I Samuel 25-27, Psalm 88, Acts 2
Pentecost: The Church is born!
I Samuel 25 – 27
Behind every saint lies a sinner, and within every sinner is a saint waiting to emerge. This is true of David. These chapters take us through part of the “bandit years” or “outlaw years” of David. They resemble many men’s high school, college and young adult years where we have done things that we would prefer that we had not done, and yet there is an underlying thread of integrity in David’s actions.
We read that “Samuel died; and all Israel assembled and mourned for him.” As we know, Samuel was the last of the judges and the first of the classical prophets. During most of his career, he judged Israel from his home in Ramah, located a few miles north of Jerusalem. Here he built an altar for sacrifices and began his annual tour of important cities such as Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpah to adjudicate legal cases.
Though never called a priest, Samuel offered sacrifices and conducted worship at the shrine in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept before it was lost in battle at Ebenezer. Samuel had exceptional gifts for interceding with God and possessed extraordinary faith. He also had a dark side and had ordered Saul to slaughter his enemies, exterminating men, women and children. Now Samuel was dead and was buried in Ramah, where David had sought out his council while fleeing from Saul.
We then encounter Nabal, whose name means “fool” and who indeed epitomized his name. His wise, beautiful and decisive wife was Abigail, whose name means “my father rejoices.” A lot of people are paired with someone so different that we wonder what attracted them to each other or why they married. Nabal and Abigail are a good example. He was a descendant of Caleb, who was one of the 12 spies that Moses sent to inspect the Promised Land and assess its fruitfulness.
Caleb represented the tribe of Judah, and while the other spies were intimidated by the huge inhabitants of Canaan, Caleb and Joshua alone urged the Israelites to invade and occupy Canaan. God punished the Israelites for not trusting in the Lord and made them wait in the wilderness for decades until all of the Israelites of that generation except Caleb and Joshua had died. After waiting in the wilderness for years, Caleb entered the Promised Land, was allotted land near Hebron and died of old age. Either he or his descendants eventually intermarried with the Canaanites or Edomites.
Caleb’s descendant Nabal was a wealthy sheepherder from Maon in the tribal lands of Judah. For over a year, David and his outlawed men protected the shepherds and herders who watched over Nabal’s flocks and protected them from enemy raids. But at shearing time, David requested food from Nabal’s shearers in return for his protecting the flock and herders. The Bible tells us that Nabal “was surly and mean…” (1 Sam. 25:3) and rebuffed David’s request, sending David’s messengers away empty.
David determined to exterminate Nabal and all who were with him, but the wise and diplomatic Abigail intervened, bringing provisions for David and his outlawed bandits and offering soothing words to calm David’s rage. David believed in fairness, and Nabal was anything but fair. This outraged David, who said, Nabal “has returned me evil for good.” (1 Sam. 25:21) According to the Myers Briggs Personality Inventory, certain persons are so geared to acting and expecting others to act fairly, that if anyone acts unfairly, they cannot comprehend or accept this behavior. It violates all that they hold to be true.
Fortunately, Abigail arrived just in time and alighted from her donkey. She fell before David on her face, bowing to the ground in a posture of humility and supplication. “Upon me alone, my lord, be the guilt…” she said. (1 Sam. 25:24) There is a lesson to be learned here for each of us who knows someone who has violated the trust of another. The Book of Common Prayer notes that our ministry as Christians is to reconcile others with God and one another. Here is an extraordinary example. Separating herself verbally from her husband, she explained, “My lord, do not take seriously this ill-natured fellow, Nabal; for as his name is, so is he; Nabal (fool) is his name, and folly is with him…” (1 Sam. 25:25) While not exactly reconciling Nabal and David, she certainly spared her husband’s life and those of others.
David was so impressed by her act of humility that he decided to spare Nabal and his herders. Nabal, meanwhile, lay in a drunken stupor. When he awoke from his lavish banquet, Abigail informed him of what had occurred. He was so shaken that we are told “his heart died within him; he became like a stone.” (1 Sam. 25:37) Perhaps he had a stroke. Regardless, he died ten days later, and David wooed his widow as his wife. Abigail became David’s second wife and bore him his second son Chileab (2 Sam. 3:3), who was called Daniel in 1 Chronicles 3:1. David also married Ahinoam of Jezreel. (1 Sam. 25:43) Meanwhile, Saul had given away David’s wife, Michal, to Palti son of Laish.
Chapter 26 tells a wonderful story about how David once again spared Saul’s life, by entering Saul’s military camp and stealing the spear and water jug lying beside the slumbering king, but refused to kill him. David then trekked to a nearby hillside and called out to Abner, Saul’s cousin and the commander in chief of Israel’s army, “Are you not a man? Who is like you in Israel? Why then have you not kept watch over your lord the king?” David certainly did not lack for gumption. Wielding the king’s spear and water jug, the security breach became evident to all. Recognizing David’s voice, Saul said “come back, my son David…I have been a fool…” (1 Sam. 26:21) Indeed, Saul had been a Nabal! David replied, “The Lord rewards everyone for his righteousness and faithfulness; for the Lord gave you into my hand today, but I would not raise my hand against the Lord’s anointed.” (1 Sam. 26:23)
While Saul temporarily backed off in his pursuit of David, the latter knew that he was not safe with Saul constantly seeking to kill him. David fled to the land of the Philistines, where Achish, king of Gath, gave him the town of Ziklag near the border of Judah. David and his 600 outlaws settled there. Achish trusted completely in David. David, however, spent more than a year raiding annihilating Amelekite and Canaanite towns while convincing Achish that he was actually destroying Israelite settlements. While acting often with integrity, David was a complicated man who was capable of duplicity as well. David shared his spoils with the inhabitants of Judah, buying their gratefulness and loyalty, despite the fact that he was viewed as an enemy. Achish so entrusted David that he made him a part of his army as the Philistines prepared to battle with Saul, but Achish’s other commanders were less trusting and succeeded in having David sent home to Ziklag on the eve of battle.
Why do we awake at 3:00 a.m. with worries and cannot return to sleep? For some reason, 3:00 a.m. is often the time when people under much stress or facing great challenges awaken and often cannot return to sleep. Our fatigued brain finds itself wrestling with whatever concerns have cast a cloud over our lives. Psalm 88 speaks to the troubled soul.
“For my soul is full of troubles,” notes the Psalmist. “I am like those who have no help, like those forsaken among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave, like those you remember no more, for they are cut off from you hand. You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep.” (Ps. 88:3a, 5-6) The Psalmist wonders, “O Lord, why do you cast me off? Why do you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 88:14) He even notes, “You have caused friend and neighbor to shun me; my companions are in darkness.” (Ps. 88:18) We are fortunate, if we do not resonate with these words, but many have found these words to echo their plight and articulate their deepest fears and concerns – the things that cause us to awake at 3:00 a.m. and not return to sleep.
This is one of the most important chapters in the Bible, because it reveals to us the birth of the Church. Pentecost was one of the three main Jewish annual celebrations, along with the Feast of the Tabernacles and Passover, which were deemed more important. Pentecost was celebrated as a feast of the covenant renewal between God and the Israelites according to the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some scholars believe that it was also a celebration of Moses giving the law on Mt. Sinai.
Jewish people from throughout the Roman world gathered in Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of the Tabernacles, Passover and Pentecost. Because Pentecost was only 50 days after the Passover, many Jews would stay in Jerusalem to celebrate both feasts, especially if they had traveled from afar.
The disciples may have gathered in the Upper Room for Pentecost, which is what Acts 1:13 states. This room and other very large rooms were only to be found located in Jerusalem’s Upper City, near the Temple Mount. We are told that “suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind…” (Acts 2:2) This is not the only place in the Bible where wind is said to symbolize the Spirit. In Ezekiel 37 the wind or Spirit revived dead bones symbolizing the restoration of Israel.
“Divine tongues, as of fire, appeared among them.” (Acts 2:3) Fire was used to depict the Judgment Day. Fire also appeared on Mt. Sinai when God gave the law to Moses. (Ex. 19:18) Fire was used to purify metal. Here tongues of fire symbolically appear upon each of the disciples and those gathered in the Upper Room or possibility in the temple courts, where a crowd of great size could have convened.
The gift of the Spirit allowed each person gathered there to speak in a different language. This symbolizes how from the beginning the Church began as a multicultural diversity united under the lordship of Jesus. The disciples began speaking in languages of Parthian, Medes, Elamites, residents of Mesopotamia, Judea, Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia. This list of nations may well have been Luke’s attempt to update the list of nations found in Genesis 10. Some of these languages, such as Medes, however, were now extinct. Hence, Luke was making the point that when the Spirit is given it unites both the living and the dead; the past, present and future are one in God.
The listeners were perplexed that each could hear their own native language being spoken by people who normally communicated in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Others, however, sneered and said that they were drunk. Throughout ancient literature we find various examples of creative inspiration described in terms of drunkenness. Peter, however, was quick to acknowledge that it is only 9 a.m. and what was occurring had nothing to do with drinking alcohol.
In Acts 2:17, Peter stood among the 11 disciples and the crowd and addressed the audience, citing from Joel, where the prophet said,
Then afterward I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even on the male and female slaves,
in those days, I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 28:29)
Joel dark prophetic vision was ominous. He added,
I will show portents in the heavens and on the earth,
blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be
turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the
great and terrible day of the Lord comes. Then everyone
who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved; for in
Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who
escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors
shall be those whom the Lord calls. (Joel 2:30-32)
Peter spared no words, saying, “this man (Jesus), handed over to you according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of those outside the law. But God raised him up, having freed him from death, because it was impossible for him to be held in its power.” (Acts 2:23-24) Peter quoted Psalm 16 to establish that God would raise the Messiah from the dead. Some anti-Semites have used his words found in Acts 2:22-28 to attack the Jews, but Peter’s words are no harsher than those found among Old Testament prophets such as Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah.
Peter also alluded to Psalm 110:1, which is another Messianic passage, speaking of sitting at the Lord’s “right hand.” He added, “Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:36) Peter’s preaching was powerful. He did not mince words. St. Paul will later maintain that “we preach Christ, and Christ crucified.” This is exactly what Peter did and what clergy and laity must do today.
As a result, his hearers “were cut to the heart…” (Acts 2:37) They asked, “Brothers, what should we do?” Our messages are always best heard when others invite our wisdom, rather than when we offer unsolicited advice. This was teachable moment. Peter replied, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 2:38)
Repent comes the from Greek word metanoia, which means to “turn around” or “change direction.” The Jews practiced baptism, but only with pagans who wished to convert and become Jews. Hence, Peter’s suggestion to Jews that they must be baptized would have been highly offensive. Throughout Acts, however, any mention of baptism is always in the passive construction “be baptized.” This refers to a baptism whereby one confesses Jesus to be the Messiah. It is different from the ritual of transforming pagans into Jews. This baptism is an acceptance of the lordship of Jesus.
The Holy Spirit will also be given to each person who is baptized. We continue to hold this belief today. In many Colonial churches you will see a baptismal font with a pulley overhead attached to a rope and a wooden dove. When the lid of the baptismal font is lifted, the dove, which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, descends symbolizing that it is in baptism that we are anointed with God’s Holy Spirit.
The Church was said to have welcomed 3,000 converts that day. This was no small start to the Church. It was an exceptional beginning. It is important to note that the Church counted numbers. Too many Primates or Presiding Bishops, bishops, clergy and church leaders today are afraid to count numbers or to hold themselves, their Churches, dioceses or congregations accountable for growth in numbers. The Early Church had no such fear. We need to recapture that Spirit. The average Episcopalian invites someone to church once every 17 years! We rely too much on people finding their way to our churches, rather than purposefully inviting them or hoping that our clergy will attract them like magnets. We must never forget that sheep, not shepherds, make sheep.
We read, “They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42) This is the best definition of the Church that I know. It is the most succinct description of what the Body of Christ does. We convene to learn, share fellowship, celebrate the Eucharist and offer prayers. Every church must have this at the center of their community. This is our mission. We do not have to reinvent it. Our challenge is not to create it, but to carry it out.
We are told that “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” (Acts 2:44) This was an extremely powerful time in the Church, when people clearly valued relationships above possessions. This was a great strength of the Early Church, until after ceaseless deriding by outsiders pagan values won out and Christians became more possessive. Acts 2:44 was not communism, but rather a shared community where people clearly took care of one another.
A senior faculty member a Yale University told me many years ago that when a custodian had a personal financial problem, professors pooled money and helped him or her. After the establishment of unions, however, this caring behavior stopped. The union did all the bargaining, and the faculty stopped extending care to struggling employees. Unions have certainly served their purpose in history, although today many seem to abuse their power and disrupt economic development. Something desirable occurs when individuals in community act freely to care for those in need around them.
Many special groups in antiquity gathered for regular intimate meals, including mystery cults, Pharisaic fellowship, burial associations and Greek groups that met monthly for meals and fellowship. The Early Church focused on regular, intimate meals and worship, where the Scriptures were read and discussed and learning occurred. This has been lost in the centuries after the Constantian Revolution, where Christianity became the religion of the Holy Roman Empire in 380 A.D. Churches that continue this strong focus on intimate, regular meals and worship where the Scriptures are read and discussed and learning occurs are centers of powerful Christian formation. They leaven the loaf of society with a powerful expression of faith. No wonder we read that as those in Acts did this, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47)
Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ so that your sins may be forgiven; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)
They devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. (Acts 2:42)
All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. (Acts 2:44)
And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved. (Acts 2:47)
Who is the Nabal or fool in your life? Who have you protected and cared for who shows no gratitude? Is there an Abigail who has breached the gap between the fool in your life and your anger and rage at his or her ingratitude for your unrewarded efforts? What causes you to awake at 3:00 a.m. and not return to sleep? How do you cope with your dark hours, when you feel most alone or abandoned? Does your church count numbers of members and seek to increase them? What do you personally do about inviting people to church and helping them become committed members? If it is not your job, whose job is it?
Holy God, Generous God, you have given us this one day, these 24 hours to savor and enjoy, to offer thanks, to extend your love to others, to experience this world, to express wonder and delight, to serve and encourage others, to forgive and be forgiven, to learn, pray, taste, touch, love, rest, recreate, work and be loved. Let us not squander this special gift. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania