Psalm 109:21–31; 1 Samuel 15:24–16:13; John 3:1–15

Psalm 109:21–31: After dire accusations and a plea to God to destroy his enemies, our psalmist turns back to his own situation as he asks God to “act on my behalf for the sake of Your name,/ for Your kindness is good. O save me!” (21) He reiterates his helpless state—”For poor and needy am I” (22a)—and indicates he is near death with two striking similes: “Like a lengthening shadow I go off,/ I am shaken away like the locust.” (23) A lengthening shadow as the evening of life approaches is a wonderful metaphor for those of us who know we have fewer years left than we’ve already expended.

His former colleagues—perhaps even his subordinates—now see him as an object of scorn and false pity: “As for me, I become a reproach to them./ They see me, they shake their heads.” (25) Again, he begs God, “Help me, O Lord, my God./ Rescue me as befits Your kindness.” (26)

But this is not to be a rescue in secret, rather he wishes for his exoneration through God’s kindness to be on full public display: “That they may know that Your hand/ it is, it is You, O Lord, Who did it.” (27) In other words, his rescue becomes a form of public witness. His enemies’ plans will have been foiled by God’s mercy and they will be left empty-handed: “Let the curse, and You, You will bless./ They will rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice.” (28)

For our psalmist, it’s a binary world. You’re with God or you’re not. And the final judgment for abandoning god is disgrace. He is confident that God will act and his “accusers [will] don disgrace,/ and let them wrap round like a robe their shame.” (29) Another great metaphor, being enveloped in shame that is like a wrap-around robe.

Like all psalms of supplication, no matter how despairing, this psalm ends on a note of confidence that God will act. And in the exact opposite of shame, our psalmist concludes on a note of worship: “I highly acclaim the Lord with my mouth,/ and in the midst of many I praise him.” (30)

1 Samuel 15:24–16:13: Saul realizes his grievous sin and begs Samuel that he be forgiven: “I pray, pardon my sin, and return with me, so that I may worship the Lord.” (15:25). But Samuel refuses. An in a scene full of pathos, the broken king “caught hold of the hem of [Samuel’s] robe, and it tore.” (27) Samuel replies, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” (28) Eventually Samuel relents and “Saul worshipped the Lord.” (31) Then in a highly disturbing scene, the defeated Amalekite king, Agag, is brought before Samuel, who tells him, “As your sword has made women childless,/ so your mother shall be childless among women.” (33a) and the old man promptly “hewed Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.” (33b) This is another example of the Old testament God that disturbs our modern sensibilities, but it’s important to note that it is God acting through Samuel who wreaks vengeance, not Saul.

Samuel and Saul depart, “but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (35) Once again we encounter this aspect of God as regretting his decisions. Hardly the omnipotent God we think we worship. This is one of those places where we cannot conveniently place God in a box of our devising.

God gets over his regret about Saul before Samuel does and chastises the old man,“How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel.”  (16:1a) and God announces he’s “provided for myself a king among [Jesse’s] sons.” (1b) Samuel comes to Bethlehem and doubtless aware of Samuel’s act against the Amalekite king, “the elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” (4) Samuel assures them he has and that he’s come to anoint a new king.

Jesse parades his sons before Samuel, who sees Eliab and thinks, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” (6) But God wisely interjects and tells Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him…[mortals] look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (7)

This famous statement finds its echo in Jesus when he says essentially the same thing in front of the Pharisees, who surely knew this passage. And it’s a lesson to us today when we tend to view the attractiveness of politicians as a qualification of leadership. [Although that’s certainly not an issue in the present election season… This same judging by appearance also manifests itself in business where most CEO are taller than their peers.]

Seven of Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel and are rejected. Samuel famously asks if Jesse has another son, and is told, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” (11) Jesse has David come before Samuel and God tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” (12). And “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.” (13) As we know, God got it right on the second try.

John 3:1–15: This famous nighttime visit by Nicodemus, “a leader of the Jews,” is recorded nowhere else. And it’s a clear demonstration of the high philosophical and theological plane on which this gospel is written. Nicodemus acknowledges that Jesus is connected closely to God because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (2) Jesus enigmatically replies, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (3)

Nicodemus logically asks his famous question about how could a man reenter his mother’s womb. Jesus says that he is speaking of the Spirit, and that “no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” (5) In other words, Jesus asserts, to be connected to God, one must be born in the Holy Spirit. Here is one of those points in John where we see the Trinity in full flower: The Spirit is essential to knowing God. And as we will see in a few verses ahead, so is Jesus.

Nicodemus is more puzzled than ever and Jesus doesn’t make him feel any better when he says, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?” (10) He goes on to reference the Son of Man described in Isaiah coming from heaven. And then in one of the most daring theological leaps of all, announces that the Son of Man will be lifted up “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness.” (14)

Of course since we’re on the other side of the story, we know what “lifted up” means: the crucifixion. But poor Nicodemus must have been more confused than ever.

We come to the very threshold of the most famous and theologically rich verse in the New Testament as Jesus asserts that “whoever believes in [the Son of Man] may have eternal life.” (15)

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