Psalm 107:33–43; 1 Samuel 10; John 1:14–28

Psalm 107:33–43: In the deuteronomic culture that was Israel and Judah, the terms of the covenant were crystal clear. Abandon God and he will cancel the elements of prosperity: “He turns rivers into wilderness/ and springs of water into thirsty ground,/ fruitful land into salt flats,/ because of the evil of those who dwell there.” (33, 34) Conversely, obedience renders blessing: “He turns wilderness to pools of water,/ and parched lands to springs of water,/ and settles there the hungry,/ firmly founds a settled town.” (35, 36)

And in that happy, God-fearing agrarian society, “they sow fields and they plant vineyards,/ which produce a fruitful yield.” (37) This fecundity extends to that most valuable proof of being blessed by God: progeny: “And He blesses them and they multiply greatly,/ and their beasts He does not let dwindle.” (38)

There is always the underlying theme of the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor, and to emerges here as how God will hand them the consequences of their oppression in due time: “He pours contempt upon the princes,/ and makes them wander in trackless waste.” (40) They will receive what they have handed out when they are captured by their enemies: “And they dwindle and are bowed down,/ from harsh oppression and sorrow.” (39)

Again there is symmetry. As the princes “bow down,” the weak and powerless will be raised up: “And He raises the needy from affliction,/ and increases his clans like flocks.” (41) This neverending tension between the powerful and the weak is the underlying moral of this psalm: “Let the upright see and rejoice,/ and all wickedness shut its mouth.” (42) The psalmist concludes not too subtly, “He who is wise will watch these/ and take to heart the Lord’s kindnesses.” (43)

Although I believe life is far more complex than this simple good-bad/ blessing-suffereing symmetry, the final verse is one we can take to heart in our fallen world today.  Watching and alert we will perceive God’s love.

1 Samuel 10: Samuel anoints Saul with oil, and announces, “The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel. You shall reign over the people of the Lord and you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around.” (1) But that single act is not necessarily persuasive to Saul that he’s suddenly king. To prove the legitimacy of what Samuel has done, the old prophecy makes three predictions about who Saul will meet, what they’ll have with them—among other things, a person carrying bread and wine— and what will be said. The most dramatic of these encounters is with the prophets who are in a “prophetic frenzy.” Samuel tells Saul he will be caught up in the same frenzy: “Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person.” (6) Saul is then to meet up with Samuel seven days hence when the prophet appears.

As Saul leaves Samuel, “God gave him another heart; and all these signs were fulfilled that day.” (9)  This is a great reminder that an encounter with God and Jesus Christ is life-transforming. We come away with a “new heart.” The question of course is will be turn out like Saul or like David?

Samuel returns home. His uncle asks, “Tell me what Samuel said to you.” (15). Saul tells him everything except “about the matter of the kingship, of which Samuel had spoken, he did not tell him anything.” (16)

Samuel summoned the people to the Lord at Mizpah ” (17) and reminds them that they have rejected God’s protection even though God has led them from the wilderness to the promised land. To select the king, lots will be drawn. The lots narrow down to Saul’s family and “Saul the son of Kish was taken by lot.” (21) Of course the lottery has been rigged by God, who ensures that the lot falls upon Saul so that it appears he has been chosen at random and thus, it is God’s will rather than Samuel’s.

Saul is identified as king but is nowhere to be found. Eventually he’s found hiding in the baggage and is brought forth as Samuel announces: “There is no one like him among all the people. And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” (24)

But there will be no honeymoon for the new king. The plots begin early: “some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” They despised him and brought him no present.” (27) Moreover, there’s a tough political situation with the Ammonites, whose king has been gouging out the right eye of all the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan. Saul faces enormous challenges ahead.

It’s almost as if God sets out right away to prove that Israel has made a poor choice in demanding a king rather than allowing God to speak and lead through the prophets and judges.

John 1:14–28: John wastes no time in articulating the heavy theology of the incarnation: “And 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) Further, John tells us, the Word is the instrument of God’s salvation which we have received as a gift: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” (16) Our gospel writer then draws the great contrast between the old covenant and the new: “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (17)

But perhaps John’s boldest statement in that Jewish culture is that Jesus is the sole evidence we have have been given of what God is all about: “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) This would seem to be a direct reference to the theophany where Moses could see only God’s reflected glory. Now we will experience it head on through Jesus.

John moves into his narrative about John the Baptist—a far more complex story than the simplicity of the Synoptics. John the Baptist has apparently been brought before the temple authorities, who demand to know if he is the Messiah. John assures them he is not, but is rather the messenger announcing the arrival of the Messiah, which he substantiates by quoting Isaiah:

I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,
‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’” (23)

The Pharisees challenge John about his effrontery, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” (25) But John simply responds that he merely baptizes with water and as for the one who is coming, “I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.” (27) strongly suggesting that one will be the actual Messiah.

I look at this passage as this gospel’s nativity story. The key here is that Jesus “birth” begins in heaven as the Word. The Word has been made flesh and is shortly to arrive on the scene. Although he nevers says it, we can’t miss the implication that this person will be the Messiah.

John the Baptist is the gospel writer’s dramatic bridge from high theology to the man Jesus himself. The final verse of the reading brings us out of theological discourse and sets us down at a specific place where Jesus will be introduced to everyone: “This took place in Bethany across the Jordan where John was baptizing.” (28)


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