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06 May 2015

"The King of Love" (Rogate / Easter 6)

Psalm 95

As I have just recently written on Psalm 98, assigned for May 10 in the RCL (see my post dated 4/29/15), this post is on Psalm 95, assigned for this Sunday in the six year German lectionary; in the RCL, part of this psalm is assigned to Lent 3A.

Once upon a time the Buddha was born in the forests near Benares, in northern India, as a Banyan Deer, an unusual and beautiful deer.

Although he was as big as a young colt, it was easy for his mother to give birth to him. When he opened his eyes, they were as bright as sparkling jewels. His mouth was as red as the reddest forest berries. His hoofs were as black as polished coal. His little horns glistened like silver. And his color was golden, like a perfect summer's dawn. As he grew up, a herd of 500 deer gathered around him, and he became known as King Banyan Deer.

Meanwhile, not far away, another beautiful buck deer was born, just as splendidly golden in color.  In time, a separate herd of 500 deer came to follow him, and he was known as Branch Deer.

The King of Benares, at that time, was very fond of eating venison. So he regularly hunted and killed deer. Each time he hunted, he went to a different village and ordered the people to serve him. They had to stop what they were doing, whether plowing or harvesting or whatever, and work in the king's hunting party.

The people's lives were upset by these interruptions. They grew fewer crops, and other businesses also had less income. So they came together and decided to build a large deer park for the king, at Benares. There he could hunt by himself, with no need to command the services of the villagers.

So the people built a deer park. They made ponds where the deer could drink, and added trees and grasses for them to eat from. When it was ready, they opened the gate and went out into the nearby forests. They surrounded the entire herds of Banyan and Branch deer. Then, with sticks and weapons and noise makers, they drove them all into the deer park trap, and locked the gate behind them.

After the deer had settled down, the people went to the king and said, "Our crops and income have suffered because of your hunting requirements. Now we have made you a pleasant safe deer park, where you can hunt by yourself as you like. With no need of our aid, you can enjoy both the hunting and the eating of deer."

The king went to the new deer park. There he was pleased to see the vast herds. While watching them, his eye was caught by the two magnificent golden deer, with large fully grown antlers. Because he admired their unusual beauty, the king granted immunity to these two alone. He ordered that they should be completely safe. No one could harm or kill them.

Once a day the king would come and kill a deer for his dinner table. Sometimes, when he was too busy, the royal cook would do this. The body would then be brought to the chopping block to be butchered for the oven.

Whenever the deer saw the bow and arrows, they went into a panic, trembling for their lives. They ran around wildly, some being injured and some wounded, many suffering great pain.

One day, King Banyan Deer's herd gathered around him. He called Branch Deer, and the two herds joined for a meeting. King Banyan Deer addressed them. "Although in the end, there is no escape from death, this needless suffering due to injuries and wounds can be prevented. Since the king only wishes the meat of one deer per day, let one be chosen by us each day to submit himself to the chopping block. One day from my herd, and the next day from Branch Deer's herd, the victim's lot will fall to one deer at a time."

Branch Deer agreed. From then on, the one whose turn it was, meekly surrendered himself and laid his neck on the block. The cook came each day, simply killed the waiting victim, and prepared the king's venison.

One day, the turn fell by chance to a pregnant doe in Branch Deer's herd. Caring for the others as well as herself and the unborn one, she went to Branch Deer and said, "My lord, I am pregnant. Grant that I may live until I have delivered my fawn. Then we will fill two turns rather than just one. This will save a turn, and thereby a single life for one long day."

Branch Deer replied, "No, no, I cannot change the rules in midstream and put your turn upon another. The pregnancy is yours, the babe is your responsibility. Now leave me."

Having failed with Branch Deer, the poor mother doe went to King Banyan Deer and explained her plight. He replied gently, "Go in peace. I will change the rules in midstream and put your turn upon another."

And the deer king went to the executioner's block, and laid down his own golden neck upon it. A silence fell in the deer park. And some who tell this story even say that silence also fell in other worlds not seen from here.

Soon the royal cook came to kill the willing victim on the block. But when he saw it was one of the two golden deer the king had ordered spared, he was afraid to kill him. So he went and told the King of Benares.

The king was surprised, so he went to the park. He said to the golden deer, still lying on the block, "Oh king of deer, did I not promise to spare your life? What is the reason you come here like the others?"

King Banyan Deer replied, "Oh king of men, this time a pregnant doe was unlucky enough to be the one to die. She pleaded for me to spare her, for the sake of others as well as her unborn baby and herself. I could not help but feel myself in her place, and feel her suffering. I could not help but weep, to think the little one would never see the dawn, would never taste the dew. And yet, I could not force the pain of death on another. What ruler can be free as long as his subjects suffer? So, mighty king, I offer my life for the sake of the doe and her unborn fawn."

The King of Benares was touched. Powerful as he was, a tear rolled down his cheek. Then he said, "Oh great lord, the golden king of deer, even among human beings, I have not seen any such as you! Such great compassion, to share in the suffering of others! Such great generosity, to give your life for others! Such great kindness and tender love for all your fellow deer! Arise."

"I decree that you will never be killed by me or anyone else in my kingdom. And, so too, the doe and her babe."

Without yet raising his head, the golden one said, "Are only we to be saved? What of the other deer in the park, our friends and kin?" The king said, "My lord, I cannot refuse you, I grant safety and freedom to all the deer in the park." 

"And what of the deer outside the park, will they be killed?" asked Banyan. "No my lord, I spare all the deer in my whole kingdom."

Still the golden deer did not raise up his head. He pleaded, "So the deer will be safe, but what will the other four-footed animals do?" "My lord, from now on they too are safe in my land." "And what of the birds? They too want to live." "Yes, my lord, the birds too will be safe from death at the hands of men." 

"And what of the fish, who live in the water?" "Even the fish will be free to live, my lord." So saying, the King of Benares granted immunity from hunting and killing to all the animals in his land.

Three kings are included in this story: a human king, Banyan Deer King, and Branch Deer King. The human king is characterized by great power and the imperious ways in which kingstend to operate; he is convinced that everything in his kingdom is at his disposal, period.

Not so the two deer kings; their character is revealed by the love and care they have for their subjects, and the length to which they will go to demonstrate that love and care.

By offering himself to save the life of the pregnant doe, the Banyan Deer teaches a lesson to other rulers by saying, "What ruler can be free as long as his subjects suffer?" He claimed it was his right and duty to take her place. Because of the powerful love and courage of the Banyan Deer, the human king frees all beings in his realm from the threat of being trapped, hunted or killed. 

This example of selflessness should give everyone of today’s rulers pause. 

First Summons and Praise (VV 1-5).
1 Come! Let’s sing for joy to the Lord! / Let’s shout out praises to our protector who delivers us! 2 Let’s enter his presence with thanksgiving! / Let’s shout out to him in celebration! 3 For the Lord is a great God, / a great king who is superior to all gods. 4 The depths of the earth are in his hand, / and the mountain peaks belong to him. 5 The sea is his, for he made it. / His hands formed the dry land. 

Second Summons and Praise (VV 6-7a).
6 Come! Let’s bow down and worship! / Let’s kneel before the Lord, our Creator! 7a For he is our God; / we are the people of his pasture, /the sheep he owns. 

Warning Exhortation (VV 7b-11).
7b Today, if only you would obey him! 8 He says, “Do not be stubborn like they were at Meribah, / like they were that day at Massah in the wilderness, 9 where your ancestors challenged my authority, / and tried my patience, even though they had seen my work. 10 For forty years I was continually disgusted with that generation, / and I said, ‘These people desire to go astray; / they do not obey my commands.’ 11 So I made a vow in my anger, / ‘They will never enter into the resting place I had set aside for them.’” (NET)

Psalm 95 is like an old friend to me, or at least part of it. "In his hands are the caverns of the earth; the heights of the hills are also his. The sea is his, for he made it; and his hands have molded the dry land."

The first part of the Lutheran Book of Worship liturgy I ever learned was that hymnal's version of Matins.

As the two Lutherans in our CPE group, my friend Winfried Hess and I made it a habit to use the Morning Prayer before breakfast most every morning.  

Like Psalm 98 (see last week's post), this psalm is one of the enthronement psalms; unlike Psalm 98, however, it is explicit about God's kingship.

V. 3
כִּ֤י אֵ֣ל גָּד֣וֹל יְהוָ֑ה
kî ’êl gā·dō·wl Yah·weh;
For the Lord is a great God,

וּמֶ֥לֶךְ גָּ֝ד֗וֹל עַל כָּל אֱלֹהִֽים׃
ū·me·leḵ gā·dō·wl ‘al- kāl-’ĕ·lō·hîm.
a great king superior to all gods.

To those puzzled about God being "above all gods", James Luther Mays has this to say,

"[T]his way of speaking about a god belonged to the polytheistic culture in which Israel existed, and it was adopted as one way for faith to reason in that culture ... In the pantheons of the ancient Near East, one god was believed to be supreme and to rule over others. His superiority and kingship were based on his action as creator ... Verses 4 and 5 are total and inclusive statements about the Lord’s relation to the world. As maker of sea and dry land, the Lord owns it all and it is still in his power from deepest depths to highest peaks. There is no sphere of the cosmos left for any independent divine powers."

Just in case someone objects saying such thinking about God's sovereign reign is anachronistic, Mays adds, "We human beings are incurably polytheistic. So the psalm’s theology is a theology that has to be reckoned with in a religiously pluralistic world."

The First Commandment comes to mind, along with Martin Luther's admonition,

"[U]pon which you set your heart and put your trust is properly your god."

V. 7 reminds us that God "is our God” and “our maker”, and that he is our king in being our leader, provider, and protector.

In stating that the People of God owe their king “to heed his voice”, the Psalmist makes the transition to the third part of the Psalm, an exhortation by God.

"Do not be stubborn like they were at Meribah, like they were that day at Massah in the wilderness,  where your ancestors challenged my authority ..."

Dire as these warnings may sound, they are meant as instruction, and aim at keeping God's People together and focused.  Hebrews 3:7–4:13 uses Psalm 95 to remind the early church not “to fall away from the living God,” so that they may complete their wandering in the wilderness of this world by entering into the rest of God.

"The King of Love My Shepherd Is" sings one of my favorite hymns, and that is the perfect summary for what sort of king our God is: a king who would give his life because his love is so deep, who would not stop until all are safe, who wouldn’t be at peace until even the last one is in safety -- that is God, Our King.

Back when I was about 11 years old, our family kept getting little surprises in form of two little arms that would hug us from behind. They belonged to my baby sister Ute. When it happened to me for the first time, I asked gruffly what this was for, and she said with that itty-bitty voice, “Ich hab dich lieb” – “I love you so”.

I love you so! God’s surprising gift of love is what God's Reign is all about. Where there is love, there is joy, and where there is true joy, complaints, growls and accusations cannot flourish – and devils run off in great confusion.

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