Our fearless leader, President Trump, promises we will get through this pandemic quickly and bounce back better than before. I notice his projections, predictions, and anticipations keep getting modified… the other direction. It was gonna be Easter… but then again… maybe not. Meanwhile, the walls of our homes, which used to be our fortresses, are becoming like a prison. You might still be in denial, but I bet you are feeling it.
Okay. This post is not actually about President Trump. It’s not a critique of his leadership, even if you find that in my opening remarks. No. It’s about us and our faith. Even more, it’s about our God.
My church, like sooooooooo many, is not assembling anymore for worship. I suggested a while back that our huge multimillion dollar building with all those class rooms and a kitchen and all that could be converted into a homeless shelter with isolation rooms. We are not using it. Why not finally devote all that pride and comfort to Jesus?
Well, it turns out we were hoping against hope that we just might assemble again for Easter and “bounce back” as they say. We yearn to get back to “normal” – that indefinable word, that mythical reality. We talk more and more about a “new normal,” as if we had a handle on this thing and all the changes which will be with us from here on.
But I am thinking that suggests a deeply flawed Christian worldview. Why were Christians ever satisfied with the status quo – the old normal? Why would we think we even WANT to get back to it? Are we not looking for the coming of the New Age of God’s Kingdom Rule? That surely would be very different from the American Dream, I would think. And just now as we have a chance to shine like never before, our huge church house sits empty waiting, not for Jesus, but for all the white, middle-class Americans who used to worship there in pride and comfort, to get the bounce back.
Here at Fat Beggars School of Prophets, the foundational Bible text we find our mission and ministry primarily shaped by is found in II Kings 6 & 7, an obscure little story buried deep in your Old Testament which some Bibles place under a heading that reads “The Siege of Samaria.” If you are not familiar with that text, I encourage you to take the ten minutes it requires and go read it now and then come back to this post.. There is so much worthwhile in that story which this post can only barely allude to, much less spell out, that it is worth your meditation, I think.
(Go ahead… I can wait.)
Social Breakdown and the Economy of Food
Before I get into the Bible, though, I should say that when I was either a Freshman or Sophomore in college, can’t recall clearly this far removed, I took a course, probably called Major British Writers, from the English Department, and one of the required books for that class was J.G. Farrell’s The Siege of Krishnapur. In all these years since, I am sure I have forgotten far more of that story than what I remember, and I don’t recall being terribly enthralled with the book (more so my really cool instructor, Dr. Winters), but I certainly learned a lot about how society breaks down when under siege – especially Victorian/post Victorian society.
We tend to measure the breakdown in economic terms. The cost of food and essential items skyrockets uncontrollably. The black market replaces the legitimate market (and the stock market). But this doesn’t stop the psychological coping mechanism we call “denial” or even slow it down. Those under siege hold desperately to the old hierarchies of social cohesion as best they can while fear chips away at the edges.
One of the features that stood out to me when reading Farrell’s book was the dogs at the gates of the fortress. In better times, they had become accustomed to finding dinner scraps there each day. However, as the people in the city begin to starve, they slowly stop throwing out anything edible. But the dogs remain there. It was the last place they knew to get food, and so they keep coming back looking for more long after their gravy train has dried up.
These features of Farrell’s book parallel quite nicely with the biblical account of the siege of Samaria too. You would think the Bible measures the desperation of Israel in economic terms. If you have read that text now, you might have noticed that the prices of food essentials in fact frame the whole story. It opens with a price list and closes with a price list. At the start, as the people are starving, a donkeys head and dove’s dung are going for top dollar!
Look Who’s For Dinner
But you know it’s bad… REALLY bad… when we move from talking about WHAT is for dinner to talking about WHO is for dinner. And that is how this goes for the people of God in Samaria as the Arabs have the place surrounded, and you know they are slow roasting the fatted calf just upwind of the city so as to increase the pain on those inside the city walls resisting defeat. In fact, as the story progresses, that feast will play an important role in the narrative.
No doubt we Christians should look at this bit where the woman cries out to the king of Samaria with Christian eyes. There is more to this story than the surface reading suggests. First off, the king of the Jews is supposed to be God’s own son! Just read Psalm 2, a royal psalm which Israel features at the coronation of each successive king. Jesus, too, will claim this psalm for himself, and we, of course, believe it is ultimately meant for him all along. And so when this king of Samaria, a scoundrel son of Ahab and Jezebel, is called upon by his royal subjects, we know that the son of God is also a shepherd of the sheep. We know that this woman has come to the right person who is supposed to have the right answers. And so the story subtly lets us know just how theologically and deeply the problems in Israel are when this king cannot help her and tears his robes.
And what is her problem?
She is starving. But not JUST starving. No. In fact she recently ate a meal. Her own son! She was tricked by her neighbor lady who said they should eat the first lady’s son the one night and then boil and eat the second lady’s son the next. But the second lady hides her son after they eat the first one.
Wow! Now… let eating a Son at Eucharist each Sunday pervade this story a moment. We eat Jesus’s body and drink his blood every time we partake. Luke is hinting at this as far back as the birth narrative when Mary and Joseph place their Son of God in a manger, a feed trough for animals! This story resonates with that, but not in a harmonious way. Instead, it shocks us with just how deeply something is wrong here at deeper levels of sin than we are apt to imagine NORMALLY.
Thus the people of God, despite being the people of God, are not being the people of God.
Let that bake your noodle.
This is no way to bear God’s image in the world, and Israel was supposed to do just that.
Maybe the American church should read this story again very carefully. We have some more meditating to do with that. But I will keep moving, because we are watching for the bounce back here, and for the purposes of this post, all that noodle baking is just prep work for the bounce back.
A King, a Prophet, and a Promise of Heaven’s Bounce Back
Well, of course this upsets the king who, recognizing the depths of his own royal futility, rather than repenting and seeking God humbly, decides he wants to kill the prophet who has caused him consternation before – in this instance Elisha. And Elisha, through some mysterious, divine warning sees this coming. The king of the Jews is going to have his head. He sends his henchmen to do the job, but Elisha, with his foresight, gets the door barred long enough for a confrontation of words with the royal court. And what Elisha promises is a big bounce back – in fact, heaven’s bounce back! He tells the royal court that the national economy is about to flipflop, and all the best cuts of meat will go for cheap prices, and it will happen the next day.
Now… the people of Samaria have been under siege a while by the time Elisha says this. Their denial of their siege has morphed by this time to denial of getting relief.
(We American’s under coronavirus are not that far along yet. But we surely may be about to get our chance.)
Meanwhile, back in Samaria, as the prophet outlines heaven’s bounce back in economic terms, the head noble of the kings court, one of the henchmen who showed up to this tete-a-tete hoping to see Elisha’s head chopped off, isn’t about to believe this fantastical prophetic prediction of a heavenly intervention. And so Elisha tells him he will get to see it but not partake of it. And of course at the end, that is what happens.
Dogs, Beggars, and God’s Glory
But here is the part, finally, where we get to our point… and it is right at the heart of what Fat Beggars School of Prophets is all about: God is moving in and through the most unlikely of people and places to do his divine thing, and it will blow our minds; it will claim all the glory for God; it will leave us at his total and complete mercy. And so the story moves from all the happenings of the king and his nobles starving to death inside the city to the beggars (the lepers) hanging around at the city gates.
Here’s the thing: those lepers – those beggar bums at the gate – are so insignificant that NO ONE would ever expect they might play a role in this story. NO ONE. No one would ever dare to dream – not even the beggars themselves. These are the dogs of Farrell’s Siege. They don’t factor into Israel’s theology like the king… like the son of God. They are just beggars and hangers on. They don’t count. Like Farrell’s dogs, they used to get the scraps from the city here, the crumbs from the table of the rich nobles, but now that the nobles are eating their own children, you can just imagine (or probably you can’t) how tough it is on the bums.
And what do you know? These bums actually have brains. They sit there, totally unrelated to any the rest of the story so far, analyzing their situation, and they calculate that if they stay put, they will die. If they beg their way into the city, they will die along with the rest of the desperate people. In fact, if they go out to the enemy camp and beg mercy from the enemy, they will probably die, but there is that tiny glimmer of hope that mercy could be extended. In fact, it is the only hope left to them, so they think, on the other side of this death defying mission. And thus they decide to wait until twilight and then go beg mercy from the enemy.
