Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Jonah 4 –I’d Rather Die!

Lesson Focus:
God is a gracious God, merciful and slow to anger while abounding in steadfast love.  He is ready to relent from punishing.  Most of the time, this is not who we are. 

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lesson students should:
1.     Identify one of Israel’s core beliefs about God as “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”
2.     Examine their lives to see if they identify with Jonah in any way.
3.     Repent for the ways in which they have not viewed their enemies with the eyes of God.

Catch up on the story: Jonah has finished preaching God’s message of repentance to the people of Nineveh and they have responded favorably.  The destruction that God had planned to do to the city, he will not do.  Jonah decides to sit on a hill overlooking the city to see what happens to it.

General Outline:
Told you so!
Jonah begins to see the people of Nineveh repent.  His fundamental belief that God is, “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (4:2) is confirmed.  Normally, when a prophet finds his belief in God validated it is met with great joy.  God has done a great thing on the behalf of the people of Nineveh, Jonah should be happy.  But he isn’t.  Instead he is hopping mad.  Not just kind of miffed, but smoking mad.  The kind of mad that makes you want to break things.  The kind of mad that might just cause you to say things…bad things.  For Jonah, he is so mad he doesn’t want to live any longer! 

We are told once again why it is that Jonah ran away in the first place.  All of his life he was taught that God was a God of mercy and grace, who looked kindly upon those who are repentant sinners.  But this promise was solely directed toward his people, the people of God, Israel –or so he thought. 

Deep down inside Jonah knew that if he went to preach to the people in Nineveh they would respond, they would repent, and God wouldn’t destroy them, giving them the end Jonah thought they should have.  And he was right.  Jonah went and preached. Nineveh repented, and God spared them.

Keep in mind, in Jonah’s day, Israel has been going through great hardships.  They have suffered under foreign power, had great economic difficulties, both of which severely affected life and heath.  And here it is that while Israel continues to suffer, God now offers salvation to the wicked people of Nineveh.[1] It is from this context that Jonah’s call and his subsequent resistance comes.     

Fretheim points out that if anything is sin, Jonah’s response this entire time has been sin –it has been a rebellion against grace.  “Resistance to God’s gracious activity on behalf of others, however evil they may be.”[2] How often in life do we have the same kind of attitude about God’s grace toward others?  On a global scale, sometimes we would rather see God’s wrath poured out on the enemies of the United States, than see any kind of attempt to love them as ourselves.  

How do we respond when we see our enemies, both personally and nationally, as not getting the punishment that they deserve?  Are we like Jonah, do we get mad? I don’t think any of us would get mad enough to ask to die.  Or do we rejoice because God’s grace is at work in our enemies’ lives?  Wesley said, “No one is a stranger to God’s grace.” I think we can confidently say his grace is at work.

After Jonah states that he was right from the very beginning about how things were going to turn out God asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?”  Jonah doesn’t answer, he only climbs a hill overlooking the city to wait and see what happens to the city.  He still holds the perverted hope that destruction will come to the people of Nineveh.  While Jonah doesn’t quite get it yet, that he really doesn’t have a right to be angry over Nineveh receiving God’s grace –he, after all had been a recipient of God’s grace just two chapters ago– the reader is left to answer God’s question. 

Jonah then sets up for himself a little shelter, which is apparently inadequate to provide protection from the sun and hot wind.  So God, being merciful and gracious to this stubborn and sinfully angry man, causes a small bush to grow to give him protection.  Jonah goes from being crazy angry, to being ecstatic.  Perhaps the offering of shade and protection gave him hope that Nineveh would be destroyed, instead of it being a display of God’s grace toward Jonah, even when he does not deserve it!   By the next day God sent a worm to destroy the bush.  As the sun began to shine and the wind began to blow, Jonah once again wants to die.   

God gets the last word…
Once again God asks Jonah if he is right to be angry.  This time, however, it isn’t about Nineveh, but about the bush.  God is wondering if Jonah has a right to be angry about a bush that he did not cause to grow or even ask for, but which was given to him.  We are shown that Jonah hasn’t been changed a bit by his experience of being in the belly of a whale or watching God’s grace at work in the lives of a foreign people.  Rather stubbornly Jonah replies, “Yes, angry enough to die!”

The final two verses of the book of Jonah are God’s response to Jonah.  If Jonah should be concerned about a bush, which he did not cause to grow, then why shouldn’t God be concerned about the well-being of an entire city filled with people and animals, all of which are God’s creatures?

The point has been made.  God’s grace is available for all of creation because God cares for what he has made.  This is regardless of what “God’s chosen people” have to say about it.  Yes, God should be concerned about the city of Nineveh and so should we. 

The final question rings in Israel and Jonah’s ear through this book, “Why is God saving Nineveh when we are in such a mess?”  God does still care for Israel, but they had many, many chances to escape punishment. Finally, they had to be punished, and at the time of Jonah, were still reaping the consequences of their sin.  Nineveh, however, responded right away.  Ultimately, God cares for all his creatures, and his grace is available to all. 

So What?
The story of Jonah ends with a question. “And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”  It’s a rhetorical question, to be sure, but we never get a hint of how Jonah might have responded.  Did he begrudgingly answer that, of course, God should be concerned about all that he has created?  Or did he respond with continuing recalcitrance that, no, God should not care for those wicked ones when he has not properly cared for Israel?

The author of Jonah wants us to identify, not with the people of Nineveh or even the sailors on the boat Jonah used to try to escape God.  The author of Jonah wants us to identify with Jonah.  He wants us to examine our lives and our attitudes to see if there is any Jonah in us.  Are we perhaps bitter about our own rough spot in life, even though we are trying our best to be faithful?  Do we look at the way in which the wicked prosper, when by all accounts God’s judgment should be upon them, and become infuriated?  Do we get angry when God’s grace and mercy is extended to those who have committed great acts of evil?  Do we see our enemies as we want to see them, or do we see them as God chooses to see them? 

We are often caught seeing our enemies in the way that we want to, ways that cause us to demand our own brand of retributive justice, justice that demands a payment.  On the other hand, God gently calls us to see our enemies, indeed all people, in the way that he does, with the eyes of a creator.   

Critical Discussion Questions:
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God cares for all of his creation, cares enough to give them grace particularly when they do not deserve it.  God even gives grace to those who have been stubbornly rejecting the giving of it to others.
2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Salvation looks like God giving grace to those who choose to repent, even if we don’t think they deserve it.  Salvation looks like not being destroyed even after being extremely evil. 
3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become
a.     This text calls us to examine how we understand God’s grace.  Are we greedy with it?  Should only those who think and act like us, or those who are willing to think and act like us, receive grace?  The book of Jonah calls us to comprehend and share the magnitude of God’s grace.  It calls us to give grace, to share God’s love with those whom we would just as soon see dead.  And as hard as this may be, it calls us to rejoice when others receive grace and divine favor, even when it seems like we, who have been faithfully following God, have not received grace. 

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     At the beginning of the chapter we are told that Jonah prayed to God.  What is the content of Jonah’s prayer and what does it say about how he understands God?
2.     Why is Jonah so very angry that Nineveh is saved?
3.     Jonah climbs a hill to watch what happens to Nineveh.  Then, God causes a plant to give him shade.  Later, God causes the plant to wither.  Why does God provide the plant and then take it away? 
4.     Is Jonah’s response to the plant withering appropriate?  Why or why not? 
5.     At the end, God questions Jonah.  Jonah is concerned with a plant that he did not plant.  Should God not also be concerned about a city whose inhabitants he created?  Why does God ask this question?
6.     Imagine yourself in Jonah’s place.  How would you respond to God?
7.     Are we like Jonah, do we get mad?  Or do we rejoice because God’s grace is at work in our enemies’ lives?

[1] Terence E. Fretheim, The Message of Jonah: (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub, 2000), 120-21.
[2] Fretheim, 118-19.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Jonah 3 ­–Even the Cattle Repent!

Lesson Focus
God loves even the most wicked and evil.  We should love them too so that they might repent.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lessons students should:
1.     Understand the inhabitants of Nineveh as a proper model for repentance.
2.     Identify the inhabitants of Nineveh as creatures beloved by God.
3.     Comprehend that we too should love our enemies and those who have acted with great evil.

Catch up on the story: Jonah had been called to bring the message of repentance and grace to the people of Nineveh.  Nineveh represented for Jonah and Israel all that was evil and bad in the world.  The people of that great city and land were totally undeserving, in Jonah’s eyes anyway, of any kind of salvation that might come from God.  Jonah, knowing that God is a God of grace and mercy, refuses to go and proclaim the good news.  He runs away, buying passage on a ship bound for a distant land.  A storm crops up and threatens the lives of all on board.  The crew finally determines that the storm is Jonah’s fault.  Jonah admits the truth and tells them to throw him overboard and the storm will stop.  Jonah slowly drifts toward the bottom of the sea; his life is ebbing away from him.  Suddenly a great fish swallows him up.  While in the belly of this great fish Jonah sings a song of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, declaring in the end that deliverance comes solely from God.  As the closing lines of his song are sung, Jonah is vomited back out onto dry land. 

The Text:
Jonah goes…
We aren’t given many specifics concerning Jonah’s trip from the beach to Nineveh.  Depending on where the fish spat him back on dry land, Jonah would have had a really long trip.  
I imagine that on a walk that long Jonah would have had some time to think about what had happened and what he was about to do.  Jonah wasn’t really thrilled about his task the first time God called him, but we find him at least willing to go this second time.  There is nothing in the text that makes us think that Jonah’s theological problem has been resolved.  His song of praise and thanksgiving in chapter 2 offer no plea for forgiveness for his fleeing.  Neither does it give us any indication that Jonah is now on the side of the city of Nineveh, i.e. that he wants them to repent. 

