The Bible Challenge 2015 – Day 96

I Samuel 1-3, Psalm 80, John 15
A world turned upside down

I Samuel 1-3
Psalm 80
John 15
Key Verses

I Samuel 1 – 3

The Bible contains various sections of literature. The Old Testament has five main sections – law, history, poetry, Major Prophets and Minor Prophets. There are 12 books of history in the Old Testament. These include: Joshua, Judges, Ruth, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Ester. In the ancient Greek Bible, the books of 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings formed a single work which was called “Concerning the Kingdoms.”

These books share a common theme focusing on the establishment on the monarchy in Israel. They are part of the Deuteronomist history, which stresses fidelity to Yahweh. If one worships other gods such as the Canaanite Baal, one breaches the covenant with Yahweh and is punished appropriately.

The book of Judges chronicles the social and political history that occurred in the last three quarters of the eleventh century B.C. Samuel functioned as the last of the judges and the first of the classical prophets. He anointed the first two kings of Israel – Saul and David. Throughout his career, Samuel judged Israel from his home in Ramah, a town which was located a few miles north of Jerusalem.

Though never anointed as a priest, Samuel offered sacrifices at the shrine in Shiloh, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept before it was confiscated by the Philistines in battle at Ebenezer. He built at altar and toured the cities of Bethel, Gilgal and Mizpah each year. Samuel was renowned for his faith and his ability to intercede with Yahweh on behalf of the people of Israel.

I Samuel begins by introducing us to Elkanah, an Ephraimite, who had two wives – Hannah and Peninnah. Polygamy was common in the ancient Near East, especially during the period of Israel’s monarchy. There was many reasons why it existed. These include handling an imbalance of men and women, dealing with cases of barrenness, increasing the number of children in an agrarian society where many were needed to farm or herd animals, increasing wealth and prestige, especially through establishing multiple marriage contracts. Polygamy flourished in nomadic communities and rural farming areas, where every woman had to be protected by a male.

Peninnah had children, but Hannah was barren. Failure to produce a child was serious and could lead to a wife being discarded by her husband or having her status significantly reduced. Barrenness thus brought shame and was seen as a sign of God’s punishment. This was true not only among the Israelites but among various groups living in the ancient Near East. Children were necessary not only for farming and herding but also for taking care of parents in their old age, insuring their proper burial and carrying forward their memory. It was believed that a parent’s well-being in the afterlife was dependent upon the care shown for them by the succeeding generations.

One of the most amazing sites that I have seen was the necropolis or “city of the dead” underneath St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Most pilgrims never see it, as it is said that one needs to know a cardinal to be able to enter this site. After passing through security and two sliding glass doors and walking down stairs into an underworld, pilgrims discover a cardo or main street that cuts beneath the basilica lined with Roman houses, which have no roofs. These houses have interior courtyards, where children and grandchildren would gather each weekend and share a picnic beside the urns of the parents’ and grandparents’ ashes. By honoring the dead, they insured the eternal well-being of their ancestors.

It was customary to make three annual pilgrimages according to the law – the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks and the Feast of Tabernacles. Scholars believe that it was during this last feast the Elkanah traveled to Shiloh to offer sacrifice. Whenever he offered a sacrifice to God, Elkanah gave a double portion to Hannah, for he was especially devoted to her and sympathized with her barrenness, which caused her grief. This only prompted jealously and condemnation by Peninnah. Offering a sacrifice often included boiling meat in a pot. The priest came around to inspect the sacrifice and used a three-pronged fork to pull out a piece of meat for himself.

Eli was a priest from the line of Aaron, being traced back to Aaron’s fourth son, Ithamar. Eli was now aged and no longer functioned actively as a priest. He sat in a prestigious chair by the entrance of the Temple and greeted visitors who had come to offer sacrifice and dispensed words of wisdom. While Hannah was praying, she made a secret vow that if she bore a son she would offer him to the Lord as a nazirite. She made a permanent vow that no razor would ever be used to cut his hair. This vow was similar to that made for Samson.

It was customary for a person to offer money to a priest to invoke a petition to God on their behalf. Perhaps lacking sufficient funds to do so, Hannah was praying silently and moving her lips without speaking audibly. Mistaking her for being drunk, Eli reprimanded her. When she explained her situation and her prayers to overcome her barrenness, Eli promised that this prayer would be answered.