Now… God moves
The LORD rouses his mighty, mysterious self on behalf of these beggars and unbeknownst to them (I always wanted to say “unbeknownst” and never have before…) God causes a thunderous noise from the hills to echo out across the enemy camps. It must have been a chilling sound, because these warriors immediately get scared out of their minds. I mean a panic sets in, and they convince themselves that Israel’s king must have managed to dispatch spies and enlist help from Egypt and other neighboring kings who are riding in to the rescue! So the enemy just drops everything and RUNS for their lives!
But you see, they had been torturing the people of God inside the city with the smells of slow roasting fatted calf for days. And so when they drop everything to run, scared witless as they are by God, they leave some Joe Allen’s BBQ in the pit just slow cooking there. Thus when the hungry beggars show up in their humility seeking mercy, they find it, not mercy from the enemy, but from God! And God feeds these bums a meal fit for a king while the king of the Jews sits in his torn robes with a growling stomach wondering how that lady’s son tasted.
And these bums! These bums, if you aren’t in love with them yet, you should be, start running around eating the miracle meal of God and having a party! I mean, God did tell us, through Luke, that he wanted his house full for the banquet! And so he packs it with lepers and bums and beggars who lay down their very lives for a chance to eat. And they go to celebrating, and partying, and having themselves a big ol’ time. And they go from tent to tent eating and gathering up treasures for themselves and just really having a ball, you know?
And I don’t know about you, but I am sure that in all the cosmos God created, THAT IS THE PARTY I WANNA GET INVITED TO! And these are God’s guests of honor! The utterly humiliated, humble beggars who aren’t worth honorable mention until God raises them up.
And these humble beggars, just when they start to feel a little uppity, suddenly realize, and feel a deep conviction in their hearts, that it is not right for them to have all this banquet for themselves alone, but really should go tell the king and all the nobles in the city. The last have come first, but the first might yet come at last! Their world just makes no sense otherwise. And so they head back to town to tell the king in the middle of sin’s darkest night.
Of course, beggars like this, even when carrying the very Gospel message of God Almighty himself, just have practically no credibility in the old normal. And so when they arrive back at the city gates, they tell the guards to inform the king that there is food in plenty and that the people of God should come and partake in God’s mercy at the enemy camps. And of course, the guards send word of it, but this GOOD NEWS is too GOOD to believe even as Israel suffers the “new normal,” and so the king doesn’t. But he too is so desperate that he must send a probe out to determine the truth of it. (But really, he thinks it is a ploy to lure everyone out of the city where they will be ambushed.)
By morning, the probe comes back with verification. The bums were right after all! God is merciful to them, and yet there is no glory for the bums in this story. However, as the people rush out to claim the booty, the spoils of a war they did not fight, they come rushing back again through the city gates with so much spoils that the economy of the whole nation is suddenly bounced back. And the noble who denied it to the prophet, sees it like the prophet had said, but he gets trampled in the gate by the mobs of hungry people partaking in the grace of God, and he dies and does not partake himself.
So, why am I writing this stuff?
Because, church, we are not looking for the old “normal.” We are not going to settle for a “new normal” either. And the bounce back, to the Glory of God should he be so persuaded as to give us one, will come to us as heaven’s intervention from the most unlikely of places, from the most humble and humiliated, but it will be found in the meal God gives us. And he has done that already.
That starving woman who ate her son was right to reach out to her king. He was supposed to be the bearer of God’s image, supposed to be the shepherd of the people. She was supposed to be one of the sheep in his fold. That is how God makes Israel to be, but there was sin spoiling everything. Something was just a bit off. It was like 666 is to 777. Jehoram was no Jesus.
Jesus crucified smells like death to those who are dying, but to those coming to life, he smells like the aroma of Christ.
The smell of death. That is about like going to the enemy camps thinking you might get mercy there. It is humiliating and humbling to cling to Jesus. There is something upside down and turned all around in that. But if you want heaven’s bounce back, rather than a return to “normal,” you really must consider this stuff carefully. Perhaps keep a closer eye on the beggars than you ever have before!
As our homes, our fortresses, slowly become prisons, I ask you to read this passage and open your eyes. Look for God. Grope for him if you must. But quit trying to “get back to normal.” That is not our purpose. But look for God among the beggars, the most destitute, those who are already so humble and humiliated that they would share their windfall with you even if you never would share more than a scrap with them. That’s where God is, and right about now America really needs to talk to him.