1 Samuel 15:10-31 – Rationalizing Disobedience

King Saul by William Wetmore Story (1819-1895) at the North Carolina Museum of Art

Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.

Early in the morning Samuel got up and went to meet Saul, but he was told, “Saul has gone to Carmel. There he has set up a monument in his own honor and has turned and gone on down to Gilgal.”

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The Lord bless you! I have carried out the Lord’s instructions.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the Lord your God, but we totally destroyed the rest. “Enough!” Samuel said to Saul. “Let me tell you what the Lord said to me last night.”

“Tell me,” Saul replied.

Samuel said, “Although you were once small in your own eyes, did you not become the head of the tribes of Israel? The Lord anointed you king over Israel. And he sent you on a mission, saying, ‘Go and completely destroy those wicked people, the Amalekites; wage war against them until you have wiped them out.’ Why did you not obey the Lord? Why did you pounce on the plunder and do evil in the eyes of the Lord?”

“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.”

But Samuel replied:

“Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
    as much as in obeying the Lord?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
    and to heed is better than the fat of rams.
For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
    and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
    he has rejected you as king.”

Then Saul said to Samuel, “I have sinned. I violated the Lord’s command and your instructions. I was afraid of the men and so I gave in to them. Now I beg you, forgive my sin and come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord.”

But Samuel said to him, “I will not go back with you. You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you as king over Israel!”

As Samuel turned to leave, Saul caught hold of the hem of his robe, and it tore. Samuel said to him, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you today and has given it to one of your neighbors—to one better than you. He who is the Glory of Israel does not lie or change his mind; for he is not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

Saul replied, “I have sinned. But please honor me before the elders of my people and before Israel; come back with me, so that I may worship the Lord your God.” So, Samuel went back with Saul, and Saul worshiped the Lord. (NIV)

“You cannot compensate by sacrifice what you lose through disobedience.”

edwin louis cole

God had given Saul explicit instructions on how to handle a group of people called the Amalekites (the first nation to attack the Jewish people after the Exodus from Egypt, and viewed as the archetypal enemy of the Jews). Saul obeyed only some of the instructions, but not all of them. King Saul rationalized his behavior as worship. But God would have none of it. The Lord rejected Saul as king. God wants no monkey business when it comes to obedience.

Whenever I come across biblical characters like Saul, I find myself trying to distance from them. Yet, oftentimes, when I take the time to sit a bit with the Scriptures, I realize I can have some of the same propensities as their behavior. In today’s Old Testament lesson, I am like Saul whenever:

  • I say I will do something and then get busy and not do it. I sometimes rationalize my lack of follow through by explaining what good things I was doing with my time instead.
  • I justify a purchase of something I do not really need but want with the excuse that I put a lot of money in the offering plate for God.
  • I slander another person, even though it is forbidden by God, with the knucklehead notion that I am protecting and helping others from that person’s evil ways.
  • I keep quiet in the face of a bad situation when I should be speaking up. I dismiss the lack of engagement and involvement with needing to save my energy for people who want it….

I could have kept going with this little exercise, but I got too convicted to keep thinking about it anymore. So, before we get too uppity about saying we are not like Saul and would never be like him, perhaps we ought to sit with the story for a while, being mindful and aware of any unacknowledged disobedience.

Rationalization is the way of sinners.  Repentance is the path of saints.  Which road will you choose today?

Holy God, you expect obedience to clear instructions.  I am sorry for all those times I found creative ways to circumvent your teaching.  Help me not to avoid your good commands, but to own them with vigor and vitality through Jesus Christ my Lord in the power of your Holy Spirit.  Amen.

2 Samuel 6:1-11 – Unacceptable Worship

Transferring the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem by Domenico Gorgiolo (1609-1675)

David again brought together all the able young men of Israel—thirty thousand. He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the Lord Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. They set the ark of God on a new cart and brought it from the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, sons of Abinadab, were guiding the new cart with the ark of God on it, and Ahio was walking in front of it. David and all Israel were celebrating with all their might before the Lord, with castanets, harps, lyres, timbrels, sistrums and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing floor of Nakon, Uzzah reached out and took hold of the ark of God, because the oxen stumbled. The Lord’s anger burned against Uzzah because of his irreverent act; therefore, God struck him down, and he died there beside the ark of God.

Then David was angry because the Lord’s wrath had broken out against Uzzah, and to this day that place is called Perez Uzzah.

David was afraid of the Lord that day and said, “How can the ark of the Lord ever come to me?” He was not willing to take the ark of the Lord to be with him in the City of David. Instead, he took it to the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite. The ark of the Lord remained in the house of Obed-Edom the Gittite for three months, and the Lord blessed him and his entire household. (NIV)

The narrator who originally compiled, told, and wrote this story wanted to communicate something significant about God and how to relate to the Lord.  God put the big kibosh on David’s hoedown. At that time in the history of Israel, the ark was the foremost symbol God was present with the people. Within the ark contained the tablets of the Ten Commandments (the symbol of God’s Word); the staff of the first priest, Aaron, (the symbol of God’s choice); and, a pot of manna (the symbol of God’s provision). 

The ark was a holy object, pointing to a holy God.

The ark of the Lord was built during the time of Moses, when the ritual laws were established concerning offerings and how to approach God in worship. There were detailed prescriptions for how to construct all the sacred articles for worship. (Exodus 35:30-40:33) 

The ark was at the center of worship, representing the presence of God among the people. For nearly five-hundred years before David, the ark had become a familiar object in the life of Israel, always there, continually being the symbol of God to the people.

We have all likely had the experience of something becoming so familiar to us that we begin to lose sight of how important and valuable it really is. Not until we lose it, or something traumatic happens, do we wake up and take stock of its true significance. 

The Israelites had become lethargic and apathetic toward the worship of God, and it led to some disheartening and tragic circumstances. The people of God throughout the ages have always needed to be vigilant against the opiate of familiarity, dulling the senses to the importance of worship.

Moving the ark of the Lord to Jerusalem was one of the first acts David did as the king of Israel and Judah.  God was with David and brought him success against his enemies. David enjoyed a close relationship with God.  Yet even though David’s heart was in the right place, he made a huge miscalculation which ended up offending God. 

David had the best of intentions in bringing the ark to Jerusalem and giving it a prominent place in the center of Jewish life. This was an exceptionally good plan. The problem, however, came in the manner the ark was carried from one place to another. 

King David bringing the ark to Jerusalem by Unknown Italian artist, c.1500

God’s law laid out in careful detail how the ark was to be transported. Uzzah and Ahio were Levites charged with the ark’s care. Only the Levites could handle the ark and the holy objects of worship that went along with it. Since it was the job of the Levites for hundreds of years, they knew better than to carry the ark of the Lord on a cart. God clearly told Moses that the ark was to have two long poles of acacia wood overlaid with gold inserted into four gold rings of the ark.

The ark was to always be carried on the shoulders of the Levites with the two poles.

We are not told why Uzzah and Ahio were pulling the ark on a cart with oxen instead of carrying it in the prescribed way. Perhaps it was because the ark was incredibly heavy and no easy task to carry.  Maybe they decided it would be easier and more expedient to have the much stronger oxen pull the ark on a nice new cart; it would save a lot of energy transporting it over a long distance. 

As pragmatic people, Uzzah and Ahio’s approach makes a lot of sense. However, God was not okay with this arrangement.  When the oxen stumbled and the ark was in danger of falling off the cart, Uzzah reflexively reached out to steady it.  That was the last act Uzzah ever did on this earth. God immediately put him down for his “irreverent act.”

So, here is the not so good idea: Evaluating the worship of God by common sense pragmatism, what we think will work best, and how we feel it ought to be done.  Everything about worship is to pay attention to the holiness of God through our obedience.  Whenever we avoid the prescriptions of Holy Scripture, however best the intentions might be, is not a good thing and people will get hurt.  One can never justify an action that goes against God’s Word because people are praising God. 

Just because the heart is in the right place does not mean what is being done is okay.

David’s first response was anger, then fear.  He gave his best effort, and it resulted in God’s disfavor. Perhaps David realized that maybe he took for granted that the ark could be moved any old way he wanted to move it. 

Trouble with God happens whenever we value efficiency and expediency over obedience and submission.

The great error of Uzzah which resulted in his death was trying to manage God. We do not take care of God; God takes care of us. God does not bow to us and allow himself to be managed by creatures. The Lord wants pure unadulterated obedient worship from people in the way God wants it to be done, period. It is not up for negotiation.

So, David took some time to re-evaluate the whole approach to worship he was doing and left the ark with a Philistine. Then, he went back and did it right….

Holy God, we confess that we have too often forgotten we are yours. Sometimes we carry on our lives as if there was no God and we fall short of being a credible witness to you. For these things we ask your forgiveness and for your strength. Give us clear minds and open hearts so we may bear witness to you in our world. Remind us to be who you would have us to be regardless of what we are doing or who we are with. Hold us close and build our relationship with you and with those you have given us on earth, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Malachi 2:10-3:1 – Remain Faithful

An Eastern Orthodox icon of the prophet Malachi

Don’t we all come from one Father? Aren’t we all created by the same God? So why can’t we get along? Why do we desecrate the covenant of our ancestors that binds us together?

Judah has cheated on God—a sickening violation of trust in Israel and Jerusalem: Judah has desecrated the holiness of God by falling in love and running off with foreign women, women who worship alien gods. God’s curse on those who do this! Drive them out of house and home! They’re no longer fit to be part of the community no matter how many offerings they bring to God-of-the-Angel-Armies.

And here’s a second offense: You fill the place of worship with your whining and sniveling because you don’t get what you want from God. Do you know why? Simple. Because God was there as a witness when you spoke your marriage vows to your young bride, and now you’ve broken those vows, broken the faith-bond with your vowed companion, your covenant wife. God, not you, made marriage. His Spirit inhabits even the smallest details of marriage. And what does he want from marriage? Children of God, that’s what. So, guard the spirit of marriage within you. Don’t cheat on your spouse.

“I hate divorce,” says the God of Israel. God-of-the-Angel-Armies says, “I hate the violent dismembering of the ‘one flesh’ of marriage.” So, watch yourselves. Don’t let your guard down. Don’t cheat.

You make God tired with all your talk.

“How do we tire him out?” you ask.

By saying, “God loves sinners and sin alike. God loves all.” And, by saying, “Judgment? God’s too nice to judge.”

“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies. (MSG)

Any reader of Holy Scripture must come to grips with sections of it which are difficult, harsh, and scathing. Since the Bible covers a complete range of the human condition, not all we find within it are bunnies and butterflies. The prophets of the Lord held back no punches when it came to delivering their message.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Malachi squarely addressed the people’s issue of unfaithfulness. They were faithless to one another; faithless to their spouses; and, faithless to God.  God is described by the prophet as weary and exasperated with a lot of talk with no faithful presence and action. 

God hates divorce simply because it is so damaging for those involved. This is not a divine decree that divorce should never exist any more than God’s hatred for the people’s worship means that worship should never exist.

Both marriage and worship are to be meaningful experiences of devotion and dedication to the significant human and divine relationships in our lives.

God has no tolerance for half-hearted commitments which either opens another to violence or having verbal or physical violence perpetrated outright by the one who ought to be protecting and loving.

The solution to the two-faced problem of the people with their milquetoast obedience is that a messenger will be sent to prepare the way of the Lord.  He is coming, and it will be soon.

Keeping the end of our lives and of history in mind helps bring greater clarity and purpose to the present. The season of Advent reminds the faithful that since Jesus is coming soon, we must hold fast to our Christian allegiance. 

Faithfulness toward God also means having a faithful presence (albeit perhaps virtually) to the people close to us and near us.

Malachi exhorted the people to guard their spirits because a lack of personal awareness within causes a dearth of awareness without in simply seeing others but not really seeing them. Spousal abuse is not okay, and the God who sees all will rouse and act on behalf of the one stuck in a situation and pattern of neglect and/or exploitation.

It is necessary to monitor the condition of our souls and be in touch with the state of our spirits so that we remain faithful. We are to nurture our inner selves so that outward actions reflect faithful commitment without harming those closest to us.

Vulnerability with oneself and submission to basic accountability structures are important so that we are aware to strengthen the inner person.  Rather than embrace a rabid individualism, communal dedication is a primary way of pleasing God, serving others, and realizing divine blessing. It also is a necessary preventative to domestic abuse.

Everyone deserves healthy relationships.

If you or someone you know is the victim of spousal abuse, call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or visit their website at https://www.thehotline.org/

Sovereign God, the One who sees and knows all, help me guard my spirit so that I will be faithful in all I do and in all my relationships with others, especially my own family and spouse.  Strengthen my soul to remain dedicated to seeing the coming of Jesus in all his glory.  Amen.

Psalm 79 – Facing Trauma

Raise Up by Hank Willis Johnson in the Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Our God, foreign nations
    have taken your land,
    disgraced your temple,
    and left Jerusalem in ruins.
They have fed the bodies
of your servants
    to flesh-eating birds;
    your loyal people are food
    for savage animals.
All Jerusalem is covered
    with their blood,
    and there is no one left
    to bury them.
Every nation around us
    sneers and makes fun.