Out of joy, Hannah prayed a song that reminds us of Mary’s Magnificat, which we read in Luke 1:46-55. When God acted, God turned the world upside down. Social and economic injustices were corrected and this was manifested by signs or imagery of mountains being reduced to dust and valleys being lifted up. In words similar to Mary, Hannah prayed, “My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.” (1 Sam. 2:1) She added,

The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low, he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor. (1 Sam. 2:7-8)

Eli’s sons were scoundrels. They took advantage of their father’s stature in Israel and used it for their own benefit, sleeping with women and pilfering people’s sacrifices. Samuel meanwhile “grew both in stature and in favor with the Lord and with the people.” (1 Sam. 2:26) A man of God then came to Eli and offered a revelation. The unnamed stranger informed Eli that his sons, Hophni and Phineas, would die on the same day, but Yahweh would raise up a faithful priest, who would do God’s will Yahweh would build a house for this faithful servant and allow him to offer sacrifices to God.

Chapter three tells one of the most famous stories about a person being called to serve God. The call of Samuel occurs when Eli and Samuel slept in the Temple near the Ark of the Covenant. This process was called “incubation.” It was believed that a person who slept in or near the sanctuary would become privy to divine plans. Over a decade or two ago, St. John the Divine, the Episcopal cathedral in New York City, began inviting youth groups to come and spend the night in the cathedral. Teenagers were invited to hear the massive organ play traditional and nontraditional music, tour the cathedral, pray, worship and sleep in the cathedral. Such is but a glimpse of what incubation offered.

It was common in the ancient Near East to receive auditory dreams and to see the hand of God at work in them. In 1 Samuel 3 Samuel hears his name called three times. At first, he believed that Eli was calling him. Eli, however, instructed the young Samuel to respond by saying, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Sam. 3:9)

Most of our ministry begins with listening either to God in prayer or by listening to others share their pain, suffering, joy, fear and hopes with us. Listening is one of the most vital acts of ministry. It is highly underrated in a day and age flooded with words and noise. My mother used to tell me, “If you can do one thing well, be a good listener.” I come from a family of talkers, and it’s been a struggle throughout my life to be a good listener, but surely this is where most ministry begins.

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Psalm 80

Psalm 80 is a plea for Israel’s restoration and turning the world upside down so that Israel, which was brought low might once again be lifted on high. The Psalmist cries,

Stir up your might,
and come to save us!
Restore us, O God;
let your face shine, that we may be saved. (Ps. 80:2b-3)

Like the Irish blessing, which says, “May the Lord’s face shine upon you…” the metaphor of “the light of God’s face” is found in various places in the literature of the ancient Near East, including in royal letters from Egypt. In Numbers 6:25-26 we read, “the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”

These words find their way today into the Burial Office of the Episcopal Church at the graveside committal. I read them today as I interred a dear friend’s ashes outdoors saying, “…we commit his body to the ground, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The Lord bless him and keep him, the Lord make his face to shine upon him and be gracious unto him, the Lord lift up his countenance and give him peace.” The “light of God’s face” is believed to be a prayer of mercy and forgiveness.

The “cherubim” are also invoked in verse 1. We read, “You who are enthroned upon the cherubim, shine forth before Ephraim and Benjamin and Manasseh.” Cherubim were associated with the Ark of the Covenant, and were either mounted on it or beside it. Archeological discoveries in Israel and Egypt show similar figures that are composites of various animals serving as guardians on boxes carried in procession. These animals have four feet and wings, somewhat similar to the Egyptian sphinx. They appear in art guarding the thrones of kings and deities and were believed to watch over Israel’s Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments, which God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai.

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John 15

I have a small beautiful communion kit, which was given to me by a woman whose husband was a chaplain at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire and later an Associate Rector at St. Thomas Church, where I serve. Her husband died long before I became Rector of St. Thomas, but his wife wanted me to have his communion kit. It was one of the most touching gifts that I have ever received.

Her husband was a wonderful priest with a great pastoral heart. When a death or tragedy occurred, he immediately telephoned and said, “Put a pot of tea on the stove. I will be right over.” He often brought this communion kit with him, which was given to him by another priest, who received it from another priest, who was the Associate Rector of Holy Trinity Church in Rittenhouse Square, where Phillips Brooks, the author of O Little Town of Bethlehem was Rector. Brooks was the greatest preacher that the Episcopal Church ever produced. He gave his Associate Rector this communion kit, which now bears the initials on it of all whom have owned and used it.

Each time I bring communion to someone in the hospital or at home, we recite a short service. I begin by reading several verses of Scripture, including one which comes from John 15:

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

Few phrases in the Bible are more powerful. Our strength, wisdom and hope comes from abiding in God and spending time with Jesus through prayer and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide us each day as we read the Bible. “Abiding” is an old-fashioned word, which does not get much use nowadays, but it is a rich, wonderful word worthy of reflecting upon at length.

If you wish to do so, I recommend reading Abiding by Dr. Ben Quash, who is Professor of Christianity and the Arts at King’s College London. We are honored to have Ben serving as one of the members of the International Advisory Board of the Center for Biblical Studies, which promotes and shares The Bible Challenge around the world. Ben and I have met several times in London to discuss The Bible Challenge, and I have been fortunate to hear him lecture in Oxford. He is one of the brightest Anglican theologians in the world. Before stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams asked Ben to write the Lenten book for the Anglican Communion in 2013. Ben wrote Abiding. It is a powerful and wonderful meditation on this very significant spiritual word “abide.” This word forms the heart of one of the best-loved Anglican hymns for Evensong Abide with me.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; it’s glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes;
Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies.
Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee;
In life, in death, O Lord, abide with me.

This hymn was composed by the Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte and sung most often to William Henry Monk’s tune “Eventide.” Lyte wrote the poem in 1847 and set it to music as he lay dying from tuberculosis. He survived only three weeks after it was composed. The hymn is popular among many denominations and was said to be a personal favorite of King George V and Mahatma Gandhi. It is one of the most beautiful hymns to sing at a funeral. As the Titanic was sinking, the ship’s band played it as the lifeboats were being lowered into the dark water below. It is often sung on Remembrance Day in Canada and Great Britain, and it influenced phrases of the finale of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

Abiding is a somewhat odd word. It is no longer found in daily conversation. Quash, however, shows how abiding is central to the Christian life. It indicates a sense of profound personal commitment, a sort of solidarity that “waiting” cannot convey. Abiding speaks of God’s commitment to us and our commitment to God. Jesus called his followers to abide with him in order to discover a transformation of life as we relinquish our own control in order to abide with God. Those who cannot relinquish control of their own lives in order to follow Jesus cannot move beyond the surface of the Christian life.

Throughout this chapter, Jesus invited his disciples to a new level of commitment. He warned them, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit.” (John 15:1-2) It is interesting to watch workers in the vineyard pruning the vines. We are not meant to be leafy branches that soak up the sun and rain simply for our own benefit. We were created to bear fruit that serves God’s purpose. This is what brings us our ultimate joy.

“I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete,” noted Jesus. (John 15:11) Joy is one of the great barometers of the Christian life. It is different from happiness. On any given day or hour a Christian may or may not be happy. Happiness is like a volatile stock, which can go up or down on any given day or hour in which the stock exchange is open. Joy, however, is a deeper current of emotional state that can be much more profound, stable and enduring. God longs for each of us to have enduring joy.

Jesus warned his disciples, “If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18) Christians today must be aware the Muslims in Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Syria and Turkey are making life increasingly impossible and insufferable for Christians. More Christians were persecuted in the 20th century than all previous centuries combined. Jews have been shocked at how silent American Christians have been while Christians around the world are persecuted and suffer.

Jesus promised his disciples that when he died he would send “the Advocate” or paraclete in Greek, which is a counselor or advocate who would offer us wisdom and counsel and plead our case before the courts of heaven. Christians know this advocate as the Holy Spirit, who is with us as all times and helps us to abide in God. The world does not need churches full of complacent Christians. The world needs a few more committed Christians who abide in Jesus and carry out his ministry faithfully each day.

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Key Verses

Therefore Eli said to Samuel, ‘Go lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’ (1 Sam. 3:9)

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. (John 15:1-2)

Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:4-5)

I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. (John 15:11)

No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. (John 15:13-14)

I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another. (John 15:17)

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. (John 15:18)

When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, he will testify on my behalf. (John 15:26)

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Have you experienced a sense of call in your life? Is there someone who has helped you clarify your sense of call? Do you have a holy place where you always feel that you are in the presence of God? If God turned your world upside down, what would it look like? How connected do you feel to Jesus the vine? What fruit are you bearing in your life? How would God prune your life to make you more spiritually fruitful? Have you ever experienced persecution for being a Christian? How you spoken out to protect other Christians being persecuted merely for following Christ?

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Holy and Gracious God, for many of us being a Christian is easy and something that we may even receive accolades for being. For many others around the world, it is becoming an increasingly dangerous and risky thing. Please watch over Christians around the world, who often risk their lives to worship, teach and share the Christian faith and serve those in need. Help them to be courageous, wise and strong, and help us to pray daily for them and to speak out regarding the plight of persecuted Christians around the world. In Jesus’s name we pray. Amen.

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© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania