Sunday, January 30, 2022

The Hyssop Purge

You are the man!” The words still echoed in David's ears. He lay on the cold winter ground, crying out in the night, organizing his shattered thoughts. He'd thought he'd gained everything. Nine months ago, he'd had the most delightful evening after he'd peered down from the edge of his palace rooftop and seen her bathing in her courtyard down below. After their time together, he'd sent her away, expecting that to be it. But when word came she was pregnant, the king was terrified of scandal (2 Samuel 11:1-5). He tried summoning her husband back from the battlefield, tried getting them together so as to pawn the baby off as Uriah's. But Uriah's commitment to the mission – commitment like David used to have – got in the way (2 Samuel 11:6-13). There was only one way, David reckoned, to cut off scandal at its source, and that was to make sure Uriah – David's long-time friend and brother-in-arms – became one more casualty of war. David hated to do it, but it followed an inexorable, desperate, lethal logic (2 Samuel 11:14-25). And so David graduated from adultery to manipulation to murder. And it paid off! Bathsheba was sad, but scarcely the wiser. Once socially appropriate, David added her to his harem as one more wife, and the pregnancy bore fruit in a little prince who, if no one crunched the numbers too attentively, could've just barely been conceived on their wedding night. All those months looking over his shoulder, waiting for the other shoe to drop, and now the dust cleared and David had profited from it all. He got the girl, kept his reputation, and cradled a beautiful baby boy (2 Samuel 11:26-27).

Scarcely had David breathed his sigh of relief when God's prophet darkened his door. Speaking in rich parables, Nathan placed David before a spiritual mirror, and David found his finger of condemnation abruptly pointed at his own reflection. It all came crashing apart. David heard verdict and sentence, glimpsed the dread cost, and felt as though his heart were being split open like a pomegranate in his chest (2 Samuel 12:1-12). That was yesterday. David hadn't eaten since Nathan about-faced and marched away. He knew starvation was less a threat now than the judgment of God ready to shake palace and nation, with David at its epicenter, unless he urgently sought for salvation. And so, tears running down to his ruddy beard, David began line by line to sing.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy, blot out my transgressions!” (Psalm 51:1). David couldn't appeal to God's justice – that'd be death. Not to his own reserve of extra credit – that'd been shown a sham. He appealed to the promise of a God of love, a God committed to his creation, committed to Israel, committed even personally to David as his anointed king, his christ. That's what David was supposed to be: Israel's christ with a lowercase 'c.' Yet he'd transgressed. He'd violated God's trust, betrayed God's covenants. He'd written himself into a corner, into a nightmare, and only the mercy of God could upend his inkwell and leave a splotch of grace big enough to coat and cloak the handwritten shame scrawled all over David's page.

Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin!” (Psalm 51:2). David felt dirty, defiled, haunted by the gunk and grime he could feel clinging to him: Bathsheba's perfume, Uriah's blood. He needed a bath. But scrub and scrub he might, the spot wouldn't come out. He could still smell it, still feel it. He needed a bath. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (Psalm 51:3). In times past, David could tell himself he was righteous, the man after God's own heart. It was easy to point the finger at bigger sinners – at Goliath, at Saul, at the Ammonites with whom David's armies went to war while David grew bored in safety. But now all his deflections were no defense. Now all his excuses rotted on his tongue, and his guilt was as if tattooed inside his eyelids. Waking, sleeping, his conscience had been awakened with a relentless fury.

Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment” (Psalm 51:4). David knew he'd hurt Uriah, assaulting his marriage and arranging his murder. He'd hurt Bathsheba, intruding into her world and seducing her with royal splendor to please his own pleasures. He'd hurt himself, too, and he'd laid the seeds for depravity and death toward his other wives, his other children, and for this newborn son, getting sicker by the day. All them had he offended and hurt. Yet that was nothing next to his offense against God. To stare at his sin was to be horrified at a high-handed rebellion, at a sacrilege, at David's callous disregard of the LORD. In each sinful step, David had been polluting his holy station; and this perversion carried the risk of outraging God's promises, corrupting the elect nation, maybe even damning the world. No judgment of God, no intervention to rescue the hope of salvation from David's tarnished grasp, could be blamed or questioned.

Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). David realized that his rot, his shame, went to the root and origin. What he'd done was no mere surface scum on the lake of his life, easy to skim off. It pulsed out from the wellspring. His whole history was suffused with sin, from the time David was nought but a single cell on a journey to the uterine wall. For even then, when he was being fearfully and wonderfully made, he'd nonetheless been the inheritor of a building weight handed down from exiled Adam – and by the time of David's first steps, he'd already been carrying a landfill on his shoulders.

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being, and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart” (Psalm 51:6). Everything God wanted to see in David was exactly everything David didn't have. How could an adulterer, a schemer, a murderer ever reclaim his role as Israel's christ? How could he be a vision of the promise again? How could he even justify living? How could he take God's lessons to heart, and live them? The questions beat relentlessly inside his skull. He paused to reflect on the Law, driven to resolve the irresoluble tension.

David remembered how, a couple centuries ago, his forebears had been slaves in Egypt. How could David ever forget, when they revisited the saga every year at the Passover? And when they were slaves, Moses had told them – had told David's great-great-great-grandfather – to slaughter a lamb, and to pool its blood in a bowl, and into that bowl, they'd dip a whole bunch of hyssop branches. Only with hyssop for a paintbrush could they paint the lamb's lifeblood onto the doorframes of their homes. Only with the hyssop could they apply a layer of protection, the laid-down life of the lamb, to keep the plague-angel at bay. And it had worked like a charm! The wrath of the final plague had steered clear of every marked house. Every man of Israel who'd taken hyssop in hand that day had saved himself and his family by the blood of the lamb (Exodus 12:21-23).

And David had to think, doesn't he find himself being drawn back into slavery to his passions – his lust for a beautiful woman, his fear of being snared in scandal, his frustration at being unable to manipulate a righteous man, his self-loathing at being reminded how much kingship had changed him? Is David any less scared than his forefathers in the foreign land, though he be a king and they poor workers? Isn't David just as desperate for protection from a wrathful judgment now? And isn't the angel of death stalking Bathsheba's firstborn?

David thought, too, how in the Law, God had spoken through Moses a list of rules for quarantining the wretched leper, and yet had handed down also a ruling of immense hope for lepers everywhere – those lowest of the low, outcast from the outcast. Contaminated, feared, reviled – and yet even lepers had hope, as slaves had hope. For once an anointed priest ruled that a leper was no longer infectious, the priest had gathered two birds and scarlet yarn and cedarwood and hyssop. And among the other motions of the ritual, the priest would give an order for others to break one bird over a vessel of spring water, that it be mingled with blood; and into the bloody water the priest would dip the hyssop with the wood and yarn and living bird. With the hyssop dipped into water and blood, the priest would shake that famed medicinal herb over the leper (Leviticus 14:1-6). “And he shall sprinkle it seven times on him who is to be cleansed of the leprous disease; then he shall pronounce him clean” (Leviticus 14:7), and the leper, in transition back to normality, would shave, bathe, and repeat a week later, and so be fully pure (Leviticus 14:8). None of it was possible without hyssop. Hyssop wasn't just good for painting – it was a natural aspergillum, great for sprinkling. Not to mention, it lend its fragrant smell to counter the bitter odor of the blood. No hyssop, and a leper's a leper for good. But thanks to that hyssop in the priest's holy hand, every leper in Israel had a pathway back to wholeness, to purity, to life.

And isn't David's heart as leprous as any skin had ever been, infected with sin and its rot? Isn't David cast as far away from the Holy Presence as any leper was from the camp (cf. Psalm 51:11). And then doesn't David need cleansing, doesn't David need healing, every bit as much as the farthest and feeblest cast out in medicinal exile?

As David pondered it, he had a third thought. David remembered how, later in the Law, God had spoken not to Moses alone but Aaron also, and told them that others needed cleansing: those defiled by the presence of death. They'd walked through a graveyard, or come across a corpse, or even handled human bones. They'd plunged into the realm of the dead, and now death was on them, staining them with its ghastly uncleanness (Numbers 19:16). But God had seen in advance, and so had made provision. Every so often, the priests were to find a red heifer – a rare creature – and not only sacrifice it, but burn its body entirely to ash, along with cedarwood and scarlet yarn and, of course, hyssop (Numbers 19:2-6). And the ashes of the heifer, mingled with the ash of these other things, were gathered up and kept in storage for the occasions God had foreseen (Numbers 19:9). So if someone caught a case of death-impurity, the priests would sprinkle a bit of the ash into spring water and make it holy. And then just anybody clean could dip hyssop in that holy water and sprinkle it onto the defiled person and defiled things. After a couple treatments of holy water, the person defiled was fully restored to the realm of life and communion (Numbers 19:17-19). So simple! But only with hyssop's purging sprinkle, followed by a nice bath, could everything be brought to completion. No hyssop, no help.

And David had to wonder, isn't he equally defiled as they, if not more? For David hadn't merely touched death. He'd caused it. He'd cheered for it. He'd unleashed it. He'd surely been through the ritual spoken to Moses and Aaron – surely he'd handled corpses on the field of battle – but now he needed something stronger. For the very crimes of which David was guilty were capital offenses under the same Law by which David reigned as king. “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). “You shall accept no ransom for the murderer who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death” (Numbers 35:31). By all rights, David should order the execution of David. How can he be a legitimate king under God's Law if he doesn't? But how can he reign if he lives no more? The sentence hangs over David's head. He needs a solution, and fast.

So many others had a solution for their plights. The Law outlined a remedy for slaves languishing in Egypt: to paint a protective coating of blood with a bunch of hyssop. The Law outlined a remedy for lepers yearning for wholeness: a priestly sprinkling of blood and water from a branch of hyssop. The Law outlined a remedy even for those swept up in fellowship with death: a sprinkling by anybody clean with holy water from a branch of hyssop. Sacrifice applied with hyssop would make a way for them. But no clean man in Israel, no robed son of Aaron, no grand patriarch could take up the hyssop branch and run to David's rescue. Not one had the strength. Not one had the right. The Law of Moses outlined no remedy, made no provision, for the horror he'd become.'

And so David prays directly to the LORD, the Giver of that Law: You purge me with hyssop, and so I shall be clean! You wash me, and so I shall be whiter than snow!” (Psalm 51:7). Let David's case be filed with the rest. Let David be regarded as a slave stuck behind in Egyptian ignorance, as the king of all lepers, even as someone trapped in a tomb, overwhelmed by a wave of ash and bone, with no way out but the grace of God. All he prays and all he hopes is that God will construct him a tailor-made solution on the analogy of the other three – that the LORD look so kindly on his stain as the LORD did on slavery and leprosy and death. That mercy, David awaits.

What David needs – what this disgraced lowercase christ craves – is the capital-C Christ who's Lord even of David. He needs someone beyond a clean man, beyond a Hebrew, beyond a priest, beyond a patriarch. He needs God to grasp the hyssop branch and wield it for his salvation. Nothing will ultimately redeem David except for the coming of a greater Christ than he, a Supreme Priest-King whose New Law will enact remedies that never came by Moses and never came by Aaron. And that Anointed Priest King with a New Law and new remedies is just who Jesus, Son of David, was born to be. He was born to be God with a hyssop branch.

You see, it's not for nothing that, when Jesus hung from the cross, laying down his life for his people, John fills in the details by having a hyssop branch lifted up to Jesus' lips (John 19:29). John was using a pun and a figure to underscore a theological point about what the crucifixion really was. It was the source from which hyssop would be pulled away with everything needed to paint and sprinkle salvation on the world. And as the gospel spread, Hebrews shows the realization that Jesus was the Priest-King who had given himself as that sacrifice. “Under the Law,” it says, “almost everything is purified by blood, and without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). But Jesus' “ministry is... more excellent than the old one” (Hebrews 8:6), “for if the blood of bulls and goats and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Hebrews 9:13). And so we have come to receive Jesus' “sprinkled blood” (Hebrews 12:24).

After Hebrews and John, the next few generations of believers kept meditating on the theme, and realized that just as Jesus fulfilled the Passover lamb, so he also fulfilled the red heifer that was burned with the cedarwood much as Christ blazed with love on his wooden cross,1 while the hyssop showed that “the warmth of life melted the frigidity of death.”2 They came to see that the blood and water mingled to cleanse the leper pointed forward to the blood and water flowing together from Christ's pierced side, and that the hyssop only underscores that Jesus will “wash and purify” all things.3 And when the Church welcomed new Christians in baptism, that's just what happened. They came in touch with the cleansing David begged. They were purged by the blood that's better than any lamb or bird, and dove into a holy water no heifer's ash could make. They were washed and purified completely by Jesus, losing all their guilty stains of a million generations' weight. And so, in those days, after being baptized, the custom was that a new Christian was given a clean white robe to wear, to show visually how “he who is baptized is seen to have been cleansed both according to the Law and according to the Gospel.... He whose sin is forgiven is made whiter than snow.”4

You or I may not have symbolized it with such a change of literal clothes, but when we were born again, when Jesus plunged us beneath his flood, we each got the cleansing David begged. The blood of Jesus availed for you and for me. The landfill dissolved off your shoulders. The ledger of all your wrongs was erased as blank as a pristine snowfall. Everything unheavenly about you was blotted out that very hour. Under the Law, a leper or a person defiled by death was warned to get nowhere near the sanctuary while still impure, or else they would be killed (Leviticus 13:46; Numbers 19:20). But now “we” – you and I – “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19), “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” in baptism (Hebrews 10:22).

That leaves just one spot of trouble – and it's that we still sin. “Can a man be pure before his Maker?” (Job 4:17). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves” (1 John 1:8). Ananias and Sapphira were born again, yet they died under God's judgment over their sin. So do we dive back into uncleanness and sin and death. We turn our backs on our baptism, we grow deaf to the Spirit, we stray into the mud, and we hear the warning that even God's children can “make a shipwreck of their faith” (1 Timothy 1:19) and “fall away from the living God” (Hebrews 3:12). We still sin. And even if our sins never look outwardly like David's sin, they may be no less grave, no less serious, no less deadly to the tender life of grace born in us. But still our need can never outrun or outflank the provision of God. We can still find Jesus with hyssop in hand, for by his sacrifice, he still has ways of sprinkling our hearts clean again, still paints over the slaveries and leprosies and deaths we caress, when we but return to him our broken, contrite hearts.

Every purification of sin like this, which is sought through repentance, is in need of assistance from the One from whose side water and blood came forth.”5 And Jesus never withholds that assistance, never turns the hyssop away, from one who comes as he ordained and begs to be purged clean. “You will be sprinkled with hyssop, because the humility of Christ will cleanse you.”6 And once he sprinkles us anew, we can again hear joy and gladness (Psalm 51:8). Christ ministers to us, and suddenly we discover a clean heart and an upright spirit (Psalm 51:10). We can be restored to the abundant joy of God's saving love (Psalm 51:12). And we can go out and tell others, calling them to come to Jesus for the hyssop purge (Psalm 51:13). Because no stain, no stench, no weakness, no slavery or leprosy or death, needs to be forever. Just bring it all “to Jesus / to wash your crimson stains / white in his blood most precious, / 'til not a spot remains.” Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, January 23, 2022

In the Snowy Pit

The wind whistled past him. Snow was still falling. It wasn't so simple to see. Benaiah was a young man, standing on the precipice, listening to the roar below. This was the moment of decision. Clutching his spear in his hand, he astonished those around him by taking the next step. Pushing off the edge, he leapt into the pit.

Benaiah was a small-town boy from Kabzeel, a town at the southernmost boundary of Judah's tribal allotment, not far from the Edomite border (2 Samuel 23:20; cf. Joshua 15:21). Born under the kingship of Saul son of Kish in the late eleventh century BC, leadership was then in the hands of one of the northernmost tribes, distrusted Benjamin – so Benaiah knew what it was like to live on the edge. His father Jehoiada was a priest, descended through a long chain of ancestors from Aaron the brother of Moses (1 Chronicles 27:5). But the priestly life wasn't for Benaiah. Perhaps he had a disqualification. Perhaps he was ordained but simply gave his life to other pursuits. It was likely before the question even came up, when Benaiah was a teenager, that he would have run off to join the persecuted hero David in the wilderness.

Benaiah, as he grew, became strong, daring, devoted. In time, Benaiah stood out among David's followers. Proving his merit in battle, he became one of David's thirty mighty men, essentially the Green Berets of David's fighters. So too had David laid the groundwork for one day recruiting a team of mercenaries, the Cherethites and the Pelethites; and once he did, he assigned Benaiah to supervise them (2 Samuel 8:18; 20:23). Coming to reign in Jerusalem at last, it was from these Cherethites and Pelethites that King David selected a security detail for himself, knowing that they'd be unswayed by Israel's internal tribal politics. And who did David trust as their commander? Benaiah. Benaiah became David's personal bodyguard, Chief of Secret Service (2 Samuel 23:23). Eventually, Benaiah would even take Abishai's place as commander of the Thirty (1 Chronicles 27:6). Benaiah's career didn't stop there. When David organized Israel's men into military divisions, one to serve on duty each month, Benaiah was installed as one of those twelve lieutenant generals, in command of 24,000 men (1 Chronicles 27:5). In practice, busy Benaiah, by that point a father with a grown son, delegated that son, Ammizadab, to command them in his stead (1 Chronicles 27:6). It was Benaiah's shift of soldiers who were on duty at the end of each spring, in the month when Pentecost was (1 Chronicles 27:5).

As the four decades of David's kingship wore on, time came when the embattled monarch grew old, and his son Adonijah sought to guarantee himself the inheritance of the throne by declaring himself king in David's days. It was Benaiah, cooperating with the prophet and the high priest, who played a leading role, at David's command, in transferring royal authority to Adonijah's younger half-brother Solomon instead (1 Kings 1:32-40). And thus – through Benaiah's work – the LORD secured the royal line of succession into which would be born a man named Joseph, a woman named Mary, and above all, a Messiah named Jesus, to save his people from their sins.

For his loyalty and bravery, the fully matured Benaiah – certainly now in his late fifties or sixties – was elevated to commander-in-chief of Israel's army under Solomon (1 Kings 2:35; 4:4), in addition to serving as the court assassin or executioner – take your pick – when it came to enemies of the state who now at Benaiah's hands could meet delayed justice for their terrible crimes, as the late David had advised (1 Kings 2:25, 34, 46).

An incredible career for an obscure but incredible man in ancient Israel. But how did he make his name? With three great exploits. In one, Benaiah faced a Goliath of his own. Maybe it was when David lived among the Philistines and raided the Amalekites as far as the land of Egypt (1 Samuel 27:8). But Benaiah found himself squaring off against an Egyptian over seven feet tall, massive and muscular. The Egyptian had a massive spear, while Benaiah as yet had nothing but a walking stick. Outmatched, outgunned, yet Benaiah's youthful dexterity let him disarm the giant and strike him down with his very own spear (2 Samuel 23:21; 1 Chronicles 11:23). A second exploit was on the field of battle, perhaps after David had begun to reign in Jerusalem and warred to press the Moabites into subjection (2 Samuel 8:2). In open warfare, Benaiah faced down two of the most elite soldiers in all Moab – men fierce as lions, men just like the men in David's Thirty or his Three – yet, though it was two against one, Benaiah still emerged victorious (2 Samuel 23:20).

But perhaps before either came the day of the great snows. In those days, Asiatic lions roamed the countryside of Israel. David, as a shepherd boy, had had occasion to kill one with a slingshot. And now Benaiah had his own chance to face a lion. The lion had slid in the snow, fallen into a hunting pit – and it was none too happy about it. Roaring, raging, it yelled from the wintery depths. Into that pit, Benaiah leapt. We can only speculate why. Maybe someone else had fallen into the pit with the lion and needed rescue. Maybe the lion injured itself in its fall and, rather than let it slowly starve in the pit, he went down to put it out of its misery. Maybe Benaiah was a thrill-seeker bent on proving his bravery and valor. Maybe Benaiah, unwilling to risk the lion's escape to terrorize the land anew, risked himself for the safety of the community. Whatever his reason, Benaiah leapt.

Landing, Benaiah found a slippery floor and visibility poor, as he confronted the raging lion. He knew, as any man must have, that the swat of a full-grown lion's paw suffices to shatter bone. And that's to say nothing of claws or jaws. One slip, one unguarded moment, and Benaiah is dead meat – literally. He's trapped with no refuge or retreat, not to mention that, as a deep southerner, Benaiah's literally out of his element, having perhaps scarcely seen snow until that day. But in he went. What his tactics were, we don't know. Likely he brought a spear with him and, finding the right chance, thrust it through the whirling snow and scored a lethal blow. Calling out that the lion was dead, someone surely lowered him a rope, and he climbed back to the broad land above. And so it was that Benaiah killed the lion in the pit on the snowy day (2 Samuel 23:20).

Now, you or I read that story, and we're children of the modern era. We're by instinct limited in how we read. We read the Bible, and we find only histories or moral lessons in faith and virtue. But there's so much more here than a obsolete narrations or exhortations to courage. Down through history, Christians have read a many-layered Bible that, when all its rightful senses are explored, points on every page to Christ and his Church. For didn't Jesus say that all of Scripture “bears witness about me” (John 5:39), that “everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44)?

And so what is written of Benaiah is written, at its deepest level, to show us Christ. For this world is a snowy pit, obscure and unclear, and each of us is trapped in it, from birth to death, with the devil. Each of Benaiah's three exploits – against Moabites, massive Egyptian, and raging lion – is against an image used in either the New Testament itself or in early Christian writings to depict the devil. “Be sober-minded, be watchful! Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). He's strong, he's deadly, he's dangerous, and in the pit of the world, we're snowed in with him. There's no escape. But from the broad land of heaven jumps down the Word of God, leaping into our flesh and our position, joining us in the pit. God so loved a pit-trapped world that he sent his only-begotten Son, Benaiah-style, to come down and give the lion a mortal wound, that we might live; and the spear with which Christ struck the lion is his cross.

So too, Benaiah's later career foreshadows salvation history. It's not for nothing that in David's days Benaiah oversaw Israel's active-duty troops every Pentecost. His was a pentecostal courage from the “Spirit not of fear but of power” (2 Timothy 1:7), foreshadowing the descent of the Holy Spirit into our world-pit from Christ. In this era, when now the Spirit has been given, we are the active-duty troops on duty under the Spirit's ultimate command, as he speaks to us by Scripture and by Church and leads us marching onward.

And at last, when David's days were done, he left the throne of David to the son of David, who sent Benaiah forth into the land to exact a fierce judgment against sinners like Joab, Shimei, and Adonijah. And so it is that “the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27), being “revealed from heaven... in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel” (2 Thessalonians 1:7-8), but also “to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Hebrews 9:28).

In Benaiah, we see one of many shadows of the things that have come to pass and the things that are and the things that remain to come. But in Christ Jesus, we find the substance of them all. Glory be to Christ the Doer of Great Deeds, to Christ the Devil-slayer! And thanks be to God for the Christ who will one day return to pull us from the snowy pit to the perfect spring of a new creation. Amen.

Sunday, January 16, 2022

Commander of Winter

So, a quick show of hands: who here has seen or heard the forecast for this evening? Yes, I thought so. Doesn't look too promising, does it? This evening, they say, we have a 90% chance of getting our inch of snow, turning to rain already tonight, possibly back to light snow tomorrow morning, to yield a fine slushy mess. Of course, by this point, we've had our sampler platter of winter weather already, what with the freezing rain last Sunday and the larger snowstorm before that. Even this weekend, our county is getting off easy. Further west, they're calling for mostly snow, with the far end of western New York warned of more than eighteen inches. Those of us who are greatly fond of winter weather are few and far between – although we have some notable exceptions among our number. But this morning, with the limited time we have, I'd like to begin looking at some of the Old Testament's mentions of winter weather. Meditate on these as the air chills and the snow falls tonight.

First, when we get our snow or ice, sleet or hail, whatever the case may be, it reminds us that God is sovereign. What does he say to Job? The LORD asks, “Have you entered the storehouse of the snow, or have you seen the storehouses of the hail, which I have reserved for the time of trouble, for the day of battle and war?” (Job 38:22-23). And, of course, Job hasn't. He's an ancient man, living three thousand years ago, without much understanding of how God prepares snow or hail, and certainly he's never been on site. We today claim a scientific grasp of the mechanics, but even now they remain too complex for us to firmly predict what exactly any given storm will do. How much more, then, should God be trusted with the vastly more complex webs of possibility that permit dangers in the world for the sake of opening the windows to let greater good blow in?

And like the psalmist says, “He sends out his command to earth, his word runs swiftly: He gives snow like wool, he scatters frost like ashes” (Psalm 147:15-16). God is the power behind the snow, the ice, the sleet, the hail, the frost. God is the Creator of the world, and he's all-powerful – there's nothing he cannot do. And ultimately, although he works ordinarily through intermediate causes, God is the One empowering the giving of snow or the scattering of frost. It's a show of his power, a reminder that God is God and we are not. For all our pretense, for all our grasping at control, neither you nor I can stand in the path of a blizzard and deflect it. When the windows frost and the snow falls, we must marvel at a mighty God.

We also lack the authority to command the winter – to make it do our bidding. But God has just that authority. Like Elihu tells Job, “God thunders wondrously with his great voice, he does great things we can't comprehend: for to the snow he says, 'Fall on the earth!'... From its chamber comes the whirlwind, and cold from the scattering winds. By the breath of God, ice is given, and the broad waters are frozen fast” (Job 37:5-6, 9-10). God thunders, God speaks, and snow and cold and ice obey. He has authority, and when he speaks, these winter weather phenomena respond accordingly. They put us to shame! Because how often does God tell us to fall on the earth – to leave our chambers and go forth with mercy – and we stay clustered in our storehouses? How oft do we, unlike the ice, refuse to be given? And how oft do we, in the face of opposition or temptation, hear God calling us to freeze firm like the waters, and yet we're indifferent to the temperature of the situation? Wisdom: be attentive! For the Commander of Winter has every bit as much right to command you and me.

And when he at last flexes his might, he is irresistible. The psalmist asks, “Who can stand before his cold?” (Psalm 147:17b). I'll tell you, many windy winter days I'll step outside and sharply regret it, and then all I want to do is to take cover from the cold. I can't withstand it! It's at times like this that I'm glad I don't live in Oymyakon, the coldest village on earth, with a temperature usually around -40 and where on a colder day, your eyelashes might well freeze together. At its record low of -96, it was once below the average temperature of Mars there. Yet even in Oymyakon, who can dare boast before the LORD? Who anywhere needn't be humble?

So why does he send these things? Elihu tells us: “Whether for a rod or for his land or for mercy, he causes it to come” (Job 37:13). Sometimes, Elihu thinks, God provides harsh cold and winter weather as discipline. That, we can understand. Other times, Elihu suggests, God sends it “for his land,” because snow and ice had a beneficial role in enriching the land in preparing for another good growing season. And last, Elihu says, God might send his cold and his snow and his frost “for mercy.” And that may be hardest to imagine. But like the psalmist declares, God “gives snow like wool” (Psalm 147:16). He blankets the land in snow like a cozy fleece comforter, swaddling the earth in pristine beauty and serene comfort. Tomorrow's dawn may not look quite like that, but some snowfalls are truly beautiful (especially viewed from indoors). And that's God's mercy at work.