Our Lord, will you keep on
    being angry?
    Will your angry feelings
    keep flaming up like fire?
Get angry with those nations
that don’t know you
    and won’t worship you!
They have gobbled down
Jacob’s descendants
    and left the land in ruins.

Don’t make us pay for the sins
    of our ancestors.
    Have pity and come quickly!
    We are completely helpless.
Our God, you keep us safe.
    Now help us! Rescue us.
    Forgive our sins
    and bring honor to yourself.

Why should nations ask us,
    “Where is your God?”
Let us and the other nations
    see you take revenge
    for your servants who died
    a violent death.

Listen to the prisoners groan!
Let your mighty power save all
    who are sentenced to die.
    Each of those nations sneered
    at you, our Lord.
Now let others sneer at them,
    seven times as much.
    Then we, your people,
    will always thank you.
We are like sheep
    with you as our shepherd,
    and all generations
    will hear us praise you. (CEV)

Yes, you are in the right place. No, this is not yesterday’s post. The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Scripture readings include a psalm reading every day. What is more, the same psalm is read three days in a row. This is because psalms are designed to be repeatedly used. So, today, I continue reflecting on this psalm….

The psalmist was full of emotion as he crafted his words. Reflecting on the tragic and horrific takeover of Jerusalem and its destruction, he cried out in spiritual and emotional pain concerning the trashing of God’s temple and Name, and the physical and verbal violence executed on the people. The psalmist wanted the victimization to stop and the victimizers to feel God’s wrath.

This psalm is raw and real, an expression of the true self. Here there is no pie-in-the-sky positive thinking with singing about always looking on the bright side of life. It is agonizing grief in all its misery and disgrace. Thus, therein lies the path to healing: To connect with the true self, refusing the pretensions of the false self, expressing the real lived feelings and thoughts of honest wounds.

Illumination by American sculptor Paige Bradley

The alternative only presses further pain into the soul. The false self, seeking to takeover and make one feel better, engages in a devil’s pact by ignoring the aching spiritual doubt and emotional injury within to have temporary reprieve from the troubled spirit. The road to renewed and lasting happiness comes not through the false self but the true self’s recognition of the event(s) in all their foulness and degradation. It is a hard road to walk, yet we must travel it if we are to live in the light of truth, joy, and peace.

You and I will not find God in the false self. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that, when having experienced trauma, we hustle to obtain something we already possess. We might believe God is not there, or simply does not care. As one becomes alienated from the Lord, there increasingly becomes self-distancing. Disconnected from life-giving divinity, self-loathing gradually replaces self-awareness, and thus, self-compassion.

If at any point, we begin to associate and then fuse self with our traumatic experience(s) then the inner person weakens and becomes detached from the spiritual resources needed to heal. We are not our events. We are people created in God’s image and inherently worthy of love, compassion, kindness, goodness, and healing. We were not made for death and destruction but for life and connection.

The demonic termites of contempt might eat away at our humanity, yet there is always a way to exterminate them – through telling our story, as the psalmist did, with emotional flavor and full honesty. The true self is there; we just might need to dig a little deeper to find her.

So, if you notice that you tend to avoid planning for self-care; engage regularly in self-pity; or, swear at yourself under your breath with self-hatred; then it is high time for the false self to quit calling the shots and to bring up the true self. Internal conflict is not resolved through avoidance; it comes through external voicing of one’s story to another who listens with care.

The psalmist spoke to both God and God’s people. His story came from the gut, the place where both deep loathing and deep compassion come from. If one has already been tortured by a traumatic experience, the torture will continue from the false self unless the true self asserts herself and seeks awareness, mercy, and healing.

Stories are meant to be told. And they need to be uttered when the storyteller is ready and not when the listener is. Through the voicing of their ordeal, victims of human-inflicted suffering need to hear that God is just and will right the wrong things in this world. They need some hope of healing and some assurance that their injury will not go unanswered.

This can be tricky business because the act of proclaiming one’s story and the reception of that message by another might easily become a vengeful justification for intolerance and malicious retribution. Therefore, the psalmist appealed to God, not fellow humans, for justice. We are to leave room for God’s wrath without taking matters into our own hands. (Romans 12:17-21)

So, avoid isolation from God, others, even yourself. Seek help, both divine and human. Tell your story when you are ready. Face the terrible pain. These are the things the psalmist did to deal with his own trauma. The true self acknowledges this and, with full awareness, steps into the future with faith.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace I pray. Amen.