I Samuel 31, Psalm 89:19-52, Acts 4
Something rarely seen in today’s churches!
I Samuel 31
This final chapter tells of the fall of Saul and the death of his three sons. Kings who were captured in battle were often humiliated and mutilated. Their thumbs and toes were cut off and their eyes were gouged out. These were but a few of the many indignities forced upon them. Defeated and humiliated kings spent the remainder of their life begging for crumbs until the conquering king’s table.
When Saul saw that his three sons had been killed in battle, he knew that the end was near. When the Philistine archers wounded him, Saul chose to die rather than be captured. Unable to convince his armor-bearer to kill him, Saul fell upon his own sword.
His vanquishers cut off his head, stripped off his armor and sent messengers throughout the land proclaiming the good news of his death. The severed head of a fallen king was a prized possession. Saul’s body and the bodies of his three sons were then left exposed and hanging on a wall in Beth-shan. To dismember a body and leave it exposed for all to see was the height of disgrace for an individual or in this case for an entire people and nation. Think of what happened to some American soldiers who fell captive in the early stages of the war in Iraq.
Several valiant men of Jabesh-gilead, however, risked their lives to retrieve the bodies and gave them a proper burial. Saul’s body was buried in a simple grave under a tamarisk tree. The irony is that in 1 Samuel 22:6 Saul assembled his troops under a tamarisk tree. Once a king of great power commanding an army gathered around a tree, whose bark was used for tanning and whose wood was used for building and charcoal, Saul was now buried underneath a similar tree. His grave was neither a major monument nor a palace, but a tree which grew no higher than 20 feet.
The second portion of this psalm is a powerful tribute to King David as the one whom God anointed and would never allow to fall from favor. The Psalmist writes,
I have set the crown on one who is mighty,
I have exalted one chosen from the people.
I have found my servant David;
with my holy oil I have anointed him;
my hand shall always remain with him;
my arm also shall strengthen him. (Ps. 89:19b-21)
Anointing of a king was a common practice in the ancient Near East. Hittites and Egyptians believed that anointing protected leaders from netherworld deities. In Egypt the Pharaoh was not anointed, but instead anointed his officials indicating that they served in subordinate roles to him. Anointing symbolized a contractual agreement between the leader and the people whom he governed. Spices of myrrh, cinnamon, cane and cassia were used for anointing. The anointing also symbolized God bestowing gifts and responsibilities upon the leader and endowing him with the Spirit to govern.
The Psalmist writes of God’s unconditional and powerful support for his anointed.
My faithfulness and steadfast love shall be with him;
and in my name his horn shall be exalted…
I will make him the firstborn,
the highest of the kings of the earth.
Forever I will keep my steadfast love for him,
And my covenant with him will stand firm.
I will establish his line forever,
and his throne as long as the heavens endure. (Ps. 89:24, 27-29)
The psalm turns radically moving into a countermovement similar to the words of desperation of Psalm 22. The author writes,
But now you have spurned and rejected;
you are full of wrath against your anointed.
You have renounced the covenant with your servant;
you have defiled his crown in the dust.
You have broken through all his walls;
you have laid his strongholds in ruins.
All who pass by plunder him;
he has become the scorn of his neighbors. (Ps. 89:38-41)
While Peter and John addressed the crowd, the priest and the captain of the Temple and the Sadducees became annoyed. The Pharisees believed that there was life after death, but the Sadducees denied it. The Sadducees oversaw the operations of the Temple. Hence, they carried much clout in its precincts.
The message that Peter and John proclaimed was the kerygma or the essential proclamation of the Gospel, which lies at the heart of all that Jesus said and did. This message was potent and yet also threatening to the Sadducees’ belief system and the financial operations of the Temple.
The Sadducees and their families benefited directly from all Temple operations. The money changers and those who sold sacrificial animals reported to them. Peter and John proclaimed that Jesus was the ultimate paschal sacrifice offered by God who came to reconcile humans to their Creator. This message threatened to undermine the Sadducee’s livelihood and religious outlook of continuous sacrifice to God.
The Sadducees therefore viewed Peter and John with the seriousness that we might view a harmful virus that could spread like wildfire. They had to be stopped. So Peter and John were arrested, but those who heard their message were numbered about 5,000. The Holy Spirit was moving in miraculous ways.
It reminds me of George Whitefield, who helped to lead the Great Awakening, a movement that swept across the Britain and the American colonies in the 1730s and 1740s, leaving a permanent impact on American Protestantism. It provided a fervent spiritual message that came from powerful preaching, which provided listeners with a deep sense of their personal need for salvation in Jesus Christ.
It stood in stark contrast to the more formal preaching and rigid rituals of the Church of England, which often spoke to the head but left the heart cold. Preaching by Whitefield, John Wesley and Jonathan Edwards lifted listeners to a new level of religious conviction and moral behavior. Their preaching had enormous impact on Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch and German Reformed churches as well as Baptists, Lutherans and members of the Church of England throughout the colonies.
In 1740, Whitefield traveled to America, where he preached a series of revivals that became known as the “Great Awakening.” He became known as one of the most widely recognized public figures in the American colonies. His preaching drew great crowds and media coverage. Some historians have even described him as America’s first “rock star.”
Because the Church of England did not assign Whitefield to a pulpit, he preached in parks and fields. He wrote local clergy asking if he might preach in their pulpit. He was often turned down and had to preach in the open air, where he often used a tree stump as his pulpit and attracted thousands of listeners. Whitefield probably wrote to the Rector of St. Thomas, Whitemarsh, where I serve, because in his journals he notes that he preached in the fields of Whitemarsh, where our church is located.
His voice could be heard from a great distance. Thanks to a growing media in the colonies, it is estimated that as many as half of all the colonists either heard him preach or read about his preaching or read something written by Whitefield. He sent advance men to put up broadsides and distribute handbills announcing his preaching dates. One of his most attentive listeners was Ben Franklin.
Franklin was greatly impressed by Whitefield’s ability to deliver a message to a large group. He admired Whitefield’s intellect, passion and message and published several of Whitefield’s tracts. Franklin also financed Whitefield’s preaching mission. Franklin notes in his famous autobiography that one day while Whitefield was preaching from the Philadelphia court house, Franklin walked away towards his shop in Market Street until he could no longer hear Whitefield distinctly. He then estimated his distance from Whitefield and calculated the area of a semicircle centered on Whitefield. Allowing two square feet per person, Franklin computed that Whitefield could be heard by over 30,000 people in the open air.
After one of Whitefield’s sermons, Franklin noted the “…wonderful…change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seem’d as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk thro’ the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
What is obvious is the Whitefield was carrying out something similar to what Peter and John did. Peter and John were deeply transformed by the receiving of the Holy Spirit. Acts tells us that after they were imprisoned, their captors asked them by what power or name they acted and spoke.
“Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, ‘Rulers of the people and elders, if we are questioned today because of a good deed done to someone who was sick and are asked how this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, who God raised from the dead. This Jesus is ‘the stone that was rejected by you, the builders; it has become the cornerstone.’ There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:8-12)
Peter and John and the early disciples were bold preachers, who were propelled by the Holy Spirit to share God’s message and carry out works similar to what Jesus did. They drew upon the Old Testament teachings and prophecies and saw their mission as a continuation of God’s salvation history. They were fearless and brave. Their preaching and ministry impacted thousands, but it also put them at great personal risk. There is a tremendous amount for the Church to learn from this today.
Finally, Acts 4:32-37 gives a phenomenal description of a world that was completely different from the Church today. First, we read that “those who believed were of one heart and soul.” This can still be found in churches today. It is wonderful when a congregation worships and serves in unison with God’s Holy Spirit drawing a diverse group of individuals into a well-functioning Body of Christ.
But Acts goes on to describe something rarely ever seen in the Church today. We read, “no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” (Acts 4:32) This sort of generosity and lack of fear about long-term health needs and “What if I live to be 100, and I need lots of around the clock medical care,” is rare today.
Christians today have been seduced into a rich lifestyle of caring for ourselves. I know Christians who spend tens of thousands of dollars annually on club dues, who travel the world, pay thousands of dollars to care for their aging pets and who send their children to private schools. Yet, they offer the God just a small fraction of what they spend on themselves to carry out the Church’s mission and ministry.
We Christians would do well to look closely in the mirror and to read these texts carefully and take them seriously to heart, if we want to experience the power of the Holy Spirit coursing through our veins as it once pulsed through those of the disciples. “There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.” (Acts 4:34-35) This is breathtaking!
I will establish his line forever, and his throne as long as the heavens endure. (Ps. 89:29)
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:34-35)
Who is the most powerful preacher whom you have heard? What made their preaching so memorable? What kind of preaching do you think people most need to hear today? What are the best ways to communicate the kerygma or Jesus’ essential proclamation to people today? Why are Christians so reluctant to trust God with their wealth and share more generously with others, especially those in need? What small steps can you take now to become a more generous Christian?
Holy and Gracious God, all that has been bestowed upon us since we were born, all that we now have and all that we shall receive in the future is a gift that has come from you. Help us to be grateful and to share abundantly from what we have received with others, especially with our church and with those in needs. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania