Psalm 116:1-7; 1 Samuel 25:18-44; John 5:31-47

Psalm 116:1-7: This beautiful gentle psalm is a straightforward song of thanksgiving. We know immediately the heart of the poet: “I love the LORD, for He has heard / my voice, my supplications.” (1) Can there be a greater sense of gratitude than to have the assurance that God has indeed heard our prayer?

The psalmist’s thankfulness arises because God has brought him out of a dark place that threatened death, “The cords of death encircled me /—and the straits of Sheol found me— / distress and sorrow did I find.” (3) This is not mere poetic hyperbole, but we sense true desperate straights–an event that actually happened to the poet.

Perhaps what is most remarkable here is the simplicity of the prayer itself, whcih the poet records word-for-word: “And in the name of the LORD I called.  ‘LORD, pray, save my life.'” (4) Five simple words: no elaboration, no thanksgiving before supplication, no rolling phrases about God’s power and majesty; just five desperate words. The lesson here is clear: there is no situation so perilous that we cannot simply shout out. God does not require a lengthy preamble. He gets our situation without us having to explain it to him.

There is also enormous humility here: “The LORD protects the simple. / I plunged down, but me He did rescue.” (6) No matter what our personal status is; we are protected just as much as the most famous leader. One can imagine the poet writing this as a personal note of thanks. Like Psalm 23, there is a one-to-one connection to God here that reminds us just how close God can be when we are in trouble.

1 Samuel 25:1-44: Nabal, “surly and mean,” has insulted David by refusing to give him and his men any food, even though he is wealthy and has plenty to give. David, not exactly the self-effacing shepherd boy, but fierce warrior tells his men ““Every man strap on his sword!” (12) and plans to seek revenge for this unforgivable act of failure to provide hospitality. A “young man” comes and warns Nabal’s wife, Abigail, who loads donkeys with plenty of sustenance for David and his men. She manages to find David, bows down before him and says, ““Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt.” (24) and a few verses later, “Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house” (28). In short, Abigail is willing to take the sins of her husband on to herself.

It is not a stretch of imagination to see in Abigail and her willingness to pay with her life for the sis of another the same act of Jesus, who takes on our sins.

David relents, telling her “ Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt” (30). Abigail returns to a very drunken Nabal and waits until the next day to tell him what she did. The author doesn’t tell us what she said to her husband, but he immediately has a heart attack –“his heart died within him; he became like a stone” (37)–and dies. David is pretty happy about this, woos Abigail, and takes her as one of his wives.

Once again, we have a woman hero in the Bible: one who is willing to put her life on the line–and here for an obvious injustice because she is completely innocent. She is certainly an excellent example of the person who would willingly give up her life for another–even one like Nabal who so obviously deserved his fate.

John 5:31-47: Our gospel writer cannot resist any opportunity to underscore the point that Jesus is God’s Word. When John the Baptist’s ‘messengers’ ask exactly who Jesus claims to be, he replies with a theological treatise, “The works that the Father has given me to complete, the very works that I am doing, testify on my behalf that the Father has sent me.” (36). In other words, Jesus’ works are the evidence that he is God’s (whom no one has seen, Jesus is quick to point out) Word. And as Jesus makes clear, “you do not have his word abiding in you, because you do not believe him whom he has sent.” (38) God does not dwell in the hearts of those who refuse to believe Jesus and his testimony. Case closed.

But John’s Jesus never misses an opportunity to elaborate and tells them they are looking in the wrong place: “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf.” (39). This is a remarkable statement because up to that point, Jews had no other source of knowing God–and here Jesus is standing in front of them and they don’t believe him; they’d rather stick with John the Baptist.

It’s easy to judge those messengers since they had Jesus standing in front of them and we don’t. Yet, many Christians are doing exactly the same thing as they when they become so obsessed with the Bible, trying to convince others that it’s the inerrant word of God; that it’s the Christian’s “handbook,” that they often miss the Matthew 25 Jesus who is standing right in front of them.

Of course this is also the passage that reminds us that the OT points directly to Jesus, “ If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” (46). I can hear the sharp intake of breath on the part of the Baptist’s followers at that one.

 

Psalm 115:1-8; 1 Samuel 23; John 5:1-15

Psalm 115:1-8: The psalmist knows that it is God who gave the victory, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us /but to Your name give glory/ for Your kindness and Your steadfast truth.” (1)

Then, the psalm draws a neat contrast between Israel and the surrounding nations it has just conquered. The conquered nations wonder “where is their God?,” who unlike their physical idols does not seem to be anywhere. The psalmist, along with the rest of Israel knows, “our God is in the heavens— all that He desired He has done.” (3) In other Israel’s God acts from afar and remains invisible.

This psalm reveals just how different God is from all those small-g gods: “Their idols are silver and gold, the handiwork of man,” (4) and as a result are powerless because they lack all the senses and are implicitly dead. They may have mouths, but cannot speak; “eyes” but cannot  see; ears, but cannot hear; feet but cannot walk.

Such are the idols, the little gods that are the handiwork of man, while men–men who can conquer nations–are the handiwork of Israel’s God. A revolutionary concept then, and now as society abandons God to create its own inanimate small-g gods that in the end are completely powerless. These gods have fancier names or seem invisible such as “new age” spirituality that insists that “god is within us.” But as our own self-centered creations they are just as powerless–and just as dead.

1 Samuel 23: This chapter underscores again and again how close David was to God. He asks if he should go to war: “David inquired of the Lord, “Shall I go and attack these Philistines?” (2) God tells him ‘yes,’ but his men are afraid, so David asks God if he will have a victory and again, God answers, ““Yes, go down to Keilah; for I will give the Philistines into your hand.” (4) and the victory is theirs.  Then as Saul pursues David, he comes to God again, “And now, will Saul come down as your servant has heard? O Lord, the God of Israel, I beseech you, tell your servant.” (11) And again God answers, and he escapes to the hill country where “Saul sought him every day, but the Lord did not give him into his hand.” (14)

The authors are clear: David is connected to God, unafraid to ask direct questions and Daivd is protected by God. Saul says things like “God has given him into my hand;” (7) but Saul has never spoken to God. We can say “God has done this” or “God has done that,” but if like Saul we actually never ask God directly then we are blinded and confused by our own religiosity.

David and Jonathan are reunited and Saul’s son says, “Saul shall not find you; you shall be king over Israel, and I shall be second to you; my father Saul also knows that this is so.” (17) Now we know for sure: Saul “knows this is so” and is so consumed by the jealous rage that David will overthrow him that he knows he must kill David first.

Saul is the archetype of the leader who does not follow God but follows his own fears, consumed by jealousy of someone obviously greater than oneself. These people are so self-centered, so unaware of God that they would rather bring down the kingdom than to accede power. Unfortunately, the history of Israel and all the history ever since tells us that Sauls are always around.

John 5:1-15: Jesus heals the lame man at the Pool of Bethsaida. But again, John has a different take on these miracles than his synoptic peers. Jesus does not just run up to the man, touch him and say, “You’re healed.” Instead he asks the crucial question: “Do you want to be made well?” (4) The man replies affirmatively, and offers proof of that by telling Jesus he can never get to the pool fast enough. Satisfied, Jesus then tells him to get up and walk.

There is something crucial happening here: we must first answer Jesus question whether or not we may wish to be healed. This may seem obvious, yet there are many people today that really do not wish to be healed, but would rather play the victim. Like the man at the pool we must first answer the question. Do we really want to be rescued and transformed from lame to ambulatory by Jesus’ power? And many will say ‘no.’

The Pharisees are unhappy about Jesus doing the work of healing on the Sabbath. Rather than a debate, though, John uses the device of the healed man carrying his mat to raise their ire. As far as the healed man is concerned, being healed trumps obeying the law of the Sabbath. John, in his usual indirect way, is telling us that Jesus trumps the established rules, just as Jesus’ work in Samaria trumped the preconception of Jews being exclusively invited to the party. The revolution is happening right in front of everyone as the edifice of the Old Covenant is being dismantled and replaced one individual at a time by the New. But it’s happening so subtly that it will not be obvious what Jesus has done until the end of the story in the garden. Such is the brilliance of this gospel.

Psalm 114; 1 Samuel 21:10-22:23; John 4:43-54

Psalm 114: In most psalms, God’s creation is described with majestic grandeur, but in this remembrance of Israel’s story, creation becomes the main player in the drama:

The sea saw and fled,
Jordan turned back.
The mountains danced like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock. (3,4)

The first verse is of course the parting of the sea as Israel fled out of Egypt; the second forty years later as Israel enters Canaan.  The simile of dancing lambs and rams, which at first seems almost humorous, would be a familiar sight just about anywhere in Israel.  And it brings to mind  the presence of sheep on the night of Jesus’ birth where a different celebration took place.

Then in a literary device that I cannot recall seeing anywhere else in the psalms, the psalmist asks a rhetorical question of these same supposedly inanimate, or in the case of the sheep and rams, dumb animals, stated as if they are doing something wrong, which of course they are not because the joy of the earth is so great at what God has done for Israel.

What is wrong with you, sea, that you flee,
Jordan, that you turn back,
mountains, that you dance like rams,
hills like lambs of the flock? (5,6)

Is this just a poetic device or is something deeper going on here?

I think this is a brilliantly fresh way to remind us the power of God and especially of God’s joy expressed in a way we humans could never duplicate as the psalmist reveals it is God who “turns the rock to a pond of water, / flint to a spring of water.” (8) So great is God’s joy with Israel that the normal order of the world–what we expect the world to be like and how we expect it to behave–is turned inside out and upside down. I wonder if this psalm has been set to music?

1 Samuel 21:10-22:23: David is on the run from Saul and escapes to Gath where he plays the madman to escape being killed by the king of Gath. He then flees to the cave of Adullam, where word gets out he is there and all the others, his family and others who were afraid of Saul gather, “Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them.” (20:2). David certainly retains his charismatic power. He now has a small army of 400 people.

In the meantime Doeg the Edomite, head of Saul’s servants, reveals to to Saul that David received Goliath’s sword and Saul orders the priests of Nob to come before him. Saul is now completely paranoid, accusing the priests, ““Why have you conspired against me, you and the son of Jesse, by giving him bread and a sword, and by inquiring of God for him, so that he has risen against me, to lie in wait, as he is doing today?” (20:13) Saul orders his guards to kill the priests. They refuse and Doeg the Edomite does it instead–all 85 priests are killed, together with the entire town of Nob.

This event seems a clear warning to the readers of this history. It is an alien, Doeg, who has infiltrated Saul’s court and killed the priests of God. This is the price of being corrupted by people and beliefs that are alien to what God has commanded for Israel. The people are paying a high price for preferring a king over God’s original plan with the judges.

The scene shifts to David, who says, “I am responsible for the lives of all your father’s house. Stay with me, and do not be afraid; for the one who seeks my life seeks your life; you will be safe with me.” (20:22,23) He is already behaving like the king he will soon become. But the author’s point is clear: David is a man of God and as leader he willingly takes on a leader’s responsibility.

John 4:43-54: Jesus returns to his home turf in Galilee and is immediately confronted by a royal official, who obviously carries some weight, and wishes Jesus to come to his house to heal his son. Jesus refuses, but simply says, “Go; your son will live.” John then tells us “The man believed the word that Jesus spoke to him and started on his way.” (50) and he finds that his son is indeed healed. And, “So he himself believed, along with his whole household.” (52)

The lesson here is not the miracle itself–and there’s even some ambiguity that this was even a healing miracle, although the father certainly saw it that way. Perhaps the boy was already on the road to recovery. But as John notes, this is a “sign” (Jesus’ second “sign” after the wine incident at Cana).  He is careful not to call it a miracle. John always has a didactic point with each of Jesus’ “signs” that he describes. Here, the issue is belief in the Word. The man believed Jesus by speaking those words would heal his son. That is all it took.

It’s also worth noting that it was Jesus’ words, “your son will live” that were what was efficacious here, not his touch as we see in the synoptics. This is important to the Gospel writer who has introduced Jesus to us as the Word.

This is enormously encouraging for all of us, including John’s listeners, who did not have the advantage of Jesus’ physical presence. Clearly Jesus’ power is not constrained to physical touch; it transcends time and space. What is required of us is honest belief. That, together with Jesus as Word, is sufficient.

Psalm 113; 1 Samuel 20:18-21:9; John 4:39-42

Psalm 113: This praise psalm celebrates God’s omnipresence across all time and all space: “May the LORD’s name be blessed / now and forevermore./ From the place the sun rises to where it sets,” (2,3) That God occupies all creation is emphasized in the verticality of heaven being above earth (which is where we get that sense of heaven being “up there.”): “Who is like the LORD our God, / Who sits high above, / Who sees down below in the heavens and on the earth?” In fact the sense here is that God is even above heaven as he peers down through it to earth.

Height, of course, connotes great power. That’s why kings sit on thrones on a dais (and preachers used to preach from pulpits up in the air). By contrast it is the poor and lowly who are the lowest of the low, but God “raises the poor from the dust, from the dungheap lifts the needy,”  And God doesn’t simply raise up the poor and needy but they are to be “seated among princes.” We should reflect on this verse when a homeless person enters a church and sits in the back.

Once again, we have the focus on God’s care for those who are on the lowest rungs of society; indeed, even in the “dungheap” or the garbage dumps, where even today in some countries, children are living. God never forgets those most in need–and the message to us is obvious.

1 Samuel 20:18-21:9: David and Jonathan are uncertain as to whether or not Saul wants to kill David, so they devise an elaborate plan so signal David when Jonathan determines his father’s intentions. David is missed at the meal; Jonathan makes an excuse for David’s absence and Saul curses his own son, heir to his throne, ““You son of a perverse, rebellious woman! Do I not know that you have chosen the son of Jesse to your own shame,” (20:30) and vows to kill David. Jonathan then has the courageous temerity to ask his father, ““Why should he be put to death? What has he done?” (20:32). Saul, more angry than ever, throws his spear at Jonathan, barely missing him.

Jonathan arranges for the signal that indicates David must flee. Risking everything, David and Jonathan meet one last time, knowing they will never see each other again, “and they kissed each other, and wept with each other; David wept the more.” (20:41) Here we encounter one of the deepest, most poignant scenes in the OT. Those final four words tell us that David loved Jonathan as deeply as his friend loved him. And now they Would any of us be willing to risk the curse of our father for the love of a friend?

David is now on the run, alone and hungry. He encounters the priest Ahimelech, who wonders why he is alone. David gives an excuse and asks for bread. The only bread available is the Bread of the Presence, holy and available only to young men who have not been with women. But David says, “the vessels of the young men are holy even when it is a common journey; how much more today will their vessels be holy?” and the priest gives him the bread. Nothing happens. David is not struck dead for the sins of blasphemy or desecration. Here we have a sign that as Jesus puts it hundreds of years later, the Sabbath is for man, not the other way around.

In a happy coincidence, the priest happens to have Golaith’s sword, which he gives to David. I’m left with the feeling that the writers of 1st Samuel may have allowed themselves a bit of editorial license here, but at least David is now armed.

John 4:39-42: John reveals that because of this single encounter with the Samaritan woman and her passionate belief that he is the Messiah, Jesus stays for two days in Samaria and many come to believe, saying to the unnamed woman, “It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.” (42). (I’m sure that hanging out in Samaria for two days must have driven the Jewish disciples crazy.)

To John, Samaria represents the non-Jewish world, and he makes this obvious by recording what the Samaritans said, “this is truly the Savior of the world.” So, just four chapters into his gospel, John is not keeping us in any suspense, but is making it clear that Jesus is for everyone. Not just for Israel, but for everyone; not just Israel’s Messiah, but everyone’s Savior. John has transformed the Jewish Messiah into world’s Savior. The rest of the Gospel basically plays out this theme as John lays out the terms of the New Covenant that is for the world, not just for Israel.

Psalm 112; 1 Samuel 19:8-20:17; John 4:27-38

Psalm 112: The previous psalm (111) is basically a catalog of God’s marvelous qualities. This psalm is a catalog of the qualities belonging to the man who follows God.  (Alter points out that this psalm is an acrostic, with each of its 22 lines beginning with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet–in order.)

The first verse (following the opening ‘Hallelujah”) defines the most essential quality of the upright man: “Happy the man who fears the LORD. / His commands he keenly desires.” (2). True happiness comes from only one source: the fear of the Lord. Notice that happiness is not dispensed by God Himself, but it arises from within us because we stand before God in awesome reverence (which is how I take “fear” in this context). Too often, we look to God to dispense happiness, when in fact it is our response to , and reverence for, God that is essential before happiness can be found.

Moreover, we not only gladly accept God’s commands, but we desire them.

Once the essential relationship between God and man exists, the “upright man” enjoys many blessings, beginning with the respect of those around him “A great figure in the land his seed shall be, / the generation of the upright shall be blessed.” (2) And in this society, the greatest of all rewards–and the desire of every parent: a progeny that is a blessing to him.

But perhaps the greatest reward of fearing God is steadfast courage in adversity: “From evil rumor he shall not fear. /His heart is firm, he trusts in the LORD./ His heart is staunch, he shall not fear.” (7,8) When we face disparagement by others or a grim situation, we know that we are not alone because we fear God, who is our refuge and our strength. And because we desire his commands, we are wholly committed to follow God’s guidance.

1 Samuel 19:8-20:17: Once again, David defeats the Philistines and once again, “an evil spirit from the Lord came upon Saul,” (19:2) and he tries to spear David. David’s wife, Michal, helps David escape Sul with a ruse of putting an idol in David’s bed to look like he’s asleep. When Saul discovers David has escaped he sends his messengers to capture him, so he can kill him.

A strangely comical scene follows as Saul sends messengers, who fall into a “prophetic frenzy,” and prove ineffectual in finding David. so, Saul goes out himself and “He too stripped off his clothes, and he too fell into a frenzy before Samuel. He lay naked all that day and all that night.” (19:24) 

Is Saul truly that jealous of David’s success or is he simply mentally ill? There’s no question that Saul’s singular focus on capturing and killing David out of sheer envy for the greater man has unhinged him.  So much so, that David knows he must escape. In a poignant scene between David and Jonathan, the two friends come up with a plan to establish whether Saul’s obsession is temporary or if he truly plans to kill David. Jonathan is willing to give his own life to David, “ but if I die, never cut off your faithful love from my house, even if the Lord were to cut off every one of the enemies of David from the face of the earth.” (20:15) and then, “Jonathan made David swear again by his love for him; for he loved him as he loved his own life.” (20:17)

From our cultural perspective it would be easy to ascribe Jonathan’s love for David as intense homosexual feelings, but I’m not so sure. I think that the love Jonathan has for David is an example of how deeply one man can love another, but without sexual undertones.  From our perspective, the story of Jonathan is there, I think, as a precursor of the intense love that Jesus felt for his disciples–and that he has for each of us.

John 4:27-38: As Jesus finishes his conversation with the Samaritan woman, his disciples appear and are “astonished that he was speaking with a woman,” but as John points out, they do not ask Jesus why. Perhaps they are figuring out that this rabbi is given to completely new and surprising acts–or perhaps they were merely intimidated.

But the woman is unafraid to speak and returns to her village, unafraid to speak what some must have thought either heresy or lunacy, “Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?” Notice the double negative. Is the woman hedging her bets? Or is she simply so astounded at what has happened that she can’t believe herself what she has just experienced? I have to believe that any encounter with Jesus is so life-changing that it’s difficult to just blithely accept what has happened. It requires reflection and time to absorb its astounding truth.

John is constantly juxtaposing physical reality–the disciples are his mechanism for this–and spiritual truth. The disciples offer to get Jesus some food, but he replies he doesn’t need any. So they quite naturally assume someone else brought a snack to Jesus, but he replies, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work.”

Jesus continues the metaphor of sewing and harvesting, telling the disciples, “look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting.” (35). Unlike the synoptic gospels that more helpfully note when Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of God, John is more oblique. But he gives us clear notice here of what work in the Kingdom is about: “‘One sows and another reaps.’ I sent you to reap that for which you did not labor.” (37, 38) Our efforts will not necessarily result in direct reward, but our labor is nonetheless necessary. In short, working in the Kingdom is not about what we can get out of it, but what others will reap by virtue of our efforts.

 

 

Psalm 111; 1 Samuel 18:1-19:7; John 4:1-26

Psalm 111: Given that its first word is “Hallelujah” it’s pretty easy to see this is a psalm of praise. And it does not disappoint on that score. But there’s an intriguing point raised right in the second verse: “Great are the deeds of the LORD, / discovered by all who desire them.”

Yes, God’s deeds are by definition great, but  they must be “discovered.” In other words, it would be possible to drift through life without actually being aware of God’s greatness. And given the preoccupations of modern American society, its distractions, and its stress levels it’s fair to conclude that not many people have taken the time to “discover” God’s greatness. Certainly one of the simplest way to do that is to spend time in God’s good creation.  Or on stopping for a moment and reflecting on how God has blessed our lives. (This is something that’s easier to do once one has experienced a life-threatening illness or accident.)

But its not just a question of stopping to discover God’s great deeds. This verse asserts that we discover God’s greatness because we desire to do so. To me, this means making a conscious decision; awareness of God’s greatness does not come to us when we are in an unconscious state. We need to be alert and on the lookout–a theme that Jesus picks up in a couple of his parables about being on the lookout for the return of the master.

Finally, desire arises out of love; a willingness to set other distractions aside and focus on the object of desire. That comes quite naturally when we are in love with another person. And if we truly love God, our desire to discover His great deeds will come equally naturally.

1 Samuel 18:1-19:7: The relational triangle of Saul, Jonathan, and David is one of the most eloquent stories of love juxtaposed against envy-induced hate in the Bible. First, the love of Jonathan for David: “the soul of Jonathan was bound to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul.” (18:2) Jonathan basically gives over the role of prince to David and “David went out and was successful wherever Saul sent him;” (5) David’s military success pleases everyone, even Saul, Until Saul hears the women singing, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” (7)

Envy immediately consumes Saul and he tries to kill David by throwing a spear at him. He then resorts to subterfuge through marriage and the pretext of sending David against the Philistines, and “planned to make David fall by the hand of the Philistines.” (25)  But David continues to be successful, and Saul finally realizes “that the Lord was with David.” (26) But rather than rejoicing in this, Saul feels even more threatened by David: “Saul was still more afraid of David. So Saul was David’s enemy from that time forward.” (27) Only Jonathan’s direct intercession spares David for the time being.

What are the writers telling us here? That great power leads to megalomania, and when someone who is even greater comes along, the natural reaction is to preserve that power at all costs. The parallels of this story to the church authorities and Jesus is striking. Like David, Jesus is greater than they. Worse, he is more popular than they, and their reaction is not to cede power, but to have Jesus killed. But there was no Jonathan to interceded for Jesus.

There’s a parallel for us, too. Even though we know the Holy Spirit is greater than we, the power of our ego will always resist allowing Jesus to take over our lives.

John 4:1-26: There are so many layers in the incredibly rich story of the woman at the well. But for me its most remarkable aspect is what Jesus tells the woman when she says that he is a prophet. He observes that the Samaritans do not knowing what they worship and the Jews do. But then he carries this even farther, saying, “ But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.” In other words neither the mountain on which they’re standing nor Jerusalem will matter. Worship will finally be independent of location for we can worship “in spirit and in truth” regardless of our physical location. John is opening up an incredibly important fact here: worship is about spirit and truth, not about physical location.

The woman is now sure she is talking to the actual Messiah,“I know that Messiah is coming” (who is called Christ). “When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us.” (26) and Jesus confirms that even more directly than we read in any of the other gospels: “I am he, the one who is speaking to you.”

I think it’s signficiant that for John, Jesus’ most significant theological discourses occur in one- on-one settings, not in front of crowds: Nicodemus, the learned rabbi, at night and with a Samaritan woman, who is as sinful as one can by the world’s definition. John is making it crystal clear that the Messiah, the Word, has come both for the Jews and for the rest of the world.  The “one-on-oneness” of these encounters also tells us that Jesus comes to each one of us individually. There is no “mass marketing” when it comes to the gospel.

Psalm 110; 1 Samuel 17:32-58; John 3:27-36

Psalm 110: This David psalm appears to have been written by a court poet, recording that God has spoken to the king, “Sit at My right hand till I make your enemies / a stool for your feet.” (1) in preparation for battle. The verses are meant, I think, to encourage troops heading off to war as their king comes forward to exhort them, “Hold sway over your enemies. Your people rally to battle” (3).

The centerpiece of the psalm is the single line, “The LORD has sworn, He will not change heart.” (4). When we head off to battle, either figuratively or literally, the key to our courage is remembering that God is ever-faithful. He will not “change heart” and abandon us in the midst of our trials.

1 Samuel 17:32-58: In this most famous story, one of the first we encounter in Sunday School, we tend to think it’s David’s sling shot skills that save the day for Israel. But as the author makes clear, David’s ability, which he explains to Saul as having come from years of protecting sheep from bears and lions, rests on one very firm foundation. As he tells Saul, “The Lord, who saved me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, will save me from the hand of this Philistine.” (37).

And again, when David confronts Goliath himself, he endures the giant’s mocking replying, “You come to me with sword and spear and javelin; but I come to you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” (45) He then prophecies Goliath’s doom, reminding him, “the battle is the Lord’s and he will give you into our hand.” (47) And proceeds to slay Goliath

The lesson for us is obvious, but we too often forget it. David tells Saul and he tells Goliath that the “battle is the Lord’s.” David was willing to confront the wrath of Saul and the physical intimidation of Goliath with complete confidence because he had surrendered himself fully to God. David became God’s instrument of justice. The question is, are we willing to do the same? To totally give up our ego and our passion for control and turn it entirely over to God?

But notice, too, that more than mere surrender is involved here. David is prepared and able to slay Goliath and he is skilled at using the sling shot. This is no deus ex machina divine intervention. It occurs because David’s surrender to God has given him a serene courage and his years of practice have given him remarkable skill. The Christian life is no different. We surrender to God so that God can deploy our personalities and our skills. But they are still our skills, gifts, talents. When that convergence happens, great (dare we say “giant”?) things can be accomplished.

John 3:27-36: John’s gospel reveals much more of John the Baptist’s personality than the synoptics. Here, we learn that John has two great gifts of leadership. The first is that he is charismatic and inspirational, and in calling people to repent he has demonstrated both qualities. As a result he has become the greatest celebrity of his day.

But his second gift is perhaps even better. He is willing to yield the spotlight to someone greater than he, saying, “He who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice.” (29) John is willing to step aside and let Jesus minister without competition.

John’s magnanimous wisdom comes to mind when we reflect on modern day “celebrity pastors,” who become intoxicated by fame. Unwilling to yield the stage to Jesus, they come believe their own breathless press releases and ultimately become parodies of themselves–all to the detriment of carrying the Gospel message into the world at large. Like David, who surrendered to God but used his skill to God’s glory, we are to let Jesus speak and act through us, not to speak on his behalf.

Psalm 109:21-31; 1 Samuel 16:14-17:31; John 3:16-26

Psalm 109:21-31: This psalm of supplication continues as David asks God to “act on my behalf for the sake of Your name, / for Your kindness is good. O save me!” (22)  He has been praying to God for a long time, “My knees falter from fasting / and my flesh is stripped of fat.” Yet God remains silent to the point that he has become laughing stock to his enemies who laugh at the futility of the prayer: “I become a reproach to them. / They see me, they shake their heads.” (26)

Could I pray while others laugh at me? In today’s self-reliant culture, where everything is supposed to come from within us, many scoffers see that some people’s reliance on a supposed deity they cannot see is indeed laughable.

But David knows that the scoffers will become the object of God’s scorn and that will be a sweet moment indeed: “Let them curse, and You, You will bless. / They will rise and be shamed, and Your servant will rejoice.” (29). [“Bless” here is used in the sense that the enemies will be “blessed” with shame.] There is assurance that “my accusers [will] don disgrace, and [they will] wrap round like a robe their shame.” (30)

In the end, we pray to God for rescue with not only the assurance that we will be rescued, but that our enemies will get their just desserts–always remembering it is God who delivers that justice, not our own actions.

1 Samuel 16:14-17:31: King Saul is now mentally ill: “Now the spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” (16:14). David’s lute playing skill is well know and he is brought into court. So, “David took the lyre and played it with his hand, and Saul would be relieved and feel better, and the evil spirit would depart from him.” (16:23) There is nothing fanciful or romantic here: there’s good evidence that harp-playing calms desperately ill patients.

So, we meet David first as musician. But now there will be more. The Philistines have a new weapon: the giant Goliath, “whose height was six cubits and a span.” (4). Goliath boasts that in a mano a mano battle, “if he is able to fight with me and kill me, then we will be your servants; but if I prevail against him and kill him, then you shall be our servants and serve us.” (17:9) The musician David was never considered for the Goliath job, and when he shows up, his brother, Eliab, berates him for having abandoned his sheep: “I know your presumption and the evil of your heart; for you have come down just to see the battle.” (17:28) But David replies, “What have I done now? It was only a question.” (17:29)

David responds pretty much as any younger brother would, and it seems quite a natural answer to us. But in that culture, it is a mark of disrespect, and David answers the same way when others ask. This impertinent answer makes its way to Saul himself, who sends for David.

What are we to make of David’s answer? To me it is a sign of self confident strength, not of defensiveness. and it clearly establishes that there is something very unusual about David. That self confidence is as important as David’s slingshots skills.

John 3:16-26: Jesus famous dialog with Nicodemus of course centers 3:16 because Jesus is explaining the plan of the New Covenant to a man (and to all of us), who is the embodiment of the Old Covenant. What comes across in the verses that follow is not only God’s new plan of salvation, but the theme of light and dark of “with God” and “not with God” of chapter 1.

There is a clear boundary between good and evil; light and darkness. For Jesus, there is no middle ground: “For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed.” (20)

But what do we make of Jesus’ puzzling concluding remark with Nicodemus? “But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (21) I think it is Jesus’ final challenge to his interlocutor. In the end we are all faced with a choice: to stay in darkness or come to the light.

But what does “do what is true” mean in daily life? Just doing good works? Nicodemus was already doing those. Make a “decision for Christ?” Even though we don;t use that phrase very much in the Lutheran church, I think that’s what Jesus is getting at here. Even though Jesus has initially come to us in baptism, in the end, it’s our choice whether or not to follow Jesus into the light.

Psalm 109:1-7; 1 Samuel 14:41-15:23; John 2:12-25

Psalm 109:1-7: The first line of this David psalm of supplication tells us that God is silent: “God of my praise, do not be silent.” but that all around him those who conspire against him are voluble: “For the wicked’s mouth, the mouth of deceit, / has opened against me, / they spoke to me with lying tongue. /And words of hatred swarmed round me—” (1,2) Once again we are reminded that words are potent agents of evil. “Mouth of deceit,” “lying tongue,” “words of hatred.” These phrases characterize our time as well, especially in this age of social media where evil words have bullied some to suicide.

Language is God’s great gift, one that separates us from all other creatures. We can use them for good or for ill. Alas, we seem far more skilled on their negative power than on the good that words can help create.

The psalm then goes on to describe evil as transactional, almost the coin of the realm: “And they offer me evil in return for good / and hatred in return for my love:” (4). whence our saying in less poetic language, ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ This is the inverse of the Golden Rule: the psalmist is saying, ‘treat others with kindness and they return evil and hatred.’

These verses force us to accept that evil often seems to have the upper hand, and that even justice and prayer are ruined: “When he is judged, let him come out guilty, / and his prayer be an offense.” (6) Recent events such as the Hobby Lobby court case seem to prove how true this still is: many in this country may speak blithely of “religious freedom,” but their animus tending to hatred against religious practice lies only millimeters below the surface. We should not be surprised. We may think we are “more civilized and more caring” than this 2500-year old culture, but we deceive ourselves. Wickedness remains unaltered within the human heart.

1 Samuel 14:41-15:23: Saul, realizing his hasty and arbitrary vow to kill anyone who ate food before the battle has come back to haunt him, casts lots to determine if Israel as a nation or Saul and Jonathan are the ones to be punished. The lot is cast between father and son, and Jonathan is indicted. But before Saul can carry out the punishment, which it appears he was fully prepared to do, the people intervene, saying “Shall Jonathan die, who has accomplished this great victory in Israel? Far from it! As the Lord lives, not one hair of his head shall fall to the ground; for he has worked with God today.” (14:45) And Jonathan is saved by the collective wisdom of the people. Proof that those who are led can demand wise leadership when they see gross injustice.

The author does not say if the people felt regret that day at having chosen to be ruled by a king such as Saul, but I think we can safely say they were having second thoughts.

Saul continues to be the warrior-king, but “the word of the Lord came to Samuel:  “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands.” (15:11). So, is God admitting that He made a mistake? The next verse says, “Samuel was angry; and he cried out to the Lord all night.” Is Samuel angry at God or at himself? I think the old judge was angry at God. And perhaps at himself as well for having perhaps wrongly concluded that the tallest guy in the room was therefore qualified to be king.

In any event, God’s favor no longer looks on Saul. And Samuel can point to Saul’s latest military adventure against the Amalekites, telling Saul, “Why then did you not obey the voice of the Lord? Why did you swoop down on the spoil, and do what was evil in the sight of the Lord?” (15:19) Again, Saul has put his own interests above God, and perhaps worse, he has again shown poor judgement, preferring to take the spoils rather than obey God. Of course the question for us is, how often do we “swoop down” for the spoils rather than following God’s commands?

John 2:12-25: So why does John place Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple at Jerusalem as well as Jesus’ prophecy about himself,“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” (19) (which John makes clear that Jesus is talking about himself) so early in Jesus’ ministry when the Synoptics place the event at the end during the Passion week?  I think it’s because John is not interested in laying out a chronological story as much as he wants to make Jesus’ Lordship clear from the very beginning.  He has already told us quite clearly that Jesus is the Word that comes from God and is God. there is no need to build tension about revealing who Jesus is.

The Temple cleansing scene comes early, I think, because John wants to make it perfectly clear that Jesus stands in total opposition to the prevailing religious practices. Jesus is going about a project that is so radical, so new, so unexpected that everything that exists must be swept away.

We have done an awfully good job of domesticating Jesus into a “good teacher” and all around nice guy who goes around healing people. That’s not John’s Jesus. His Jesus is a revolutionary who upsets the establishment’s applecart at the very beginning. We would do well to reflect on the revolutionary Jesus.

 

Psalm 108:6-13; 1 Samuel 14:1-40; John 2:1-11

Psalm 108:6-13: The second half of this psalm is one of supplication, what Alter calls “national supplication,” since it refers to Israel’s needed rescue as a whole: “that Your beloved ones be saved, /rescue with Your right hand, answer me.” (6) As is often the case, the psalmist reminds God what he once did; how he reigned over all Israel, putting words into God’s mouth, “Mine is Gilead, Mine Manasseh, and Ephraim /My foremost stronghold, Judah My scepter.” (8)

To intensify the sense of how God once favored Israel over other nations, the poet speaks of how God once denigrated Israel’s enemies: “Moab is My washbasin, / upon Edom I fling My sandal, over Philistia I shout exultant.”(9) First the rhetorical question: “Have You not, O God, abandoned us? / You do not sally forth, God, with our armies.” (11) Then the plea that acknowledges human effort is insufficient, “Give us help against the foe / when rescue by man is in vain. (12). And ending with assurance that God will indeed come to their collective aid: “Through God we shall gather strength,/ and He will stamp out our foes.” (13)

These verses are the pattern of supplication: wondering where God has gone, asking for help, and always ending on the assurance that God will indeed act on our behalf. For me, it’s the final step that I leave out. Too often, I end prayer on a note of uncertainty, reflecting on my own weakness and asking for God’s help, but too often forgetting to remember that God will indeed act, and that I should acknowledge God’s great goodness.

1 Samuel 14:1-40: We meet Saul’s son, Jonathan, who combines daring courage, thoughtfulness and discernment. With just his trusty unnamed armor-bearer, who has told Jonathan, “I am with you; as your mind is, so is mine.” (6), Jonathan says that when they shout to the Philistines below, if the Philistines invite them to come closer, that will be a sign that victory will be theirs. But if the Philistines do not invite them down, they will stand back. They are invited down and slaughter about 20 of the enemy. This is great encouragement to the rest of Israel, including those who have sided with the Philistines.

In stark contrast to the son, Saul makes another rash and puzzling vow, saying “Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on my enemies.” (24). Unaware of his father’s pronouncement, Jonathan dips the tip of his staff into honey and tastes it. When Jonathan is informed of his father’s oath, he replies, “My father has troubled the land; see how my eyes have brightened because I tasted a little of this honey. How much better if today the troops had eaten freely of the spoil taken from their enemies;” (29, 30). Jonathan knows that troops fight better on full stomachs. Instead, once the battle is over, the troops are so famished they eat even animal blood, which is forbidden. 

Saul’s rash words has imperiled his son and caused his troops to commit sin against God. The point, I think, is that thoughtful (“my mind is your mind”) discernment is an essential quality of leadership. Rash pronouncements and impulsive acts are not. Yet, even today, we too often see the latter on full display in those who claim to be our leaders.

John 2:1-11: Jesus’ action at the wedding at Cana–described only here in this gospel–is among his most famous miraculous acts. Here, Jesus reveals his true power and glory to his mother and as John notes, to his disciples. So, why is the water-to-wine Jesus’ first miracle? Surely there was someone at the wedding who needed healing of some sort.

I think that John has a much deeper meaning here for his listeners–and for us. In the Upper Room Jesus tells his disciples that the wine they are drinking is his blood. So, it seems that this miracle of water becoming wine overarches the story of Jesus in John’s telling: from the waters of Jesus’ baptism to the blood of his final sacrifice on the cross.

Water and wine, together with bread, are the essential material elements of our faith. Each is imbued with far deeper significance than just their physical qualities. Both water and wine are essential to our bodies–and to our faith: the water with which we were baptized and the wine we consume at the communion rail that somehow is intimately tied to Jesus’ blood.

That the wine was the best served at the wedding reminds us that with the shedding of Jesus’ blood, no greater gift that has been given us: As the old song reminds us, we are washed not just in water, but in the blood of the Lamb.