The pure joy of worshipping our God
I Samuel 13 – 15
Sir Alex Ferguson was the most successful coach in the history of English football (soccer). He coached Manchester United from 1986-2013, winning more trophies than any other football coach in English history. The queen knighted him in 1999 for his contributions to football. In 2013, David Moyes, left his coaching role at Everton to succeed the legendary Ferguson. Moyes was recently sacked due to United’s lack of success this season. Following a legend is often an impossible task.
While Samuel was not a king, he was a legendary figure in Israel, and a man to which Saul never quite measured up. Chapters 13-15 begin to paint a disturbing portrait of King Saul and show the clear regret on Samuel’s part for having anointed Saul as king. Chapter 13 notes that the Philistines had a deep concern that the Israelites not acquire the technology to produce weapons of iron.
According to 1 Samuel 13:19-22, “…there was no smith to be found throughout all the land of Israel; for the Philistines said, ‘The Hebrews must not make swords or spears for themselves’; so all the Israelites went down to the Philistines to sharpen their plowshares, mattocks, axes, or sickles; The charge was two-thirds of a shekel for the plowshares and mattocks, and one-third of a shekel for sharpening axes and for setting the goads.” This is a far cry from our fear today of anti-tank missiles, shoulder-launched rockets and atomic weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, but it was the Philistine’s chief worry.
In 1 Samuel 14:24 we are told that “…Samuel committed a very rash act” by laying down an oath upon his soldiers, saying, “Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening, and I have been avenged on my enemies.” Saul’s own son Jonathan, who had not heard this oath, broke it by tasting honey from a honeycomb that the troops had come upon. When Saul discovered this, he said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan!” (1 Sam. 14:44) His willingness to sacrifice his son to fulfill an oath reminds us of Abraham and Isaac. Fortunately, the Israelites refuse to allow Saul to kill Jonathan.
In chapter 15 Samuel commands Saul to attack Amalek and the Amalekites, “and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” (1 Sam. 15:3) Saul led 210,000 Israelite soldiers into battle, taking King Agag as prisoner, but allowed the “best of the sheep and of the cattle and of the fatlings, and the lambs, and all that was valuable” to be spared, directly in violation of Samuel’s command. (1 Sam. 15:9)
The Lord, therefore, informed Samuel that he regretted making Saul king as he failed to obey God’s command. Saul maintained that the animals that were spared would be used for sacrifice. (1 Sam. 15:15) This was not sufficent for Samuel, who derided Saul, whose name means “small,” saying, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?” (1 Sam. 15:17)
It is extremely hard to succeed in leadership when your predecessor is well-regarded and refuses to leave you to take over and lead as you deem fit. When he or she continues to watch, comment and act, you are not free to lead. Such was the case with Samuel. He chastised Saul saying, “Surely, to obey is better than to sacrifice, and to heed than the fat of rams. For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king. (1 Sam. 15:22-23). Saul’s leadership is now doomed. His esteemed predecessor has just withdrawn his support. Saul will become one of the Bible’s most tragic figures.
Samuel confirmed this saying, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.” (1 Sam. 15:28) Samuel, who served as priest, prophet and judge, judged powerfully on this occasion and prophesized correctly that Saul’s kingdom will soon be given over to David. Acting more forcefully than ever, Samuel hewed King Agag to pieces and grieved over Saul, while Yawheh “was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Sam. 15:34)
This psalm expresses the joy of worshipping God and begins with the lovely statement, “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts!” We can imagine the joy of setting this sentiment to music, as many have tried to do. “My soul longs, indeed it faints for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh sing for joy to the living God.” (Ps. 84:1-2) There are few more powerful statements about the joy of worship that can be found in the Bible.
“Happy are those who live in your house, ever singing your praise.” (Ps. 84:4) Worship is an acquired taste. Many live without it. There is much to occupy ourselves in this world, but if we find a church that worships well, offering beautiful liturgy, hymnody and fine preaching, then a part of us comes alive that was dormant and our life is transformed by this weekly experience. We begin to wonder how we lived without worship and how we can live without out. Our soul craves the opportunity to offer thanks and to allow worship to make our soul soar. The Psalmist concludes with these incredible lines,
For a day in your courts is better
than a thousand elsewhere.
I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God
than live in the tents of wickedness.
For the Lord God is a sun and shield;
he bestows favor and honor.
No good thing does the Lord withhold
from those who walk uprightly.
O Lord of hosts,
happy is everyone who trusts in you. (Ps. 84:10-12)
Mel Gibson’s movie The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004. It depicts the Passion of Jesus according to the gospels and also draws on pious accounts such as the Friday of Sorrows and other devotional works, such as those attributed to Anne Catherine Emmerich (1774-1824), a bed-ridden German nun and mystic, who died at the age of 49. She had notable visions of the Passion of Jesus, which were said to be revealed to her during moments of religious ecstasy by the Virgin Mary.
The film covers primarily the final 12 hours of Jesus’ life, beginning with the agony in the Garden of Gethsemane and culminating with a brief depiction of his resurrection. Flashbacks of Jesus’ life, including him as a child, a young man, giving the Sermon on the Mount and at the Last Supper are interspersed. The dialogue is in Aramaic, the language that Jesus spoke, and Latin with English subtitles.
The film has been highly controversial and received mixed reviews, with some critics claiming that the extreme violence in the movie obscures its message. Indeed, some scenes such as the scourging of Christ are so brutal and long that it is hard to watch them. Critics have questioned the authenticity of the non-biblical material the film drew on, especially Emmerich’s visions, which occurred more than 1700 years after the crucifixion.
The film, however, was a major commercial hit, grossing in excess of $600 million during its theatrical release. It became the highest grossing R-rated film in United States and the highest grossing non-English-language film of all time. While the film was obsessively violent to watch, it does capture the incredible brutality inflicted on Jesus. It is easy to gloss over “Then Pilate took Jesus and had him flogged.” (John 19:1) After seeing The Passion of the Christ, you will never read this without pondering what Christ endured for humanity.
Because this is our fourth encounter with the crucifixion, it is easy for us to think, “I know this story,” and to read through it quickly. Volumes have been written on this one chapter, trying to ascertain who is to blame for the death of Jesus and to understand the symbolism and significance of his death. When Pilate asked Jesus “Where are you from?” (John 19:9), Jesus was silent. The silence of Jesus can be more profound than his words. When the woman caught in adultery was brought before him, Jesus was silent at first and continued to draw in the dust. The silence of Jesus and of God that are often most telling.
In John’s account, Pilate is in the hot seat as the Jews seek to have Jesus crucified. John’s account has been used for centuries by anti-Semites to blame the death of Jesus on the Jews. We read, “From then on Pilate tried to release [Jesus], but the Jews cried out, ‘If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.’” (John 19:12)
Often in politics leaders have pressures exerted on them from various sides and weak men bow to unjust influences. Pilate had Jesus brought outside and sat “on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.” (John 19:13) Having recently read Judges, we can relate to the “judge’s bench,” which is now being occupied not by a Jewish leader, but by a Roman governor.
Pilate “said to the Jews, ‘Here is your King!’ They cried out, ‘Away with him! Away with him! Crucify him!’ Pilate asked them, ‘Shall I crucify your King?’ The chief priests answered, ‘We have no king but the emperor.’” (John 19:14b-15) Having read about Saul being anointed as king and establishing the Jewish monarchy, it is interesting to see the Jews call Caesar their king and deny Jesus as a leader.
Jesus was then handed over by Pilate to be crucified at Golgotha – a pit outside the walls of Jerusalem, where trash was burned and fires were common. The Jewish notion of Gehenna or “Hell” derives from the fires used to burn outside the city walls and to the south of Jerusalem. The crossroads that passed by were cosmopolitan enough that the sign hung over Jesus’ head on the cross proclaimed in Hebrew, Latin and Greek, “Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”
“They divided my clothes among themselves, and for my clothing they cast lots.” (John 19:24) John makes it clear that Psalm 22:18 was being fulfilled as the soldiers cast lots to see who would receive Jesus’ seamless robe, which was a valuable piece of clothing. Think of an Armani suit! Jesus was not wearing a cloak of rags such as St. Francis wore, which is on display in Assisi.
John alone mentions the presence of Jesus’ mother at the foot of the cross and the relationship with the beloved disciple John. Peter, James and John were Jesus’ three closest disciples. He took them aside on several occasions such when he was transfigured on the Mount of Transfiguration and Moses and Elijah appeared beside him. John shared the closest relationship with Jesus. He is known as the “beloved disciple.” Jesus and John ate side to side or reclined against one another at the Last Supper.
From the cross, Jesus created family. He cared for those who were vulnerable, namely his mother. John alone tells us that Jesus saw his mother and said, “Woman, here is your son.” He said to John, “Here is your mother.” “And from that hour the disciple took her into his own home.” (John 19:27) Legend has it the John took Mary to Patmos, where he wrote his gospel and later to Ephesus, where he cared for her until she died and according to Roman Catholic tradition assumed to heaven.
Interestingly, the German mystic and nun Anne Catherine Emmerich had visions, where she saw a house where the Virgin Mary lived before her Assumption. It was located near Ephesus and described in her book The Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Mary’s House. Emmerich had never visited Ephesus. In 1881, a French priest, the Abbe Julien Gouyet, used Emmerich’s book to search for the house in Ephesus based on her descriptions. A house dating to the first century was found. The Holy See has taken no official position on the authenticity of the location, but in 1896 Pope Leo XIII visited the site and in 1951 Pope Pius XII declared the house to be a Holy Place and Pope John XXIII, who was just canonized, confirmed the decision. Other popes have since visited the house. I, too, have visited it and found it to be one of the most peaceful settings that I have ever experienced encountered.
Jesus said, “I am thirsty,” again to fulfill Scripture. His legs were not broken, for he was already dead. This, too, was to fulfill Scripture according to John. (See Exod. 12:46, which describes how the Passover lamb will be eaten without any of its bones being broken). Since it was the Day of Preparation, Jesus was taken down from the cross for “it was a day of great solemnity.” The paradox cannot be greater. Here was the Jewish Messiah being crucified on request of the Jews on a day deemed to be holy.
Joseph of Arimathea, one of Jesus’ secret disciples, took Jesus’ body and anointed it with costly spices “weighing about a hundred pounds.” (John 19:39) Jesus’ body was then laid in a new tomb that had never been occupied. The stage is now set for the Resurrection and the greatest event in history.
For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than live in the tents of wickedness. (Ps. 84:10)
For the Lord God is a sun and shield; he bestows favor and honor. No good thing does the Lord withhold from those who walk uprightly. O Lord of hosts, happy is everyone who trusts in you. (Ps. 84:10-12)
How has succession gone in your life? Have you followed in the footsteps of a leader who led before you, a parent, employer or employee? What has helped you as you have striven to lead? Have people tried to sabotage your leadership? How meaningful is worship to you? Does it make your soul soar? Do you long to worship? What part of worship is most significant for you – music, preaching, the Eucharist, silence, prayer, fellowship or taking a leadership role and serving others? When in worship does God speak most directly to you? Where would you imagine yourself to be in the story of Christ’s crucifixion? What part of this story is most compelling to you? What part of the Passion is most troubling to you?
Holy God, at your command all things came into being and were created. You have given us this precious earth to be stewards of creation and to tend to everything living upon this sacred island home where we reside. Help us to serve in the roles where you have placed us with utter faithfulness and integrity, that those who come into contact with us each and every day may be blessed by the honorable and faithful way that we carry out the ministries whose care you have entrusted to us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania