Archives for September 2014

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.

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.