I Samuel 28-30, Psalm 89:1-18, Acts 3
Bold leadership and proclamation: Something too often missing today
I Samuel 28 – 30
In 1 Samuel 28 King Achish appoints David his lifelong bodyguard. David now may be called upon to fight against his father-in-law King Saul. This is a precarious situation. Saul meanwhile disbands wizards, sorcerers and mediums in Israel. The practitioners of sorcery were looked down upon because their means of seeking wisdom circumvented Yahweh and drew upon ancient Canaanite rituals.
What follows is a fascinating story, which influenced Shakespeare as he wrote MacBeth. The procedure of calling upon the dead and seeking their wisdom is found in many ancient texts. Homer describes it in his Odyssey and other examples are found in Hittite and Mesopotamian literature. The most common procedure was to dig a pit at night using a special tool. A special food offering of bread, oil, honey or the blood of a sacrificial animal was poured on the spot to attract the spirits of the dead. An incantation was then chanted. The pit was later covered to insure that the spirits did not escape.
The ancestor cult was a well-developed concept in the ancient Near East. The dead were believed to have considerable impact upon the living. The ancients believed that by pouring libations on the ground that their dead ancestors would offer them protection and help. Protection of the dead began with a proper burial followed by on-going offerings of food and drink. This task fell to the first-born who was responsible for caring for the deceased and who inherited the family gods.
In 1 Samuel 28 Saul communicates with the deceased Samuel, whose spirit is drawn from a pit by the witch of Endor. Saul hoped that Samuel would predict what the future held for Israel, his family and him. We are told that the Urim and Thurim, dreams and the prophets had all failed to reveal anything to Saul. At his wits end, he consulted a medium, which he had previously banned from being consulted. Priests, mediums and necromancers were all believed to have the power to communicate with the dead. Unfortunately, many spirits were thought to have the power to break loose and could cause great harm. Archeological excavations have discovered bowls of food and cups for drinking in Iron Age tombs in Israel, offering proof of the ancestor cult in the ancient Near East.
While this may seem strange to us, this tradition continues to this day in some parts of Africa. It was explained to me when I first arrived in Kenya that men frequently poured some of their beverage on the ground in honor of his dead ancestors as a drink offering. The dead remain present in the lives of many people around the world today, who believe that in preserving their memory, the dead may will impact and influence the lives of those now living.
This chapter marks the king’s final hope, trying to revive the spirit of Samuel to guide him on the eve of battle by reaching out to a medium or necromancer. Saul went in disguise to the village of Endor, where Samuel indeed rose “like a divine being coming up out of the ground.” (1 Sam. 28:13) Samuel’s words, however, brought Saul no comfort, “…the Lord has torn the kingdom out of your hand, and given it to your neighbor, David. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord, and did not carry out his fierce wrath against Amalek…Moreover the Lord will give Israel along with you into the hands of the Philistines; and tomorrow you and yours sons shall be with me; the Lord will also give the army of Israel into the hands of the Philistines.” (1 Sam. 28:18-19)
Achish’s commanders insisted once again that David be sent away. Hence, David and his soldiers left only to discover that the Amalekites had attacked Ziklag, burned their homes and taken their wives, children and possessions. The men threatened to stone David as a result of their loss, “but David strengthened himself in the Lord his God.” (1 Sam 30:6) David put on his ephod and consulted the Lord, who told him that if he pursued the invaders that he would overtake them and rescue their families.
David’s mission was successful, but a third of his men were too exhausted to engage in battle. Some of the “corrupt and worthless fellows” among his raiding party wanted to keep all of the war spoils for themselves and to only allow those who stayed behind to reclaim their families, but David refused. “You shall not do so, my brothers, with what the Lord has given us… For the share of the one who goes down into battle shall be the same as the share of the one who stays by the baggage; they shall share alike.” (1 Sam. 30:23-24) Once again, David proved to be a decisive leader, not fearing to refuse bad advice.
I know someone who will receive news today from her oncologist following a recent surgery and another who will have a procedure tomorrow to determine the seriousness of her illness. Both of these friends have wonderfully bright outlooks on life. Resiliency is one of life’s greatest traits. It helps us to weather the storms of illness, financial concerns, relationships, tragedies and losses.
The Psalmist proclaims today: “I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations.” (Ps. 89:1) There is a great ministry in singing. Choir members tend to be incredibly dedicated in this age where so many are fearful about committing to anything. We want instant results without making any sacrifice or commitment. We shun the word “duty,” and are weary of committing to teach Sunday school, sing in the choir or join a ministry.
“Those who sing, pray twice,” said St. Augustine. Indeed, developing a strong chorister program and choir is one of the greatest things that a church can do. To help children and adults sing the Christian faith transforms lives as they learn the meaning of the words and memorize them. They learn to sing what at first they feared was too difficult for them. They are taught to achieve excellence and succeed as a team. No one sits on the bench. All participate. Choristers and choirs lead the worship, internalize the words of our faith as they memorize and practicing singing that which becomes part of their being.
We can only imagine the joy of the Psalmist and sang, “I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens.” (Ps. 89:2) This is what those facing serious illness need to hear and recall as they await the outcome of important medical tests and procedures. When God is for us, who can be against us? We have a mighty Savior watching over us. “Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne,” says the Psalmist. Let us sing our faith with gusto.
I love the story of Peter healing the crippled beggar. Spanish artists for centuries have captured scenes of beggars waiting outside churches with hands extended hoping that those entering or leaving with deposit a few coins in their open palms. The same scene repeats itself daily around the world.
This story took place outside the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem, where the Messiah was supposed to enter the city. The Romans sealed this gate to prevent the Messiah entering Jerusalem through it. It was time for afternoon prayer in the Temple. A man, who had never taken a step freely on his own, was being carried in the Temple. His entire life had been one of dependency, relying on the kindness of others to help him move and earn and living by begging. Like so many lame people around the world, his livelihood was tied to his infirmity and depending on the kindness of friends and strangers.
When Peter and John saw him as they were about to enter the Temple for prayer, they looked intently at him. Then Peter said, “Look at us.” Beggars often lose complete self-respect and dignity. They feel transparent as countless people brush beside them, averting their eyes to avoid engaging them. The lame man fixed his attention on Peter and John, expecting to receive something in turn from them.
He had in mind some small sum of money, or perhaps something larger. Surely, he was disappointed when Peter said, “I have no silver or gold…” until Peter added, “but what I have I give you; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, stand up and walk.” (Acts 3:6) Peter now embodied the healing, reconciling and transforming power of Christ. Taking the man by his right hand, Peter raised him to his feet.
I love what happened next. The man does not stand there dumbstruck, but he jumped up, took steps, leapt and praised God. You can feel the energy and the pure joy of a man who since infancy had crawled and never walked, run or jumped or experienced power surge through his legs, which withered like pieces of spaghetti under him. Those who were used to avoiding him and letting him blend in to the Temple building like a stone outcrop were filled with wonder and amazement.
Those who witnessed this miracle ran to Peter and John in Solomon’s Portico, where Jesus used to stroll and teach, surrounded them and expressed their astonishment. Peter then proclaimed the gospel of Christ crucified. He did not preach about how to be a more spiritual person and how to live with less stress and see God in small things of life. He preached a message of love, hope, and reconciliation with the God, who all of us have rejected somewhere along the line. He preached transformation in Christ.
“You rejected the Holy and Righteous One and asked to have a murderer given to you, and you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead,” said Peter. (Acts 3:14-15. In one way or another, this could be said of each one of us. Through our actions and deeds, our words and our silence, we have denied Jesus a thousand times. “To this we are witnesses,” said Peter. The word “martyr” means “one who witnesses.” Surely, the days of Peter, who boldly proclaimed Jesus, were now numbered.
He tied his proclamation of truth to Jewish salvation history and how “God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, that his Messiah would suffer.” (Acts 3:18) Then told his listeners, “Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing my come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God had long ago announced through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:19-21)
Peter explained how Moses and Samuel and all of the prophets had foretold this as well. “Repent” means “Turn around” or “Change direction.” The way that you are going is precarious, and you will become lost. How many of us have the courage to share this kind of message with family members, friends or colleagues who are following a dangerous path?
Peter assures them that God will “wipe out” their sins. What better promise can be held out for us? God will not just forget or forgive what we have done, but God will delete our wrongful deeds and send Jesus to us. Where have all the bold preachers gone? Where have all the committed and vocal Christians fled? Do we have the courage to preach and share the gospel hope like Peter?
I will sing of your steadfast love, O Lord, forever; with my mouth I will proclaim your faithfulness to all generations. (Ps. 89:1)
I declare that your steadfast love is established forever; your faithfulness is as firm as the heavens. (Ps. 89:2)
Who do you consult before making your most important decisions? How do you sing your faith? Do you sing in church and let your voice lift the others’ spirits? In what way have you been lame from birth or wounded many years ago? How are you depending on others to carry you through life? Who is trying to extend a hand to you and invite you to be more than you have been in the past?
Gracious and Holy God, you know all things that trouble and concern us. Today is a gift. It is an outward and visible sign of your love for us. Grant us this day an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania