, are there any we could call wise?  Abraham Lincoln perhaps.

The paradox of this story is that Solomon must have been wise enough already, in order to ask God for the gift of wisdom.

Faith, Bread and Wine

Christians have never enjoyed a happy relationship with the material world. Influenced by Greek views that matter was negative, sexuality and the physical world, including daily life, were viewed in a negative light. The world of ideas and the mind were elevated and valued above  the materiality of this world. As Westerners, we live with the residual influence of this position. Yet we are people who use everyday material things, bread, wine and water, in worship to convey something of God himself to the person receiving it. Jesus himself says: ‘I am the bread of life . . .’

Anglicans have tended to make two responses to Holy Communion. (I run the risk of oversimplifying this view, but hear me out.) The first, by the Anglo-Catholic, tends to elevate the liturgy and sacrament, above the simple encounter with the risen Christ given in the bread and wine. Evangelicals, in contrast, seem uncomfortable with Holy Communion, not wanting too much fuss made and tending to consider it of less importance than the ministry of the word. Both views engage with the question of how does our faith relate to what is symbolised in the materiality of bread and wine? For the Evangelical, it is faith in God’s Word and faith in Christ particularly, without the prop of other things, which is important.  That’s good Reformational teaching, I agree. But something is lost and not necessarily reclaimed with a simple view that Christ’s life, presence and love are given in the sacrament. And how does this occur? Merely saying it is a metaphor or sign leaves much unsaid and leaves us poorer for entering into this profound gift by Christ to his Church, his body.

Telling Truth to Power

How do you tell the king that he is guilty of adultery, murder, the theft of another man’s wife and has sinned against the LORD – without losing your life? This is the dilemma which Nathan the prophet faced when sent by the LORD to confront king David. In contrast to Nathan, when John the Baptist told king Herod something similar (Herod had taken his brother’s wife as his own), he lost his head (Mark 6:17-29).

Nathan the prophet took a bold, courageous, but more tactful approach. He told king David a story, or more accurately, a parable. Everyone likes a story, especially kings. You might remember it. Rich man, lots of flocks and sheep is contrasted with a poor man who owns just one little ewe lamb. It is the family pet. The rich man steals poor man’s sheep to feed a dinner guest he is entertaining. Hearing the story, David is outraged at the theft of the poor man’s sheep. David can see the injustice and angrily calls for the legal restitution of what was stolen and that it is to be fourfold (Ex 22:1). Additionally, the rich man’s punishment is to be death. But Nathan now has David’s attention. With Nathan’s charge: ‘You are the man’, David is able to see himself as the very man of the parable who has acted unjustly. The parable has created the moment of recognition for David as he has himself rendered judgement on the injustice of privileged ‘taking’ what rightfully belongs to another. Parables like Nathan’s, and like Jesus’, interrogate us and help us to see ourselves as God sees us. It is why Jesus warns us about being quick to judge others (Matt 7:1-5; John 8:7).

Abuse of Power

The #MeToo Movement spread rapidly in October 2017 on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment of women, especially in the workplace. It followed soon after the sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer. The movement has given women throughout the world a voice to accuse men who have sexually abused or harassed them. High profile actors and men in Australia have also been implicated. But when we turn to the well-known story of David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 11:1-27, what is noticeable is that Bathsheba has no voice. She is silenced, passive and without any power to refuse David’s approach. He initiates, then entraps her, then hatches a plan to hide her pregnancy (and his sin), and when that fails, he conspires to have her husband murdered. He completes his control over her by having her brought to him once her period of mourning for her husband is finished. She is a victim of David’s unrestrained power. But David is also a victim. He is a victim of his own success which deceived him into thinking he had a right and entitlement to do what he wanted as king. He is a victim of the political culture of the day which gave an absolute monarch power to live by a different set of rules from his subjects. David is a victim of his own failure to grasp his role. The king of Israel was not above the law of Moses; rather, he was to promote and guard that law (Deut ch 17). He was appointed to embody the standards of the Law as the earthly representative of God’s spiritual kingdom that was manifested in Israel. David’s behaviour is not only a moral failure, it is tragic display of a lack of self-awareness and forgetfulness of the role he had been entrusted with by the LORD.

Praying with Mixed Motives

David was an inspiring and capable leader and his list of achievements are impressive. But he was also an ambitious ruler. He had, for example, built himself a palace to complement his status as the ruler of Israel. Then he had consolidated the twin symbols of statehood by bringing the tabernacle in which God’s people worshipped, into Jerusalem. But when he looked out from his palace to the new centre of religious worship, the Holy of Holies remained housed in a tent. Compared with the other nations, the absence of a building made the worship of God seem cheapened. So David asked God if he could build a temple to house Israel’s worship. Initially, Nathan, the prophet agreed (2 Sam 7:1-5), but in a dream that night, Nathan was told that David could not proceed. The reason? David is a warrior and is tainted with the history of past battles. His feet have blood spilt on them (1 Ki 5:3; 1 Chron 22:8; 28:2-3).
The story exposes David’s mixed motives when he prays (a common aspect of our own prayers as well.). David wants the twin symbols of national power: a palace and a temple in his new capital. God will answer his prayer, but differently from his expectations. Despite his mixed motives, God will honour him (in fulfilment of Deut 12). God will build a house (a lineage) for David and appoint his son (who will be Solomon) to build the house of God. But there is more; God promises that this son and his successors will never be rejected; God’s love for him will be unconditional and enduring for ever. David didn’t receive what he wanted, but he was given something far better, and his lineage becomes the basis for Christ’s status as the ‘Son of David’.