So winter weather can show us God's sovereignty and even God's love. But winter weather is also an action of the earth, and it's one way the earth praises God. “Praise the LORD from the earth, you... hail, snow, ice, tempest blast, those thing that do his word!” (Psalm 148:7-8 LXX). So the psalmist sings. When the earth gets cold and invites the snow, invites the ice, invites the wind, all these things are praising God! It's strange to think – but in their own unspoken way, each falling snowflake praises the Designer of its crystalline intricacy. Every chilling wind is singing its pointed hymn. It may not be a language pleasant to us, but God will be praised in every tongue – even these. Theirs can, at times, be a violent praise, like David dancing before the ark, coolly careless and thrashing before his Maker. So might winter weather thrash before the same Maker. Sometimes praise can be cold and austere, harsh and forceful. So in nature's praise, and so in our lives as well. God calls for our forceful, harsh, even chilly praise in the bleakness of our emotional midwinter, when darkness and frost are our only companions. And God accepts our harsh, chilly praise no less than our soothing, sunny praises in the springtimes of life. When the snow falls and the wind blows, watch the earth praising God – and join in.

What's more, winter weather reminds us that our family is large. Bear with me now. The LORD asked Job, “From whose womb did the ice come forth? And who has given birth to the frost of heaven?” (Job 38:29). Part of the great mystery of the Book of Job is an intense meditation on what it means to be a child of God, and when God at last speaks from the storm, he teaches Job that creation's marvels are the mysteries of his divine parenthood – that he looks on many creations as his offspring. It was God's womb that cradled the ice. It was God who gave birth to the frost of heaven. God isn't bashful to speak so. So in some mysterious way, when we realize ourselves as God's offspring even just by creation (to say nothing of becoming his heirs by adoption, as we have in Christ), we come to know ourselves as a big family – a family bigger than the human race. And the powers of snow and ice and frost are brother and sister to us. Winter weather is our family reunion! And, yes, family reunions can sometimes highlight tensions in a family – awkwardness, discomfort, unpleasantness – but that makes them no less worthwhile; and the same is true when Brother Frost and Sister Snow come to town to visit. They're perhaps a tad eccentric, with manners that can be grating, but offspring of our Father all the same.

Finally, winter weather is a pointer to our salvation. We'll think more on this the next two Sundays, but for now, hear the psalmist: “He hurls down his crystals of ice like crumbs” (Psalm 147:17a). And hear Moses: “When the dew had gone up, there was on the face of the desert a fine and flake-like thing, fine as frost on the ground” (Exodus 16:14). And in the next verse, the Israelites name that frosty treat 'manna.' The bread of angels (Psalm 78:25)! For forty years in the desert, that was the diet of God's people, from God's storehouse of frost. And so each time since then when God sends down frost upon the earth, he's inviting us to imagine how the desert must have looked when God fed and cared for his people with heavenly bread those thousands of years ago.

And that leads us to think of when the Living Bread came down from heaven – Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. “He sends out his command to the earth: his Word runs swiftly” (Psalm 147:15) – that's Jesus! “He sends out his Word and melts them; he makes his Spirit blow, and waters flow” (Psalm 147:18). Now, if your lawn is anything like mine, you can see more of it this morning than you could a week ago, because the layer of snow is melting away. God has spoken onto his creation, sending forth a word that commands the snow to submit to the heat of the sun. God does not let ice hold sway forever – even in Oymyakon.

But so too, God has spoken his personal Word into creation as Jesus Christ. He descended from heaven like hail, taking on warm human flesh in the womb of Mary. And the Word brings the Spirit, and when the Spirit blows, the baptismal waters flow, and new birth is made possible. And to those who've received the new birth, the Word named Jesus gives his divinized flesh as manna, as bread from heaven, on the altar. The Word of God has become for us an edible frost that cools the passions of sin and chills the flames of hell. So let us gather in praise and thanksgiving before the sovereign Commander of Winter, who speaks in judgment and mercy, and let us feast on heaven's frost, Christ the Living Bread, the Word who freezes and melts at his pleasure in us. Amen.