A text in 1 Kings 2 comes from the synagogue Sabbath reading for yesterday the 7th. It features Jacob’s final words to his sons and David’s final words to his son, Solomon. As a meditation for the beginning of the new year, deathbed instructions might seem to be an unusual choice, to say the least.
I should add that the Jewish new year, Rosh Hashanah (that is, “head of the year”) falls at various times in September. The current year on the Jewish calendar is 5783.
I imagine there were quite a few of us who were happy to pronounce the death sentence on 2020. Some probably wanted to drive a stake through its heart to make sure the monster had been slain!
Still, taking into consideration the coming of Covid into the world, there is always much to celebrate about God’s good creation, which we’ll hear more about later.
David couches his closing wishes in terms of strength, courage, and faithfulness. “Hear my words, beloved son, and you will follow the way of the Lord. In pursuing them, you will guarantee that my lineage will continue through you.” That’s no big responsibility.
What follows is a list of names and how Solomon is to deal with each of them. I’m reminded of how certain Roman emperors decided the fate of gladiators. Thumbs up, and they lived. Thumbs down, and that’s all she wrote.
(At least, that’s how the story goes!)
First on the list is Joab, one of David’s mighty commanders. He retaliated “in time of peace for blood that had been shed in war” (v. 5). Very briefly: Joab killed Abner and Amasa, two military leaders, and Absalom, David’s rebellious son. This was despite David’s explicit instructions. He made it clear that he did not want any of them to be slain.
Joab, known for his violent temperament, was unable to let go of blood vengeance, however justified it might have seemed. David didn’t want to be seen responsible for “innocent blood.” The verdict: “do not let his gray head go down to Sheol in peace” (v. 6). Thumbs down.
However, Barzillai treated David honorably, so permit his sons to live in peace with you. Thumbs up.
And then there is Shimei, who uttered a curse on David, but later tried to make nice. David promised he would do no harm to him. He wouldn’t touch a hair on his head but said nothing about how his offspring would treat Shimei while he visits the beauty parlor. So, thumbs down.
I just said Joab was unable to let go of blood vengeance. He dragged what happened in time of war into a time of peace.
Is he the only one who couldn’t let go? Could not the king have behaved any differently? Was he truly compelled to settle those scores? I don’t know; perhaps by the standards of his time, it was to be expected. Nevertheless, it seems like he could have acted in a nobler manner—perhaps in a spirit of royal largesse?
I doubt any of us have the blood of queens and kings flowing through our veins, but how often do we dwell in the past? How often are we trapped by the past?
We have now entered 2023. On every New Year’s Day, I am reminded of the song by that name which was done by the band U2. Bono sings, “All is quiet on New Year’s Day / A world in white gets underway. I want to be with you / Be with you night and day. Nothing changes on New Year’s Day / On New Year’s Day.”
Other people have their own memories or practices when January rolls around. This year there is the realization of that song being released forty years ago. Forty years ago! In 1983, I was a freshman in college. Tempus fugit.
In his masterpiece, The Sabbath (which reads almost like poetry), the beloved twentieth century rabbi Abraham Heschel suggests, “Time to us is sarcasm, a slick treacherous monster with a jaw like a furnace incinerating every moment of our lives.” He isn’t saying time is evil, rather it’s our reaction to it.
“We know what to do with space,” Heschel comments, “but do not know what to do about time, except to make it subservient to space. Most of us seem to labor for the sake of things of space. As a result we suffer from a deeply rooted dread of time and stand aghast when compelled to look into its face.”
It’s fascinating. Genesis has God pronouncing aspects of creation—that is, space—as “good.” Creation of earth and sea, plants and animals, are pronounced “good.” “And God saw that it was good.” Even after the creation of the human race, all is pronounced “very good.”
It is only the Sabbath—time—that is hallowed, pronounced holy. The word in Hebrew has to do with being sanctified, being set apart. It is set apart from all we can see.
We so often want to grasp time, as if it were an object. We want to stop it, or at least slow it down, and just take a breath. We want that fire-breathing monster consuming every moment to be held at bay. Time flies, like a dragon.
Are we indeed unwilling to let go? Do we need to, so to speak, die to the past before we can truly live?
Today is the Baptism of the Lord. We hear the story of another dying to the past. We engage with a narrative of one passing through a portal. The heavens themselves open up like a shower from on high, and there is a powerful proclamation of perpetual passion.
John offers a baptism for the forgiveness of sin. He offers a baptism of repentance. He questions Jesus when he comes to him for this ritual. Wait, we’ve got this totally backward. I’m supposed to be the forerunner for you. You should be the one dunking me into the river!
He doesn’t need to do this for his own sake, but Jesus models moving from the death of sin. He shows the way from the grave of the past to the life of the future.
A couple of decades later, regarding baptism, the apostle Paul establishes the connection, he develops the theology, between the dying of Jesus and his being raised from the grave by God to an indestructible life.
In his letter to the Roman church, Paul shares the glorious news, “We were buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we also might walk in newness of life” (6:4).
In the letter to the Colossians, he says in similar words, “When you were buried with him in baptism, you were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead” (2:12).
There are two key events of the Christian faith: Christmas and Easter. Christmas, of course, tells the story of God becoming incarnate. It is God becoming enfleshed as the baby of Bethlehem.
More to our point here is the story of Easter. Jesus was dead, with no life whatsoever, dead as a doornail. His mission had apparently ended in utter and complete failure. Jesus was right when he spoke the words, “It is finished.” It’s difficult to do worse than that. We go from the bitter tears of defeat of Holy Saturday to the inexpressible and impossible euphoria of Easter Sunday.
So again, here we are in 2023. We have been focused on Covid. In some ways, we have been focused on death. We’ve had lockdowns. Many small businesses have not survived. So many children held out of school have seemingly fallen hopelessly behind. Getting close to each other has been forbidden. We have been told to not shake hands!
(Please note: I do understand the logic expressed here.)
The 20s have indeed gotten off to an alarming start. One cause for concern is that over the past couple of years or so, we’ve become used to accepting ever increasing levels of control and surveillance from the government and from big tech.
By the grace of God, we are becoming ever more aware of our ability to recognize and challenge the lies. Banu and I invite you to join us. By the grace of God, death is being exposed.
In the movie, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Winona Ryder plays Mina and Gary Oldman plays Dracula. In Mina, Dracula sees his centuries-dead wife, Elisabeth, as having returned. In the scene in which Dracula pledges his eternal love for Mina, she pleads with him, “take me away from all this death.” Of course, she’s putting that request to the wrong fellow!
We all have been so focused on death, I fear we might have forgotten how to live.
That is the meaning of baptism, however. It is more than an emphasis on space, an emphasis on physicality. It also deals with time. It is the movement from a season of death to a season of life. That is what it means to be saved. Salvation is not a one-time reality. Salvation is ongoing. Salvation is what we look to in the future.
Still, salvation does require the element of choice. It requires what the baptism of John models for those coming after, that is, repentance. Repentance isn’t a furious escape from a hammer descending from above. It is a turning around, an about face. And it doesn’t happen once and for all time. It also is a lifestyle—a lifestyle which is based in joy.
Our focus on death requires repentance, salvation. Joy is the defeat of death. It is time to repent as a congregation, shake off the dust of death, and enter into a 2023 full of the life that God wants to show us. Whatever we think is enough, God says I have more. It is time for the remnant to rise from the dead and share in the promises of the Kingdom here and now.
 Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1951), 5.