Sunday the Twenty-first

Listen, Lord, and answer me. Save Your servant who trusts in You. I call to you all day long, have mercy on, O Lord (Psalm 85:1-3).

Lord, your love is eternal; do not forsake the work of your hands (Psalm 138).

     “Thus says the LORD to Shebna, master of the palace: “I will thrust you from your office and pull you down from your station. On that day I will summon my servant Eliakim, son of Hilkiah; I will clothe him with your robe, and gird him with your sash, and give over to him your authority” (Isaiah 22:18-20).”
     “And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 16:18-19).”

Admittedly Shebna, Eliakim and Hilkiah are not household names. Hopefully these names will not be too difficult for lectors to pronounce properly. But when you hear their names, what goes through your mind? Do you know them? Is it important to know them? While the simple answer to that question is “yes,” it is important to know why we need to know them and their story when it comes to following Jesus Christ. Time for a brief lesson in Old Testament History.

In the first 39 chapters of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, life is very uncertain for many of the Israelites, especially those living in what was known then as the Northern Kingdom. This area bordered Assyria (part of modern day Syria) and tensions ran high between the people of the Northern Kingdom and the people of Assyria. In the context of this uncertainly, the Prophet Isaiah called the people continuously to “trust in God.” It was hard. They could not eyeball God yet they could easily see (and hear!) the might of the Assyrian military machine. Some of Israel's leaders decided to take matters into their own hands and prepare for war and make alliances with others to help when war broke out. Enter Shebna.

Scholars are mixed as to what his exact job was in the empire. Minimally, it was some type of steward or treasury official in the government. No matter the position, Shebna was a powerful person in the empire who answered only to the king. There is some scholarship that suggests Shebna (whose name linguistically appears to be more Egyptian than Hebrew) was attempting an alliance with the Egyptians. Earlier in Isaiah 22, mention is made of a rather ambitious building campaign (including quite an ornate burial place for himself) that results in some type of scandal and betrayal of his master (an EXTREMELY serious offense in the Ancient Near Eastern world), though the text is silent about the scandal's details. The text is quite clear about the consequences of the scandal: “The LORD shall hurl you down headlong, mortal man! He shall grip you firmly and roll you up and toss you like a ball into an open land to perish there, you and the chariots you glory in, you disgrace to your master’s house (Isaiah 22:17-18).” In the portion of the chapter proclaimed this Sunday, we learn of Shebna's public humiliation and the loss of his government position to Eliakim (whose name, interestingly, means “God establishes”).

So what does Old Testament History 101 have to do with this Sunday's Word? The biblical mandate uttered by Isaiah, “trust in God,” is for the good of one's life and the lives of others. Disaster occurs time and time again in Isaiah when leaders, who ought to know better, decide to orchestrate the life of the kingdom based on their own agenda. This agenda, which attempts a ruse of concern for one’s subjects, is nothing more than a ploy for patrimony, power and perpetuity which increases the ego, hurling one deeper and deeper into the abyss of narcissism. Shebna thought he was smart in abandoning the covenant and the Word of God delivered by the prophet. He poured massive resources of Israel's life into shoring up defenses (which really were not all that sound, but apparently benefitted him) and building a marvelous mausoleum as a perpetual testimony to his life, which also backfired in the end. Failure to listen to the prophet results in a loss of profit on so many levels of life.

The 'rocks' of Caesarea Philippi including the entrance to a seemingly bottomless pit. In antiquity, rock formations near and on the entrance gave the appearance of foreboding jaws (gate) leading to the nether world. This was also the site of the ancient cult of the pagan god, Pan. Not far from here are the cool, fresh-water springs that combine and form southward flowing streams contributing to the Sea of Galilee. The day my beloved Dad and I visited Hermon Springs was hot (temperature was estimated at 102°F) and rather humid. Kneeing down and sipping the spring water was quite a treat.

Contrast all this with Peter. He does no campaigning, not that he would have even known what was coming by responding to a simple question from the Master. He does no manipulating of the crowds, fellow disciples or even Jesus. Out-of-the-blue Jesus declares him “Rock!” and invests him with keys (an Old Testament image used to sum up all civil and religious authority exercised by leaders. In Judaism, the ‘power of the keys’ also referred to the Rabbi’s teaching authority) and solidifying his authority with the power to bind and to loose. As the “key of the house of David” was placed upon Eliakim's shoulders, so Peter is given the Keys of the Kingdom. Peter gets the keys and binding/loosing power precisely because God establishes this, not himself. Peter responds to Jesus’ question in such a way that it is clear Peter is open to the Father’s revelation. Peter, in this context, is an Eliakim. So long as the one called “Rock” lives his ‘Eliakim roots’ he will never become ‘Rocky.’ Peter will come to learn that much vigilance is required as the letter “y” can easily be appended to his stone name (next week’s lesson). A rock that provides a sure foundation can become unstable in the blink of an eye. Ask anyone who has lived through an earthquake. Similarly, life quickly becomes ‘rocky’ when “trust in the Lord” no longer grounds the foundation of life. The laws of physics are quite clear: nature abhors a vacuum. Something or someone is always waiting to pounce and fill a void. “Trust in God” keeps life filled with proper direction, energy and liveliness. Its absence results automatically in “trust in self” along with consequences that never builds-up but only tears-down. Gospel joy and peace await all who allow God to establish life even when times are humanly uncertain and rocky.

help us to seek the values
that will bring us lasting joy
in this changing world.
In our desire for what You promise
make us one in mind and heart.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, Your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit,
One God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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