I Samuel 7-9, Psalm 82, John 17
Be careful what you ask for!
I Samuel 7 – 9
Sometimes we choose things that we end up regretting. God warned Israel about the danger of doing this when they demanded upon having a king. The story of Saul is one of the saddest to be found in the Bible. Saul was a shy and unambitious man, who was thrust in a mighty role and soon lost his favor with God, despite his many successes. Despite Saul’s early successes, he is often overshadowed and almost forgotten in the Bible by the fame and success of his protégé, rival and eventual successor, David.
But before all of this occurred, Samuel encouraged Israel once again to rehabilitate itself. “…put away the foreign gods and the Astartes from among you,” he told them. “Direct your heart to the Lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Sam. 7:3b)
All of us have our foreign gods and the Astartres that capture our attention. We feed them with our time, money and energy. For some, it’s on over focus on sports. For others, it’s constant travel. For some, it’s constant consumerism. For some, it’s living a lifestyle beyond what they can afford. For others, it’s sending their children or grandchildren to elite schools and scripting on what they give to God. For others, it’s drinking alcohol or popping pills or doing both and getting hooked. For some, it’s taking on too many commitments and becoming angry and burnt out. We all bow down before foreign gods that diminish us when we overdue our worship of them.
So, Samuel called upon Israel to enter rehab yet again. “Then Samuel said, ‘Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.” (1 Sam. 7:5) To facilitate their prayer, Samuel and Israel fasted. (1 Sam. 7:6) Fasting was not a well-known practice in the ancient Near East, but it is an important spiritual practice in many religions, especially in Islam and Christianity. Episcopalians are weak at fasting. We tend to like our food and drink, but we would do well to fast, which is quite different from dieting.
Fasting is a spiritual practice, which hallows us out and facilitates prayer. It purifies and humbles us, reminding us of our dependence upon God. Through fasting we sharpen our spiritual focus and can see our spiritual needs more clearly and make these known to God and hear God speak more clearly as we subdue our focus on physical needs and concerns. (See Ps. 69:10) When fasting occurred in the Old Testament, it was generally associated with mourning or in making a request to God.
Often before entering battle, tribes in the ancient Near East offered sacrifices. Spies could tell when their enemies were preparing for battle by observing these sacrifices made in military camps when there was no holy festival. After fasting to purify and focus their prayers and offering sacrifices, Israel engaged in battle and routed the Philistines, regaining towns that the Philistines had taken from them.
In 1 Samuel 7:12, “Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Jeshanah, and named it Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Thus far the Lord has helped us.’” Boundary markers made of stone and sometimes covered with inscriptions were common in the ancient Near East. The Egyptians made frequent use of them. They were frequently used to denote boundaries, especially after an area was taken in war. The Babylonians used kuddurru stones, which were believed to offer divine protection.
The elders of Israel, however, were not content with the status quo. Seeing other nations with kings, they approached Samuel, whose sons Joel and Abijah were deemed corrupted and worthless, and insisted that he anoint a king. Until this time, Israel had never had a king. A monarchy was soon to be established, which changed the course of Israel. Samuel warned them that a king would rule over them fiercely, and they would come to regret having a king. “And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” (1 Sam. 8:18)
1 Samuel 9 introduces us to Saul, who became Israel’s first king. It is intriguing that Saul had no idea who Samuel was, even though Samuel was a national figure on Israel’s stage and lived but a short distance from where Saul was raised. This might be a sign of Saul social and political naivete. He was truly a country boy thrust in a role far beyond him. Samuel visited towns and cities all around Israel. Wherever Samuel visited he was deemed to be the local village holy man.
God revealed to Samuel that he would soon meet the man whom God had selected to be Israel’s king. “When Samuel saw Saul, the Lord told him, ‘Here is the man of whom I spoke to you. He it is who shall rule over my people.’” (1 Sam. 9:17) Samuel invited Saul to a banquet with 30 other guests and told his servants to bring Saul the choice cut of meat, the thigh. This normally went to the officiating priest (Lev. 7:32-34), but on this occasion Samuel relinquished his right to it and yielded it to his guest of honor.
In the ancient world, everything was decided in divine councils. The gods met, consulted one another, each shared what they knew and thought and a decision was made. It was like a gathering of generals. This is what the Psalmist has in mind when he wrote, “God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment…” (Ps. 82:1)
God champions the poor. He favors and protects the afflicted. “Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” (Ps. 82:3-4) Our lives must mirror God’s preferential care for the poor.
“…all the foundations of the earth are shaken,” writes the Psalmist. The ancient Babylonians believed that the earth was founded atop the waters, which they called apsu. In various regions such as marshes and springs one could see the primordial waters reaching to the earth’s surface. The earth therefore rested atop a watery platform like a slab of ice floating atop the ocean waters.
Since the Early Fathers in the first centuries of the Church chapter 17 of John’s Gospel has been known as Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer for Jesus functions here like a high priest offering intercession for the whole people. It is also part of his farewell discourse, which extends over several chapters. Throughout this prayer, Jesus refers to God as “Father,” just as he did in uttering the Lord’s Prayer. (John 17:6, 11, 12, 26) His work on earth is done, and it is time now to return to heaven, where Jesus existed with God in the beginning, as John’s Prologue told us. (John 1:1-4) Jesus always insisted that he had always been doing his Father’s work, not his own. (John 4:34, 5:36, 9:4, 10:37-38)
Jesus told his disciples what eternal life was, saying, “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3) To know God is to experience eternity. If we are fortunate in this lifetime, we will experience a few moments where the veil of life is pulled back and we see the presence of God behind the reality around us and comprehend the Creator behind all of creation. It is experiences such as these that the mystics describe in their writings.
Having prayed to be with God in glory, Jesus turned and prayed for his disciples who would be left behind. They were a small, cowering group who even after three years did not understand much what Jesus had said and had done. Yet, this group would be left to transform the world and turn it upside down after Jesus had died, been resurrected and ascended to God.
Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer calls for unity. His utmost desire is for humans to be unified as one, not divided with nation against nation, people against people, race against race and religion against religion. That is not how God intended for us to be. “Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:11b) What would our churches look like if each priest took it upon himself or herself to watch over the congregation with this extreme care?
What if each priest viewed each parishioner as if he or she was the only member of the church and strived to his or her best to help guard this person’s soul, drawing him or her closer to God and forming in him or her a disciple who walked a life’s journey closely with God? Jesus suggested offering such care when he said, “I have guarded them and not one of them was lost except the one destined to be lost, so that the Scripture might be fulfilled.” (John 17:11b, 12b)
Jesus referred to Judas here. In John 13:18 Jesus said, “I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the Scripture, ‘The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’” This alluded to Psalm 41:9, where we read, “Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.” The Good Shepherd has been concerned at all times that none is lost. (John 6:12, 39, 10:28, 17:12)
“And for their sakes I sanctify myself, so that they also may be sanctified in truth,” said Jesus. The Greek word “sanctify” means “to set apart.” (Lev. 11:44) Jesus was set apart in order that we, too, might be set apart in the truth of God. As Christians, we are called to be different from the world. If our lives and lifestyle are not different than our neighbor who does not attend church or believe in God, then something is seriously wrong with what we are leading our Christian life.
If you can look through my check book and my calendar and see nothing that sets my life apart from my neighbor who does not believe in God, then my belief is not a real belief in God. How we spend our time, money and energy should be very different from those who do not follow Jesus as committed Christians. Christian discipleship and stewardship is all that we say and do after we say “Yes” to God.
To set apart or consecrate is taken from the Greek hagiazein, which comes from the adjective hagios, which is usually translated as holy but actually means different or separate. “Saints” are those who are holy or set apart by God to work through. To be holy is to be set apart for a special task. When God called Jerimiah to serve as a prophet, Jerimiah said, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:5)
God has called each of us to serve, and when God calls us to serve, God calls us to be ourselves, not to be someone else. We know that we have discovered our calling when we realize this is what I was put on the planet to do. This is why I was created. In the same way, God told Moses to consecrate the sons of Aaron to serve in the office of priests. (Ex. 28:41) This was their special duty.
Church historian and author Diana Butler Bass notes there are 21,986 Christian denominations and groups in the United States. This is the scandal of Christianity. We have divided and split in countless ways. Anglicans and Episcopalians had significant divisions over issues to do with homosexuality. Some split apart. Surely this grieves God. Good people can differ substantially over vital issues, but we never should walk away from each other, not in the community of love and the community of the cross. When leaders lead others to separate, they tear the fabric of Christ’s Body and violate the spirit of John 17, which calls for unity. Unity was Jesus’ final command and aspiration for us.
Christ never intended for the Body of Christ to have so many parts, each claiming to be the right way to serve and follow God. Hence, Jesus prayed, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.” (John 17:21-22)
And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:3)
As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one. (John 17:21-22)
What does it mean to you to have eternal life? Do you believe that everyone regardless of religion or belief or how they have lived their life will inherit eternal life? Why do you think that Christianity has become so divided? What can we do to create greater unity? If you knew that you would soon by dying and leaving your loved ones, what would you pray for them? What would be your High Priestly Prayer?
Heavenly Father, help us to live each day as if it were our last day, our only day, so that we might use our time and possessions, our energy and our love to serve you and care profoundly for those around us as you would have us do so. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie
Rector of St. Thomas Episcopal Church
Fort Washington, Pennsylvania