Psalm 108:1-5; 1 Samuel 13; John 1:43-51

Psalm 108:1-5: This psalm is the first in a series of “David psalms,” attributed to Israel’s great king. It’s worth, then, looking at this psalm’s opening line: “My heart is firm, O God.” What constitutes a “firm heart?” Firm is halfway between “limp” and “hard.” David’s heart is not so weak that it blows this way and that, unable to take a stand about anything. Thinking of God as a useful vending machine for help in every situation, to be called upon in lieu of understanding and working out difficulties that arise in daily life is a sure sign of an “unfirm” heart.  On the other hand, a firm heart is not so concrete-like that it has forgotten to follow God’s example of rendering grace and mercy to others in distress or less fortunate.

“Firm” connotes suppleness; a clear understanding of the relationship between one’s own being and God. It is a willingness to take a stand, especially when it would be easier to go the way of the crowd. A firm heart–that balance between indecisive “wimpiness” and ego-centric narcissism–is an especially important quality for leaders. Difficulties will come that will test a leader’s heart. Tough decisions such as sending men into battle will have to be made.

A firm heart is one which rests in God, not in one’s self.  Above all, a firm heart understands the crucial relationship: where it is and where God is: “For Your kindness is great over the heavens,/ and Your steadfast truth to the skies.” (5) In that context and understanding of this all-important relationship, a firm heart can accomplish great things. Just as David did.

1 Samuel 13: Things are not going well in the battle between Israel and the Philistines: “When the Israelites saw that they were in distress (for the troops were hard pressed), the people hid themselves in caves and in holes and in rocks and in tombs and in cisterns.” (6) Samuel had said he would arrive within seven days to make a sacrifice to God, asking for help in battle. But Samuel has not appeared after the seven days and “the people began to slip away from Saul.” (8b).

So, assuming Samuel is a no-show, Saul takes matters into his own hands and says, “’Bring the burnt offering here to me, and the offerings of well-being.’ And he offered the burnt offering.” (9) At which point Samuel shows up and says to Saul, “You have done foolishly; you have not kept the commandment of the Lord your God,” (13). Saul’s worried impatience has cost him his kingdom. Not yet, but Samuel makes it clear that “the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.” (14)

So, what’s the lesson here? Even in dire circumstances, if we have heard God speak–here via Samuel–we are to wait until the time is right. This is as difficult for us as it was for Saul, who took matters into his own hands rather than waiting. But Saul failed to turn first to God and seek guidance in Samuel’s absence. He could have taken a moment and prayed to God about what he should do. Instead he acted on his own. Failing to ask God, failing to discern what God is saying in changed circumstances, and just taking matters into our own hands can lead to a poor outcome.

John 1:43-51: Jesus asks Philip to follow him, which he immediately does. Philip finds his buddy, Nathaniel, and says “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” (45). At which point Nathaniel asks one of the most famous questions in the NT: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (46)

This is the question that arises from pre-conceived notions. We have formed our opinions based on half-truths, rumors and incomplete data. And we cling mightily to the beliefs formed out of this partial truths. And when it comes to other people, this failure of perception and understanding lies at the root of prejudice.

Philip replies to Nathaniel with just three short but incredibly wise words: “Come and see.” Two verbs. First, we must come: get up out of our comfortable positions of being spoon-fed that which others would have us believe. We must move from where we are into a new place. IF we do not come, we cannot see. Then having arrived at this new place, we must really, truly see. This is “seeing” in its entire range of meaning: observing, perceiving, understanding. We cannot simply glance at Jesus, nod politely, and then just move on with our lives. We must get up, come, observe, perceive. Only then will true understanding of who Jesus is actually arise.

The clear message for us: We cannot be spoon-fed Jesus; we must experience him for ourselves. I went to Sunday school all through my youth, but it was never my faith; it was me pleasing my parents by acting out their faith. Only by honestly coming to Jesus as an adult, through studying the Scriptures and seeing Jesus in others did I “come and see” who Jesus really is.

Psalm 107:33-43; 1 Samuel 11,12; John 1:29-42

Psalm 107:33-43: The psalmist continues the theme of God and His interactions with His creation. What God has give He can take away: “He turns rivers into wilderness / and springs of water into thirsty ground,” (33). And in an image reminiscent of the American west: “fruitful land into salt flats,” (34). The reason is clear: “because of the evil of those who dwell there.” (34b). This deuteronmic construction that evil done by humankind results in deserts is completely applicable today as we waste water in the desert on golf courses, lawns, and thirsty crops such as cotton.

As God takes away, so too, He can give: “He turns wilderness to pools of water, / and parched land to springs of water, / and settles there the hungry.” (35, 36) Our role is to use these resources diligently, “they sow fields and they plant vineyards, / which produce a fruitful yield. And He blesses them and they multiply greatly.” Here, stewardship of the earth must include following God’s will for us.

The psalm concludes with one of the core themes of the OT. The contrast between rich and poor. For their greediness and for ignoring God, “He pours contempt upon the princes, / and makes them wander in trackless waste.”(4).  But the for the poor, “He raises the needy from affliction, and increases his clans like flocks.” (41). And like so many psalms, it ends with speech and song, once again held in tension: “Let the upright see and rejoice, and all wickedness shut its mouth.” (43)

Rarely has a psalm so tightly intertwined God, His creation and the actions of both the wise and the wicked. We must remember: we do not act as independent creatures of either God or nature. What we do has consequences up to heaven.

1 Samuel 11,12: The newly-anointed but not yet coronated Saul proves his mettle in battle. Jabesh-gilead has been cut off from Israel by the Ammonites. When word comes to Saul he promptly cuts his yoke of oxen in pieces and distributes the pieces across Israel. (Like the grisly murder of the concubine in Judges 19, cutting up meat and distributing it is apparently the clarion call to raise an army.)  This time an army of 370,00(!) men is raised. Saul gets word to Jabesh-gilead that he will help them. The Ammonites are defeated and Saul has proved his kingly worth to the people–to the extent that his partisans want to kill anyone who doubted Saul’s worthiness as King. Samuel crowns Saul kings–and things seem to start off swimmingly. But then, we’re all enthusiastic on Inauguration Day, as well.  The real tests come later.

Samuel gives his farewell address. Unlike Moses in Joshua, it much more personal, “See, it is the king who leads you now; I am old and gray, … I have led you from my youth until this day.” (10:2) He also asserts that he had judged honestly, “whom have I defrauded? Whom have I oppressed? Or from whose hand have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes with it?” (10:3). Then, Samuel retraces Israel’s history. But the centerpiece of his speech is the warning that will echo down through Israel’s history up to the time they are captured by the Babylonians: “If you will fear the Lord and serve him and heed his voice and not rebel against the commandment of the Lord, and if both you and the king who reigns over you will follow the Lord your God, it will be wel,” (10:14).

Note the the responsibility to follow God is up to both the people and the king. If one or the other is corrupt, then the last words of Samuel’s speech, “you shall be swept away, both you and your king.” (10:25). Today, we tend to blame our leaders for our woes, but as Samuel makes clear there is a dual responsibility. We are as responsible for the fate of our nation as our leaders are. We forget this simple rule at our peril. That we have societally abandoned God does not bode well for the long run.

John 1:29-42: The meeting between Jesus and John the Baptist is quite different than as it’s described in the synoptics. First, John affirms Jesus’ preexistence as the gospel writer described it in the opening verses: “This is he of whom I said, ‘After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’ (30). And then, we find that rather than being cousins, John doesn’t even know Jesus: “I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’” (33) Here, we see the centrality of the Holy Spirit in both John’s and Jesus’ ministry. Absent the Holy Spirit, John would never have recognized Jesus. And remarkably, God remains silent in John’s telling.

And that’s the lesson for us: Jesus comes to us through the working of the Holy Spirit.  And with John, may we be able to say, “And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God.” (34)

Psalm 107:23-32; 1 Samuel 10; John 1:14-28

Psalm 107:23-32: In one of the more famous lines in our culture–“Those who go down to the sea in ships,/ who do tasks in the mighty waters,” (23) the psalmist turns to the acts of God expressed in His creation. Those who have gone down to the sea are witness to God’s unfathomable power and examples of His marvelous creation: “it is they who have seen the deeds of the LORD, /and His wonders in the deep.” (24)

The poem’s language echoes the tossing of the waves with majestic force as they rise and fall: “it makes the waves loom high. / They go up to the heavens, come down to the depths,” (26) and mere men are mere specks amidst this power: “their life-breath in hardship grows faint. / They reel and sway like a drunkard,” (26)until they beg for mercy,”And they cry to the LORD from their straits / from their distress He brings them out.” (27)

This psalm is a stark reminder to us humans, who in our hubris, believe we can control so much of our lives and our environment. God, expressing himself through nature, is a far, far greater force than we can imagine. Just ask anyone who has survived a hurricane, flash floods in the desert, or a severe earthquake. And like the men who have gone down to the sea, and survived the storm, we should give thanks when “He turns the storm into silence, /and its waves are stilled, / and they rejoice that these have grown quiet.” (29, 30) We remember and rejoice that all creation is God’s; we ere merely its stewards and we respond in worship instead of attempt to control: “Let them acclaim to the LORD His kindness / and His wonders to humankind.” (31)

1 Samuel 10: Samuel anoints Saul and prophesies to him that as he brings the found donkeys home to his father he will have three unique encounters, and the third one will be meeting musicians and he will experience a “prophetic frenzy.” And “as he turned away to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart; and all these signs were fulfilled that day.” (9)

“God gave him another heart” is God’s own anointing for Saul’s role as Israel’s first king. God transformed Saul that day. The question is, have I allowed God to give me another heart. I think Oswald Chambers would take this phrase as meaning Saul has abandoned his won ways and his being has become wholly God’s.

Returning home, Saul’s uncle asks him about the donkeys, “but about the matter of the kingship, of which Samuel had spoken, he did not tell him anything.” (15) Instead Saul’s anointing as king remains secret . Samuel gathers all Israel and to demonstrate that God has anointed a king draws lots, which eventually fall to Saul himself, who cannot be found. They ask the Lord where he is and it is God himself who replies he is hiding in the baggage. They find Saul, who is “head and shoulders taller than any of them.  Samuel said to all the people, ‘Do you see the one whom theLord has chosen? There is no one like him among all the people.'” (24) Saul’s height becomes the sign of his kingship. 

But why was Saul hiding in the baggage? Was he afraid of the role being thrust on him? I don’t think so. Rather, I think it is a demonstration that God chooses whom he will, and they will not be the most visible among us. But like Saul, once they are revealed, we know immediately that they have been chosen by God.

John 1:14-28: In another of those “Moravian coincidences,” we read about the revealing of Jesus by John the Baptist on the same day we read about Samuel’s revealing of Saul. When asked by the Pharisees if he was the Messiah or a prophet, John denies both and replies, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (26, 27)

John’s gospel has already given us a theological discourse about Jesus as the Word. And in his own version of the Nativity story, the gospel writer says, “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (14) and even more theologically, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (18) The gospel writer makes sure that we meet Jesus as God first. But like Saul, who has been anointed both by Samuel and by God, but is hiding in the baggage, we have not yet met Jesus the man. At this point, we only know that like Samuel, John the Baptist knows that a mighty king is coming to Isreal.

 

Psalm 107:17-22; 1Samuel 9; John 1:1-13

Psalm 107:17-22: Here, at first glance, there seems to be the usual deuteronomic construction: sin leads to affliction: “Fools because of their sinful way, / because of their misdeeds they were afflicted.” Yet, before we dismiss this as Old Covenantal theology, notice that it doesn’t say ‘God caused the affliction.’ It actually describes the human condition. We are foolish in our sinful ways because we fail to anticipate that our sins or misdeeds will have poor consequences. In short, we bring affliction on ourselves.

In their affliction, “they came to the gates of death. /And they cried to the LORD from their straits, (18, 19)–a tersely marvelous description of how and when we think of God. Only when things are really bad–when we realize we are at the gates of death–does it occur to us to ask God to rescue us. This is the classic “foxhole prayer.” We foolishly think we can ‘handle it’ ourselves and God becomes our backup plan of last resort.

We deserve to die in the consequences of our foolishness, but “from [our] distress He rescued [us]. He sent forth His word and healed [us], / and delivered [us] from [our] pit.” (20) We do not deserve rescue; after all, we should be responsible for the consequences of our actions. But God is merciful and acts on pure grace.

And our response? Not just inward silent gratitude but, “Let [us] acclaim to the LORD His kindness, / and His wonders to humankind.” (21) Worship, as always, is not only the proper response, it should be our natural response. And action, as well: “and offer thanksgiving sacrifices / and recount His deeds in glad song.” (22)

1 Samuel 9: The precedence for tall and handsome kings (and today, politicians) seems to start right here with Saul: “ He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.” (2). Saul’s father’s donkeys had strayed off, so Saul is asked to go with his servant boy and find them. They search in vain, wandering over a good chunk of Israel before coming to the town where, not coincidentally, Samuel happens to live. Saul says they should give up and go back to his father empty-handed, but the servant boy knows of a “seer” (which the authors carefully explain is what prophets used to be called).

No surprise, the “seer” turns out to be Samuel who hosts Saul because he’s already received word from God that this is the man who will be appointed king. In fact, God has said, “He shall save my people from the hand of the Philistines; for I have seen the suffering of my people, because their outcry has come to me.” (16).

Because we know how Saul’s story eventually turns out, we tend to think quite negatively about him. But it’s clear that Saul was chosen by God. At this point, Saul is God’s clear choice as the person to be king. If Israel is going to insist on having a king, then God provides the very best.  So, too, for us. We often insist on a choice that may not be the wisest and as the psalm above points out, will almost inevitably have poor consequences. But God will never give us less than the best. What we do with it, or worse, how we will corrupt it, is left up to us.

John 1:1-13: In the most dramatic, theologically profound opening verses of any book in the New Testament (and aside from Genesis, the OT, as well), we read “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Why does John choose to call Jesus “Word?” What is it about “Word” –repeated three times in this first sentence–that gives such profundity to this opening? “Word” is the elemental form of communication between human beings. And as we read the OT, “word” is how God communicates to the people who profoundly affect the history of Israel: Abraham, Moses, Samuel, and many others. The contrast is drawn again and again in the OT about the mute small-g gods and the God Who Speaks.

“Word” also sets John’s stage. Yes, there are Jesus’ miracles and of course the Passion. But John’s main focus is on what Jesus says–and he says more in this gospel than in any of the others.

These opening verses are John’s Nativity story. There is no Mary, no Joseph, no stable, no angels, no shepherds. In fact there is no human birth. There is simply Being from the beginning of time. The Word is. And now, the Word has come to us. And it will change the world.

Psalm 107:10-16; 1 Samuel 7:2-8:22; Luke 24:36-53

Psalm 107:10-16: This section of this psalm describes how Israel in the wilderness had abandoned God and become “dwellers in dark and death’s shadow,/ prisoners of tormenting iron.” (10). The reason behind their plight is starkly clear: “For they rebelled against / God’s sayings, the Most High’s counsel they despised.” (10). One more proof that human nature has not changed a whit in 3000+ years. In American society today we are surrounded by evidence stacked on top of evidence of how we have rebelled, not just against God’s “sayings,” or even “the Most High’s counsel” but against the very idea of God Himself.

In our hubris we have pronounced God not only dead, but the very idea of God irrelevant. We believe we are merely a complex collection of neurons, which evolved sufficiently to imagine God into existence. And now at our high level of self-awareness we think that that we will do very well on our own. What arrogance; what hubris.

The psalmist asserts, “He brought their heart low in troubles. /They stumbled with none to help.” (12) Exactly as we are stumbling, having rejected God’s help. Will we ever cry out “to the LORD from [our] straits, from [our] distress?” (13) What will it take for us to know that only God can rescue us, that only God can do for us, what he did for Israel: “He brought them out from the dark and death’s shadow and their bonds He sundered.” (14)

This is certainly what Jesus Christ did for us. The tragedy is that the world does not even realize how it is already in dark and death’s shadow. But that there is a means of rescue at hand–if it will only look.

1 Samuel 7:2-8:22: Samuel as judge shows great wisdom. He gathers all Israel at Mizpah, which the Philistines take as a terrific opportunity to invade. But Israel has put away its idols and turned back to God, saying, “We have sinned against the Lord” (7:6) and the Philistines “were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel.” (7:13). 

But Samuel grows old and appoints his sons as judges, but “his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.” (8:3). Their corruption as judges cause Israel to beg for a king. Samuel prays, and God replies, ““Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” (8:7)

This is a profound moment in Israel’s history. God makes it clear that Israel will be taking a critical, immutable step, seeking to replace God their King with a human king. One thing is clear: God is certainly still King; it is we who have rejected him as such. We’d rather have a human king. It just seems so much more attractive, so much more tangible, so much more secure.

Samuel gives one of history’s greatest speeches about the price to the people in having a human king (and in our day, the cost of a highly centralized government). In what we could call the “He will take” speech, Samuel outlines how the king will take the people’s sons into the army; their daughters into servanthood; their vineyards and fields; and even after that they will still have to pay taxes: “He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks (8:15-16) Worst of all, the people will give up their very freedom, “you shall be his slaves.” (8:17).

And it’s an immutable deal. Once the people take a human king they have declared that God is no longer their King, and even if they want God back, “the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (8:18)

The people refuse to listen, saying “that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (8:20). As Israel will discover in its subsequent history, there are occasional advantages to having a king, but the cost–particularly under corrupt kings–is enormous, even to the point of eventually losing their entire nation to conquerors. And we are the same. We want someone to go out and fight our battles for us. But at what cost?

Luke 24:36-53: In this crucial story of Jesus appearing to the disciples, Luke establishes the all-important fact of the corporeality of the resurrected Jesus. In fact, he does it twice, first with Jesus’ statement, “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” (39) But even then, there is skepticism, albeit happy skepticism: “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering,” So, making it abundantly clear that he is not a ghost, he asks for food. “ They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” (42, 43) This seems to convince everyone present.  

Luke then turns to establishing quite specifically how Jesus was God’s fulfillment all Scripture, “that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (44) and as his last act on earth conducts a Bible study, elaborating on the events the disciples have just witnessed: “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” (46) His final instruction is for the disciples to hang around in Jerusalem, and wait because “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”(49). What’s interesting here is that it is Jesus who is sending the Holy Spirit. Jesus then heads out to Bethany and effectively disappears into heaven–a tantalizing preview of greater detail to come in Acts 1.

Luke ends his first book on a note of joy: “they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy;  and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (52,53) Which is exactly what Easter is about.

Psalm 107:1-9; 1 Samuel 5:1-7:1; Luke 24:28-35

Psalm 107:1-9: This psalm is a praise hymn, “Acclaim the LORD, for He is good, / for His kindness is forever.” The reason for praise comes in the very next verse: “Let the LORD’s redeemed ones say, / whom he redeemed from the hand of the foe,” (2).  Alter notes that “redeemed” is not theological here, but that the singers have literally been rescued from physical captivity.

There is a contrast here between “scattered” and “gathered” as God “gathered them from the lands, / from east and west, from north and south.” (3) And in the next verses between “wandering” and “straight:”They wandered in wilderness, waste land, / found no road to a settled town,” (4) and “He led them on a straight road to go to a settled town.” (7)

God gathers his scattered, wandering sheep and sets us on the “straight road.” For me, this is one of God’s important qualities that we don’t talk about very much. In our daily lives, we too often feel scattered by all its demands and distractions. We wander from task to task, place to place, never feeling that we’ve accomplished anything worthwhile or gotten to where we wanted to get.

But when we look to God, we realize that God is Order–and He brings order to our lives. (After all, God has created a beautiful, ordered world: just ask any physicist)  By reflecting on God’s kindness, as the singers do in this psalm, our minds and souls are gathered together into peaceful coherence and and we can see a clear straight path ahead. But as I have discovered, this is something I need to do every day.

1 Samuel 5:1-7:1: The Philistines quickly discover that their great war trophy, the Ark of the Covenant, brings disaster, not triumph. They set it up in their temple next to their idol, Dagon. In an almost humorous note, Dagon is found the next morning, fallen from its shelf onto its face. Then the next morning, the idol has been msteriously cut in pieces. The Philistines wisely conclude that they will be better off without the Ark and pass it off to the willing inhabitants of Gath. Disaster ensues –something like the black plague–as they plead, “let it return to its own place, that it may not kill us and our people.” (5:11).  It’s clear the Ark belongs only to one tribe: Israel.

Now the problem is how to get it back to Israel. After consulting the priests, the Ark is placed on a wooden cart together with a guilt offering, gold shaped as mice and as the tumors. The whole affair is pulled by two milk cows(!) The cows wander off and come back to Israel at Beth-shemesh.  The people recognize the Ark, and “When they looked up and saw the ark, they went with rejoicing to meet it.” (6:13). After seven months, the Ark is back in its rightful land.

The lesson here is not only that God is more powerful than the false Gods, but God will be mocked. Had the Philistines realized that the God of Israel was more powerful than their own, and that the Ark was something far greater than a war trophy, there may have been a very different outcome for them. So too, today, where God has been determined to be a delusion by those who claim to be wise. What fate awaits them?

 Luke 24:28-35: We owe much to the unnamed walkers on the road to Emmaus. Even though they had not recognized Jesus, and as the reach Emmaus, Jesus “walked ahead as if he were going on.” (28) Notice Luke’s “as if.” Jesus seems to be performing a little test. Will these two men invite him, a stranger, to dinner? They do, and they recognize Jesus as he breaks bread with them.

I think Luke’s message is, even though we may not recognize Jesus as he walks along side us, will we invite the stranger in? This incident in Emmaus seems to be an acting out of Jesus’ all-important words in Matthew 25 (“I was hungry and you fed me…”) By offering kindness to this seeming stranger, the Emmaens offered kindness to Jesus himself. As we, too, should offer kindness to those who are hungry and in need. For we may also find we are indeed supping with Jesus.

As well, like the Emmaens, we have that same opportunity to recognize who Jesus is anew each and every time we come to the altar rail to join him in supper. It is not a ritual; it is a cause of rejoicing and to realize that our hearts are also burning in the passionate joy that the risen Jesus brings to us.

Psalm 106:40-48; 1 Samuel 3,4; Luke 24:13-27

Psalm 106:40-48: Writing from exile himself, the psalmist reminds his listeners that this is not the first time that God “gave them into the hand of nations, / their haters ruled over them. /And their enemies oppressed them, /and they were subject to their power.” (40, 41) And it was their fault, not God’s: “they rebelled against His counsel /and were brought low through their misdeeds.” (42)

But we should never give hope, he writes, because in the very next verse, God “saw when they were in straits, / when He heard their song of prayer. / And He recalled for them His pact, / relented through his many kindnesses.” (43, 44)

Thus, the endless cycle of sin and falling away and then God’s inevitable rescue. This of course was the basic reality of the Old Covenant. Under the terms of the New Covenant established through Jesus Christ, God does not punish us for our misdeeds; their consequences are in themselves sufficient punishment. Through the grace of Jesus Christ we are saved once and for all, and we can say with the psalmist, we “acclaim Your holy name and to glory in Your praise.” (46)

1 Samuel 3,4: Samuel, living at Eli’s house, hears a voice in the night. He keeps thinking it is Eli, but Eli figures out it must be God talking, and advises Samuel to say, ““Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” (3:9). The next time Samuel hears the voice he replies as instructed. God, “who is standing before him,” says ““See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.” (3:12) Specifically, God is going to punish Eli because he allowed his sons to run amok.

So, when I hear someone say, “What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it?” I wish God would speak to me with the singular clarity that he spoke to Samuel. But then I think of the content of God’s very clear message that was spoken in Samuel’s bedroom.  The voice of God is not necessarily going to deliver happy news.

Indeed, as the next chapter reveals, very bad things can happen. Israel brings the Ark itself to the battle, doubtless thinking it would cast some sort of magic spell and defeat the Philistines. But God has other plans, and the presence of the Ark, while at first discouraging the Philistines, “Woe to us! Who can deliver us from the power of these mighty gods?” (4:8) then ends up encouraging Israel’s enemy to fight hard and “The ark of God was captured; and the two sons of Eli, Hophni and Phinehas, died.” (4:11) The lesson is clear: blithe assumptions about what God is or is not going to do are extremely risky.

A messenger brings the bad news about his sons and the Ark to Eli who can bear the news of the death of his two sons; he knew they had sinned. But when he hears that the Ark is lost, “Eli fell over backward from his seat by the side of the gate; and his neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man, and heavy.” (4:18) And the pregnant but newly-widowed wife of Phineas goes into labor and gives birth to a son who receives perhaps the saddest name of all: “Ichabod, meaning, “The glory has departed from Israel,” (4:21)  I think the story of Ohineas’ wife is included because the authors wish to make a point that sin’s consequences–here Eli’s sin–impact far more people than just the sinner.

Luke 24:13-27: The risen Jesus–comes alongside the Emmaus walkers, who famously do not recognize him until the very end. I’m struck by the parallels of this encounter with the story of the young Samuel finally hearing the voice of God, whom he did not recognize three times earlier. I think both Samuel and Emmaus teach us that God operates subtly and requires a great deal of discernment on our part. That’s why I tend to be suspicious of people who announce, “I heard God speaking to me.” without at some point shortly thereafter admitting that God’s voice was difficult to hear amidst all the noise of life. Or that God spoke several times before He was recognized by the listener.

This is not to deny the reality of God speaking, but I guess I’m in the “still, small voice” camp. God rarely, if ever, will come to us as single, dramatic theophany, but as with Samuel and the walkers on the road, several times, usually very quietly. I think this process of slow recognition is an essential part of the process of listening–and discerning–God’s words to us.

Psalm 106:24-31; 1 Samuel 1:1-2:11; Luke 23:44-56

Psalm 106:24-31: The psalm has now virtually become a catalog of misdeeds against God by Israel. The poet tells us that God “would have wiped them out / were it not for Moses His chosen one—” (23). But even though their leader has saved them, “they muttered in their tents, / they did not heed the voice of the LORD.” (25)

It’s difficult to think of a more apt image for us Christians who constantly find something to complain about at church. The music. The sermon. The people who took our “rightful place” in the pews. The leadership. The lack of leadership. As we pout in out tents we are able to come up with an endless list.

Israel “clung to Baal Peor / and ate sacrifices to the dead” (28). The real question is, what is my Baal Peor? To what “dead” things have I sacrificed my time and my resources? As always, the problem is that I have placed myself above God. In what ways do I “fall in the wilderness” (27) every day? And the infinite grace of God picks me up each time.

1 Samuel 1:1-2:11: Once again, we meet a faithful woman: Hannah. Unlike the custom of the time, which was to pray aloud, Hannah prays silently, her lips moving. This is so unusual that the priest, Eli, who has certainly watched–and heard–a lot of prayers in his time, thinks she is drunk. But Eli blesses her when she explains she has been “pouring out my soul before the Lord.” (1:15). And she returns to her home a happy woman. Her son Samuel is born, and true to her promise to God, she leaves him with Eli, saying, “Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives, he is given to the Lord.” (1:28)

I am struck by the verb “lent” when it seems like she would have said “given,” which she in fact says later in the verse. The word underscores the sheer willingness of her action. She could take him back at any time, if she wished; she remains his mother with all the rights of motherhood. But her devotion to God and gratitude for this gift of a son is so enormous that the second verb in her sentence is “given” as she willingly hands Samuel to God. Just as Mary, as Jesus’ mother, “lent” her son to all humankind.

The other parallel to Mary is the son Hannah sings (2:1-10). One sees the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in her verses of praise–and Mary’s Magnificat is an echo of this wonderful poem. And as we see so frequently in the OT–and what Jesus does as well–is that God turns the world upside down from what we humans think is proper order:

He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.” (2:8)

The poor and needy are God’s great concern. Are they ours?

Luke 23:44-56: It is Luke, writing to his Gentile audience, who makes it clear that before anyone else, it is a “pagan” Roman soldier who recognizes the enormous injustice that has just been performed: “When the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God and said, “Certainly this man was innocent.” (47) Outside of the framework of Jewish beliefs of what was heretical and what wasn’t; outside the snare of wrongly interpreting God’s Law; outside of the plotting and political maneuvering, this unnamed Centurion saw Jesus’ innocence.

Everyone goes home except that “all [Jesus’] acquaintances, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.” (49) What were they thinking about as they stood there in the figurative and literal darkness? Did they, like the Centurion, realize that an innocent man had been killed? I think they must have. Did they feel guilt? Remorse? Above all they must have felt loss. Loss of a friend. Loss at the death of the person who had made them realize there was so much more to God than just His law. Above all, loss of something they had come so close to grasping: the Kingdom of God. And in its place: sheer emptiness. Can there be any deeper despair than that?

Psalm 106:13-23; Ruth 4; Luke 23:32-43

Psalm 106:13-23: Even though God had rescued Israel from the Egyptians,”Quickly they forgot His deeds, / they did not await His counsel.” (13) There are two acts here: not just forgetting what God had done for them, but then, deciding they would do just fine on their own in the wilderness, they did not wait around to hear what God had to say. Of course when we see ourselves as being at the center of the universe, we not only forget, but we arrogantly see ourselves as independent beings, not requiring anyone’s counsel, much less God’s.

But as the psalmist points out, it doesn’t take long for things to go bad: “And they felt a sharp craving in the wilderness, / they put God to the test in the waste land.” (14) So, as soon as trouble comes, we remember, ‘Oh yeah, we need God.’ Then we pray, and God, ever patient, ever generous, satisfies our needs, just as he does for Israel: “And He gave them what they had asked, / sent food down their throats.” (15) This cycle of forgetting–arrogance–get in trouble–praying behavior is what leads so many of us to believe God is a handy thing to have around when we have a need, but then, our needs fulfilled, we can put Him back on the shelf for emergency use.

“They made a calf at Horeb / and bowed to a molten image.” (19) Like Israel, we go off and make our golden calves and worship them. But at what expense? “And they exchanged their glory for the image of a grass-eating bull.” (20) How much we miss when we forget God; we trade “our glory” for an image of a grass-eating bull. Not even the bull itself, but just its image! How much I have missed by forgetting God except at those times He’s convenient to have around!

Ruth 4: Boaz knows he wishes to marry Ruth, but first the proprieties of inheritance must be followed. (The women went along with the inheritance!) Boaz contacts the official next-of-kin of Naomi’s estate. The next-of-kin thinks that’s a pretty good deal, but then Boaz mentions the rules of inheritance: “The day you acquire the field from the hand of Naomi, you are also acquiring Ruth the Moabite, the widow of the dead man, to maintain the dead man’s name on his inheritance.” (5). The man reconsiders, saying ““I cannot redeem it for myself without damaging my own inheritance. Take my right of redemption yourself, for I cannot redeem it.” (6) And Boaz is now free to marry Ruth, which he does.

Once again, redemption is the theme: God redeems Israel; Boaz redeems Ruth; Jesus has redeemed us.  It’s fascinating that what is at its heart a dry economic transaction is the means by which God operates on His people. We are lost, but found–and redeemed.

Ruth the Moabite–the quintessential Gentile–is David’s great grandmother. There is Gentile blood in Israel’s greatest hero. And then, there is Gentile blood in Jesus himself, reminding us that while Israel is God’s Chosen People, we are all His chosen people; redeemed into Life.

Luke 23:32-43: What leaps out upon reading Luke’s account of the crucifixion is that with one exception, everyone witnessing Jesus’ death was utterly confused. The confusion seems to rest in just what “king,” “kingdom,” and “Messiah” really meant–and really entailed. The mocking of the leaders, “let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”  The placard that mockingly proclaimed “King of the Jews.” The sour wine offered as a taunt to a pretend king. All these are demonstrations that in the end, disciples included, no one really ever “got it” about what this Kingdom was that Jesus kept talking about.

So sure in their understanding in the precise of “king” and “kingdom,” everyone around Jesus lacks the imagination to perceived that Jesus’ message and actions were about a completely new and completely different Kingdom.  Except one person. The thief on the cross “gets it,” saying,  “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (42) Somehow this man dying alongside Jesus perceived that Jesus’ kingdom was not in Jerusalem, but somewhere else. And Jesus’ promises him he will indeed be remembered.

Luke is making it perfectly clear here that Jesus’ Kingdom is in this world, yet not of this fallen world. It is indeed “paradise.”

Psalm 106:6-12; Ruth 2,3; Luke 23:13-31

Psalm 106:6-12: The psalmist notes that like their ancestors, his own generation has “offended like our fathers, we wronged, we did evil.” (6). He then retraces the history of Israel from this perspective of forgetting who God is. Perhaps this is the greatest sin of all: forgetting Who God is and what he has done for us–and believing we’re the one’s in charge and can accomplish great things: the sin of pride. “Our fathers in Egypt did not grasp Your wonders. /They did not call to mind Your many kindnesses/ and rebelled by the sea,” (7)

Yet, even though Israel forgot and did evil things, God only didn’t forget in return, but became their rescuer: “Yet He rescued them for His name’s sake,/ to make known His might.” (8) Notice that God didn’t rescue Israel because they deserved it; this was pure grace: “for His name’s sake.” And then again, more rescuing: “And He rescued them from the hand of the hostile / and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.” (10) And at last, the people realized what had been done for them: “And they trusted His words, / they sang His praise.” (12)

How many times have I forgotten about God and how many times have I been rescued? Grace is not just a one time thing, but because of our sinful hearts it is an continuous process. We receive God’s grace not because we somehow deserve it, but it is simply God’s nature: “for His name’s sake.”

Ruth 2,3: At first glance, the courtship of Boaz and Ruth is surely the most romantic story in the Bible. But it’s more than that: like the verses in today’s psalm, it’s a story of refuge and of rescue. It’s not a coincidence that it occurs where both characters trust fully in God. Boaz reassures Ruth, “May the Lord reward you for your deeds, and may you have a full reward from the Lord, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge!” (2:12) In that sense, Ruth is all of us; and like Ruth, we come to the fields and threshing floor–the Kingdom of God–and are treated most generously.

Naomi advices Ruth, “Now wash and anoint yourself, and put on your best clothes and go down to the threshing floor; but do not make yourself known to the man until he has finished eating and drinking.  When he lies down, observe the place where he lies; then, go and uncover his feet and lie down; and he will tell you what to do.” (3:4, 5) I don’t think it’s a stretch to see Ruth washing and anointing herself as an allegory for baptism and then we go and lie down at Jesus’ feet; the refuge of our hearts. 

At the end of the chapter, Boaz pours out six measures of barley for Ruth and Naomi. It is an act of pure generosity, of grace. And it is the same generosity, the same grace, that we enjoy through the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf.

Luke 23:13-31: The sentencing of Jesus, an act of desperation as Pilate tries to calm the crowd, stands in stark contrast to the sweetness of the story of Ruth and Boaz.The crowd has been manipulated by its leaders into an irrational frenzy. As with today’s psalm, Israel has forgotten what God has done for them.

And then a scene we don’t seem to read much on Good Friday: the women line the via Dolorosa and beat their breasts in mourning for Jesus as he passes. And suddenly, Jesus says more to them than he has spoken since his arrest: ““Daughters of Jerusalem, do not weep for me, but weep for yourselves and for your children.” (23:28) and then a truly frightening prophecy: “For the days are surely coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us’; and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’” (29,30)

Of course this prophecy was fulfilled in real time in AD70 when Titus overthrew Jerusalem. But I think there is even greater apocalyptic meaning in those verses; a coda, if you will to Jesus’ Olivet Discourse that describe the end of history so starkly.