I can imagine that as Jonah is trudging across the hot desert he has a lot of time to formulate what he is going to say.  One might think that he would have composed a great oracle like the ones we find in the books of Amos, Hosea and Micah, detailing all that the inhabitants of Nineveh have done wrong.  Or he might have composed an impassioned plea informing the people how much God loves them and wants to be their God. 

But we don’t find that.  In Hebrew Jonah’s message is only five words long.  In English, it is: “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!”  Nothing in this phrase indicates that Jonah wants the people to repent.  Rather, it seems like he is making it as hard as possible for the people of Nineveh to experience God’s grace.  Chapter 4 reveals for us that Jonah still really wants Nineveh to be brought to destruction (more on that next week!).  Not only are Jonah’s words short and ambiguous, he only spends one day in the city, which according to the narrator, would take three days to cross!  Jonah has only taken God’s message to one third of the population. 

Nineveh responds…
In spite of Jonah’s continued obstinate ways, God is working.  One has to think that God had been preparing the people’s hearts to receive Jonah’s call to repentance long before Jonah ever got there.  God’s grace goes before Jonah.  As Christians and as Wesleyans we believe this is how God works.  Long before any of us take the message of Christ’s salvation to anyone, God has gone before us, drawing that person to himself.  We call it prevenient grace.  

Nineveh repents; by order of the king everyone fasts. Even the cows and the chickens put on clothes of mourning.  At this point it is best to keep in mind for whom this book was intended.  Jonah was intended for God’s people who were found living in Judah after the period of exile is over.  God’s people returned from exile to begin to eke out an existence in a land that had been ravaged by war, a land that was not truly their own anymore.  The idea of God saving such an evil people like those in Nineveh would have been very disturbing for them, as it was for Jonah.  They might have been asking, “What’s so special about Nineveh that they deserved being spared God’s judgment, when we, who are God’s people, weren’t?” 

Maybe Nineveh’s response models for them, and for us today, how it is that we are to respond when we are called to repent for our wrongdoing and sin. Nineveh now aware of their sin, takes no chances.  Their repentance and begging for forgiveness is so great that even the livestock take part!  They threw themselves at the mercy of a God whose nature is exactly that, merciful and loving, and God did not turn away from them.  How often, when we have sinned, or are confronted by another about our sin, do we throw ourselves into the arms of our merciful God?  Or do we act with a sense of arrogance as Israel had at times, thinking, “Surly God won’t punish us, we are God’s people!” 

God relents…
The phrase, “Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish,” is found on the lips of the king of Nineveh.  For him and the people of Nineveh, nothing was certain.  Perhaps we need to have a bit of the same attitude toward our own salvation.  Yet as Wesleyans, we have the doctrine of assurance: we can be confident of our salvation through the inner witness of the Holy Spirit.  What the people recognize is that salvation depends on God. They do not trust in themselves or their own virtue for salvation.  We are not as good as we think we are. In fact, we are evil and broken. Thus, we trust only in God’s mercy.

I don’t want this to come across as though we need to be in constant fear of losing our salvation.  Rather, I am questioning our smug attitude towards what we think we deserve from God.  In reality, what we need to always be doing is evaluating where we are in relationship with Christ.  Asking ourselves questions like, “How have I sinned?”  “How can I make things right with my neighbor?” We need to be constantly confessing the difference between who we are and who Christ is.  Perhaps the only way to true spiritual vitality is a naked honesty about who we are in relationship to Christ.  Israel was not honest with herself about her relationship to God, but Nineveh was.  For those who choose to truly repent of their sins, and realizing that they are completely dependent on God’s grace, grace will be given.    

So What?
The main question that is on the mind of Jonah and his Israelite audience is why would God care for Nineveh?  The direct answer to that question comes at the very end of the book, which will we look at next week.  Simply put, because they exist.  The underlying theme behind the question is a little more sinister.  Behind the question stands the notion that we should not care about the inhabitants of Nineveh.

In Jonah’s mind, Nineveh was a city of great evil and as such, should be destroyed as God said that he might do.  This does not change the fact that in God’s mind the people of Nineveh are his beloved creation, too.  God is saddened by their wickedness and desires that they turn to him.  So, God offers them a chance to repent. 

We often fall into this same trap that Jonah and his audience had found themselves in, the trap that says we should not care about our enemies.  As Christians, and most certainly as Americans, we sometimes take up a stance that dehumanizes our enemies, labeling them wicked or evil and well beyond the scope of anyone’s forgiveness, let alone God’s.  One has only to view the threads of social media to see this clearly.  Every time an individual or a group perpetrates some form of evil there are calls from all different types of people for the most heinous of retributions.

It is sad when the church gets caught up in this trap as well.  We have a tendency to demonize our enemies, whites, blacks, protestors, cops, homosexuals, sexual predators, ISIS and the like.  When our discourse shows a lack of concern for those who have committed great evil we are exposed as being exactly like poor Jonah who wants nothing other than to see his enemies destroyed.  

God has different plans.  God desires us, as his sometimes reluctant prophets and preachers, to declare that he is “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.” (Jonah 4:2)  God cares for the vilest offender, and so should we.

Critical Discussion Questions:
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God looks compassionately to those who truly repent, even if they seem undeserving of God’s grace in the eyes of the world.  God also looks to be constantly going before his messengers to draw people to himself.  God works in spite of human unwillingness to respond to the call upon our lives to spread his good news.  This should give us hope.  Hope to believe that at the end of time God will ultimately win the battle over death, sin and evil in this world.  Our hope is not on the ability of Christians to convert the world, but on the great drawing power of Christ to bring the entire world back to him.     
2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Salvation comes to those who truly repent.  Regardless of what has happened before, of whom a person or group of people is, they can experience God’s saving grace through true repentance.  Nineveh relented from the violence it had been doing, they fasted and mourned for their sins.
b.     It also means that we value and care for those who have perpetrated evil crimes against others and us.    
3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     We are to begin to examine how we view and talk about our enemies.  We must resist the urge to demonize or dehumanize those who have done unspeakable things so that we might care for them and about them in the same way that God does.   

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     At first, Jonah refuses to go to Nineveh but runs the opposite direction.  Why does he now turn and obey God’s call?
2.     What do you make of Jonah’s sermon?  Why does he only offer one short sentence?  Why does Jonah only go “one day’s walk” into a city that took three days to cross?
3.     The people of Nineveh respond and repent despite Jonah’s lackadaisical effort.  Why do they respond so positively? 
4.     What does the holistic nature of Nineveh’s repentance say about how we should approach our own repentance?
5.     In the king’s decree we hear this line in verse 9, “Who knows?  God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish.”  What was the salvation of the people of Nineveh based on?
6.     The people of Nineveh were great enemies of Jonah and his people.  Why does God care for them?  What does God’s care for the wicked have to teach us about how we should think, speak, and act toward our own enemies?   

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

1 Samuel 3 – Samuel! Samuel!

Lesson Focus:
God calls us to lead well.  God calls us to follow well.

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lesson students should:
1.     Become familiar with the narrative setting for the call of Samuel.
2.     Be able to discern a faithful leader in the church from an unfaithful one.

Catch up on the story:
The book that bears Samuel’s name begins with the circumstances surrounding the birth of this great prophet.  At the beginning, we are told that there is a certain man from the town of Ramah named Elkanah who had two wives.  The first wife bore him many children, but his second wife, Hannah, could not have children.  Even the dullest of biblical readers should realize that whenever a story begins this way, with a barren woman, that God is about to do something new and wonderful.  Hannah, in her shame over not being able to have children, cries out to God in great distress during one of their pilgrimages to the temporary temple at Shiloh.  As she is crying out to God, Eli the high priest sees her and thinks that she is drunk.  She is praying, her lips are moving but no sounds emerge.  Hannah pleads with Eli to not disregard her: she is not drunk, merely distressed.  Eli blesses her and Hannah returns to her home encouraged. 

As things happen, Hannah becomes pregnant and gives birth.  She names the child Samuel, which we are told means, “I have asked him of the Lord.”  Hannah then informs her husband that she will give Samuel to Eli at the temple as soon as he is weaned.  The gift she has been given by God she now returns to God.  Samuel will grow up as a Nazarite, one who is set apart and consecrated to the Lord.  When he is weaned Hannah takes Samuel to Eli so that he can begin his new life there. 

Meanwhile, we are told of the sins of Eli’s two sons, Hophni and Phinehas.  They are described to us as scoundrels.  Eli, for his part, is either unwilling or unable to curb the disgraceful behavior of his sons.  He tries to correct their ways, but to no avail.  We are also given a hint of what is to come for Eli and his sons.  In ages past God had promised Eli’s ancestors that their family would always be priests.  The promise, however, is very conditional.  Eli’s sons have been very unfaithful and so they have disqualified themselves from God’s promise.  No amount of sacrifice will change God’s mind about what God is about to do.

Samuel will be the new spiritual leader of God’s people.  He grows up in the presence of Eli, but unlike Eli’s sons, Samuel matures in the right kind of way.  He will be faithful where others have not been. 

The Text:
Our passage begins after Samuel has grown up some.  He is old enough to participate in the daily routine of the temple and to understand some of its significance.  We are told that the word of the Lord as been rare (literally, precious).  Perhaps due to the misguided or ineffectual spiritual leadership provided by Eli, God has not spoken very often. 

Remember that the Samuel narrative takes place at the end of the time of the Judges.  Israel has been in the Promised Land for quite some time.  She has had times of faithfulness and then times of unfaithfulness.  Her unfaithfulness routinely led her into trouble at the hands of some foreign enemy.  God would then work through an anointed Judge, i.e., Gideon and Samson, to liberate Israel.  God often spoke to and through these people so that Israel might be safely led. 

Our passage can be split up into two separate scenes.  Scene one takes place at night.  The setting is the temporary temple structure located at Shiloh.  Eli, we are told, has failing eyesight.  This might be a metaphor for failing spiritual sight as well.  As we will see, it takes Eli a few times to realize just what is happening to Samuel.  Although, he is not so blind as to fail to realize that what Samuel sees and hears is a word from the Lord.

Eli is asleep in his own room.  It is night but the lamp of the Lord had not yet gone out.  Eli was sleeping in the space close to the area which held the Ark of the Covenant.  All of the sudden Samuel hears his name being called, “Samuel!  Samuel!”  Even though Samuel has been working with Eli and in the temple he has not yet come to “know” God.  Certainly Samuel knows the stories of God’s faithfulness and provision for Israel, yet he has not heard from God for himself yet.  God has not revealed himself to Samuel yet, although that is now what is happening. 

Samuel, because he has not yet known the Lord, mistakes the voice he hears calling his name for that of Eli.  He gets up and runs into Eli’s room and inquires what the old priest wants.  Eli responds that he did not call Samuel.  Samuel returns to his bed.  The voice calls his name two more times.  The next time he runs to Eli and Eli sends him back to bed.  Finally, Eli realizes that the voice that Samuel is hearing is none other than the Lord’s.  Eli instructs Samuel to respond to the voice the next time he hears it: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.”

The voice of God calls to Samuel one last time.  We are told that the Lord stood before Samuel and began to address him.  The news is not good.  The punishment that God had told Eli would come because of his sons unfaithful behavior will come to pass.  The events will be so terrifying that the news of it will make the ears of those who hear about it tingle.  It is going to happen and no amount of sacrifice will prevent it.  The sons had intentionally abused the offering that had been given at the temple.  Unintentional mistakes made by priests could be atoned for with sacrifice.  However, the son's sin had been defiant and a blatant disregard for God and his people.[1]

Scene two begins with verse 15.  The night has passed and Samuel has not slept.  When morning breaks he rises and sets about his duties by opening the temple doors.  Rightly so, Samuel is afraid to tell Eli what he has heard.  Samuel could be seen as a threat to the power Eli and his family hold as the chief religious leaders in Israel.   

Eli, who has surely not forgotten the events of the past night, begins to call for Samuel.  Samuel responds to the call of Eli with the same words that he was instructed to respond to God with, “Here am I.”  Eli, sensing that the news might not be favorable, urges Samuel to spill the beans.  Samuel must not leave anything out.  Eli, to urge Samuel along, says that God will do to Samuel what he is about to do to Eli if Samuel is not fully truthful!  Samuel tells Eli all that God had told him. 

Of all the imagined scenarios that could have unfolded upon receiving such news, the one that takes place is reassuring.  Eli, while blind physically and perhaps spiritually blind, does not fail to realize that what has been spoken is a word from God.  He is still a man of faith; he still places his trust in the God he has served for so many years.  “It is the Lord; let him do what seems good to him.” 

The passage ends with a concluding paragraph that describes Samuel’s continued growth.  As he grew God was with him.  The phrase, “none of his words fall to the ground,” carries with it the meaning that Samuel’s words were heeded by those who heard him.  Indeed, all of Israel, from Dan in the very north of the country, to Beer-sheba in the south, knew and trusted this man of God. 

This narrative, for Israel, marks a new beginning, a transition of power.  Through the barrenness of one woman, through her hope and faith in God, God brings forth a new beginning.                   

So What?
When reading this text we often get stuck focusing on the call from God that Samuel receives.  It is easy to focus on the child-like faith that Samuel must have had so that he was receptive to hearing God’s words. While I think that is an important aspect of the story, I do not believe that it is the most fruitful for us.  Yes, Samuel receives his call to ministry at a tender age, but perhaps it is the content of the call that should be the most formative for us. 

Eli’s sons were more than just scoundrels.  It was their birthright to continue on in Eli’s place as priests in the temple.  As priests, in a nation that had no formal leadership structure, they exercised a great deal of power.  They could, as Eli had done, used their positions to guide Israel, or they could use their power for their own benefit.  The text before chapter 3 tells us of Hophni and Phinehas’ transgressions.  They abused their positions of leadership by taking what was to be rightfully offered to God as a sacrifice.  They bullied the people into handing over the choicest pieces of the sacrifice to feed their own appetites.  The long and short of it is that Eli’s sons failed to exercise the leadership that God had bestowed upon them.

Samuel’s first act as the mouthpiece for God delivers God’s message of intolerance for those who mislead and abuse his people.   Throughout Samuel’s career leading Israel, Samuel will constantly challenge those in authority and the structures of authority that fail to lead and care for God’s people in the right kinds of ways. 

What is clear to us is that even when God institutes good leadership it can, and at times does, turn from God.  The results are disastrous for those who are being led and often for the leaders themselves.  There are two take aways for us as the people of God.  First, as we lead people in following God and as we follow those who we believe God has placed in leadership for us, we must always question if the way we are leading or following is faithful.  As we lead we must ask are we taking advantage of our position of power?  Are we using the gifts that people offer to God to satisfy our own appetites?  As we follow, are we following someone who helps us serve others, or are we following someone who leads us to satisfy our own desires?  Christianity is replete with leaders who only tell us what we want to hear. 

The second take away has to do with our response to those who exercise failed leadership.  Are we sensitive enough to recognize failed spiritual leadership?  Do we have the courage to be truthful in the face of misguided and abusive forms of leadership as Samuel was truthful?  As the people of God we are called, at times, to act as prophets who speak the truth against leadership, both inside and outside the church, that takes advantage of people.  While, hopefully anyway, the opportunities to speak prophetically against leaders in the church does not come around often, the opportunities to speak prophetically and act prophetically against forms of leadership that fail outside the church presents itself all too often. May we be like Samuel, sensitive to hear God’s word of truth and courageous enough to be truthful in the face of failed and dangerous leadership.                   

At this point a caveat needs to be offered.  A mere disagreement with leadership is not always reason to speak prophetically or act prophetically against it.  Disagreements in the church are legion.  Some take these opportunities to seize power for themselves.  Prophetic utterance and action need to be carefully considered and in light of Jesus’ double command to love God and neighbor.  Is the leader or structure of leadership in question leading us to love God and neighbor?  If so, then the disagreement might only be a matter of personal taste or priority.  If not, then action should be taken.  Obviously, the actions of Hophni and Phinehas did not lead Israel to love God more fully.

 Critical Discussion Questions:
1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     God is constantly taking steps to ensure that his beloved people are being led well.  Often times this means challenging the entrenched leadership which has abused its power and the people it was called to serve. 
b.     God reveals himself to us so that we might know him and serve him.  Samuel has no power or impetus to move on his own.  His right to speak is only because God has revealed himself to Samuel. 

2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Our movement toward becoming Christ-like is dependent on our willingness to utter the words that Samuel utters when God calls him, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” 

3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     We should take care that we become a people who are leading and following well.  Those we follow in the church must be the type of people who are compelling us to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     In verse 1 we are told that visions and the word of the Lord were not widespread in the days of Eli the priest.  Why do you think this was?
2.     Samuel does not immediately recognize the voice calling him as God’s voice.  Why do you think he is slow to realize who is calling him? 
3.     What were the sins of Hophni and Phinehas?  Why would God be so angry with them.  See chapter 2 for more details. 
4.     God says that the thing he is about to do will make the ears of those who hear it tingle.  Why is the news of God unseating this priestly family such big news?  What might it mean for Israel’s future?   
5.     Does it bother you that no amount of sacrifice could atone for the sins of Eli’s house (v. 14)?  Throughout the Old Testament the picture we get of God is one of faithfulness in the midst of unfaithfulness and forgiveness in the face of graves sins.  Why is this time different? 
6.     This passage is important for us because it helps us remember that not all religious leadership is faithful to God’s calling, as Hophni and Phinehas had not been.  In what ways might it be appropriate to test our own religious leadership?  What might be a faithful litmus test for our leaders? 
7.     As we lead we must ask are we taking advantage of our position of power?  Are we using the gifts that people offer to God to satisfy our own appetites?  As we follow, are we following someone who helps us serve others, or are we following someone who leads us to satisfy our own desires? 
8.     Are we sensitive enough to recognize failed spiritual leadership?  Do we have the courage to be truthful in the face of misguided and abusive forms of leadership as Samuel was truthful? 

[1] David Toshio Tsumura, The First Book of Samuel (Grand Rapids, Mich: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 180.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Mark 1:4-11 – “With You I am Well Pleased…”

Lesson Focus:
We are called to live into our baptism with a sense of God-given mission.  

Lesson Outcomes:
Through this lesson students should:
1.     Become familiar with some of the connections that Mark makes between the Old Testament and the story he is beginning to tell.
2.     Identify Jesus as the Son of God, the one for whom Israel has waited.
3.     Recognize that in Jesus’ baptism he is confirmed as God’s Son who is to embark on God’s mission of redemption and salvation for the world.
4.     Recognize that as Jesus has been sent through his baptism, so we have been sent through ours.
5.     Seek to live into his or her baptism by finding ways to practically participate in Jesus’ mission of redemption and salvation for the world. 

Catch up on the story:
Mark begins his account of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection in a manner that will be quite characteristic of his writing: concise and to the point.  Unlike Matthew, Mark does not give us a genealogy for Jesus.  Unlike Luke, we have no nativity story.  We begin literally with “the beginning” as Mark’s first words.  What is beginning?  The answer: a story of the gospel: literally, the good news concerning Jesus.  Right off the bat we are told in no uncertain terms the point that Mark wants his writing to make, that Jesus is the Messiah, the very Son of God.  While in Mark’s narrative the disciples will be very slow to catch on, Mark wants us to know exactly who Jesus is.  By the end of this week’s passage there will be no doubt as to Jesus’ identity. 

After this short description of the nature of the narrative that will follow, Mark sets about quoting Old Testament prophets.  Verses 2-3 are a combination of quotes from two different prophets.  The first half of verse 2 is from Malachi 3:1 while the rest is from Isaiah 40.  The identity of the messenger who will appear is none other than the first character we meet in Mark’s drama, John the Baptist (or baptizer, as we find it in verse 4).  Indeed, John is a voice of one calling from the wilderness.  Why the wilderness? “For the wilderness was a place of hope, of new beginnings. It was in the wilderness that Yahweh had met with Israel and made them into his people when they came out of Egypt.”[1]  It is now, from the wilderness, that the good news will be heard once again.  God will come and meet Israel, and all people, to form them into his people.

Finally, Mark is placing this narrative about Jesus squarely in line with Old Testament salvation history.  John, in his role as one that prepares the people for the coming messiah, connects Mark’s narrative with all that took place in Israel since creation. John is the beginning of this good news, the good news that Israel had been longing for for so long a time. 

The Text:
Just as soon as Mark gets done quoting Isaiah and Malachi, John the Baptist shows up on the scene (literally, “appeared”).  We are not given any background information on John and his relationship with Jesus as we get in other accounts.  What we are given, however, is an immediate thumbnail sketch of what John is doing.  He is “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”  While it might seem, at first glance, that baptism itself is the focus of John’s message, it is not.  France notes that John’s “object was not simply to get people baptized, but to call together the repentant and restored people of God…”[2] John is bringing together baptism and the forgiveness of sins with a continued citizenship in the Kingdom of God.  Baptism had been practiced in wider Jewish circles before John, but that baptism was for ritual cleansing and was repeatable.  The baptism that John proclaims is much different.  In some sense, it is an initiatory event, which brings the one being baptized into the family of God.  Entering into a new family often requires a major readjustment in behavior. 

We are not told exactly where John sets up shop, but it is likely in the southern portion of Israel along the Jordan River.  The text tells us that a good number of people were coming to John to be baptized from the Judean countryside and from the capital city of Jerusalem.  The Jordan River meets the Dead Sea roughly inline with Jerusalem.  This is an important point.  Jerusalem was the center of the Jewish world.  Jerusalem was the home of the Temple, and the Temple was where God’s presence dwelt.  Here, however, we have a new movement of God through John that comes, not from the expected centers of power, but from the wilderness.   

In times of national distress or of infidelity in Israel’s history, a prophet often came from the wilderness.  It was from outside the centers of established power that a call for renewal and repentance usually came.  Mark, giving us a vivid description of John’s dress and dietary behavior, further places him inline with some of Israel’s greatest prophets, namely Elijah.  Indeed, in Israel, there was a tradition that linked Elijah with the coming messenger talked about in Malachi.  It was thought that in the last days, before God would come fully and finally, Elijah would return to prepare the way.  Later on (in 8:28), Mark will explicitly make the connection between John and Elijah. 

Mark, in identifying John with Elijah and the above quoted Malachi, seeks to pick up where the Old Testament left off.  Malachi was copied with a group of prophetic literature known as the “Book of the Twelve.”  There is good evidence that Mark was using the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, in which Malachi is the last book.  One commentator believes that “If Mark thought of [Malachi] 3-4 as the concluding words of Scripture, John’s appearance as the promised Elijah is all the more significant: his book begins where Scripture let off, and as its continuation and fulfillment.”[3]  John, and thus Jesus whom we will meet shortly, are part of God’s continuing salvation for Israel and for the world. 

In verse 7 we learn that John rightly understands his place in this unfolding drama.  He has no allusions to his own greatness or importance.  He is merely a messenger who has been sent by God.  Indeed, there is one who is coming after John.  In keeping with Mark’s sparseness in regard to some details, we do not get the information that John and Jesus are cousins.  John obviously knows whom Jesus is and that the beginning of this ministry is near.       

John declares that one is coming who is “more powerful” than himself.  The one who is coming is so great that John is not even worthy to stoop down and undo his sandals.  This image would have helped the original readers understand exactly what kind of “powerful” is being dealt with here.  The removal of someone’s sandals, perhaps a guest as they enter the home, or of a master who returns after a long day, was a job for the lowest of servants.  A Jewish master could not make his Jewish slave undo his sandals; it was beneath even the Jewish servant’s dignity.  John is declaring that the one who comes is very great indeed. 

John, and the crowds who gathered to hear him preach, would not have expected this coming one to be human.  Rather, they would have expected him to be divine.  In both of the Old Testament passage quoted at the beginning of the chapter, the one for whom the messenger prepares the way is God himself.  This speaks volumes about who Mark believes Jesus to be: he is God incarnate.[4]  This coming one, as God, will not baptize in the same way as John has done.  No, the coming one’s baptism will not be with water, but with the Holy Spirit. 

As the text moves forward we immediately shift into a new scene depicting Jesus’ baptism.  While verses 4-8 depict, in general, scenes of John’s baptismal ministry, verse 9 shifts to a specific date.  We are told that Jesus comes from his hometown of Nazareth to be baptized by John.  That Mark includes the place from which Jesus comes is important.  Nazareth was located in the region of Galilee, which was in the north.  Separating Judea in the south and Nazareth in the north is the area of Samaria, which good Jewish folk liked to avoid.  Nazareth, for its part, was an insignificant little town.  It is unlikely that anyone in the south would even have heard of it.  In fact, there was a general distrust of the Jesus’ home region of Galilee by those in the south, especially in regards to any religious issue.  Remember, John’s main audience was comprised of people from Jerusalem and Judea.  That Jesus comes from such an insignificant and distrusted region is important.[5] Once again, God’s coming is often from unexpected places.

As fast as Jesus comes, John baptizes him.  Again, Mark is sparse with the details.  We are not told about John arguing with Jesus about his ability to baptize Jesus.  Rather, John baptizes Jesus and immediately (one of Mark’s favorite ways of marking time) upon emerging up out of the water we are treated to a divine display. 

The “he” of  “And just as he was coming up out of the water” refers to Jesus.  We are not sure, but we assume that what will follow is not visible, nor audible to those around Jesus.  This revelation of who Jesus is, the words of God to Jesus, are for Jesus himself and for us as Mark’s readers.  While the characters in Mark’s narrative will struggle with Jesus’ identity, from the outset we know who he is. 

Mark tells us that Jesus saw “the heavens torn apart.”  The opening of heaven is a theme that reoccurs throughout biblical literature.  It indicates that a vision of things beyond our earthly sphere is happening.[6]  The only other time that Mark will use the word for “torn apart” will be in 15:38 when the Temple curtain is torn apart at Jesus’ death.  This tearing apart is, in fact, what we have cried out for God to do way back in the first week of Advent.  Our cry then was that God would tear open the heavens and come down, like he did in days past when he did great deeds that we did not expect (Isaiah 64:1-3).  

Jesus is also the only who sees the Spirit descending down on him.  The Spirit descended like a dove on him fulfilling the prophetic expectations for one who is sent by God to do God’s saving work.  It was common in the Old Testament for God’s Spirit to rest on specific people for a time while they accomplished God’s work.  For example, God’s Spirit rested on Gideon and King David.  Both were instruments of salvation for God’s people through the power of the Spirit.  Though, the Spirit’s involvement in Jesus’ life is not situational as it had been for others. Jesus has been in unity with the Spirit from all eternity.  The Spirit is part and parcel with who Jesus is as he accomplishes the work that he and the Father have agreed upon. 

As soon as the dove descended upon Jesus, Jesus hears a voice from heaven.  The voice declares Jesus to be God’s Son whom he loves very much.  The phrase is a quotation which combines Psalm 2:7 and Isaiah 42:1.  “Psalm 2:7 evokes the royal imagery and inauguration ceremony of the Judean king, who was declared to be God’s Son…The citation of Isa 42:1 is from the first of the Servant Songs, with the immediate context referring to the Servant’s diving endowment with the Spirit to bring God’s justice to the Gentiles (42:2-4)…”[7] There is no doubt left who the speaker is, it is God himself (that is, God the Father; as the term Son implies Father), and the one he addresses is none other than the divine Son of God who will, nevertheless, be unrecognized as the one sent to take away the sins of the world.

It might be easy, at this point, to view Jesus’ baptism as an adoption of sorts. That view would say that Jesus receives the Holy Spirit and God declares him to be his son.  This is not, however, what Mark wants us to believe.  Rather, Mark has acknowledged from the very opening lines of his story that Jesus is the divine Son of God. Thus, Jesus’ baptism is not the beginning of his divine sonship; rather, it is a confirmation of his divine sonship.  We are told outright what the characters of Mark’s story will need to discover for themselves, that Jesus is the messiah, the savior, the one we have been waiting for.  Jesus is baptized to mark the beginning of his ministry.  In this way, Jesus is connected to what God has done in the past in Israel and is connected with all of Israel’s deepest hopes about what God will do in the future.  Jesus, now that he has been baptized, moves onto the mission that he has been given.      

So What?
Something happens when we are baptized.  Sure, baptism marks our repentance, our turning from our sin and old way of life, but it is more than that.  Baptism not only marks our movement away from sin, it marks our movement toward something as well.  Some will argue that it marks our movement toward purity and holiness as we seek to allow the Holy Spirit to baptize us as well.  They would be right, of course.  We come up out of the baptismal waters clean, washed of our sins and ready to continue to walk toward Christ.  Some will also say that in our baptism we walk toward inclusion in a new family, the family of God known as the church.  We have been adopted as children of God.  They too, would be correct.  These images are important for us as we seek to live our faith.  There is, however, another thing that we move toward as we emerge from the baptismal water, our God-given mission. 

We stand at the beginning of a brand new year with new challenges and new goals.  Many of us will create a list of resolutions, goals which we would like to keep in the coming year.  Let us add one more: living into our baptism with a sense of God-given mission.  Our passage depicts for us Jesus’ baptism, and it is in that baptism that we have revealed to us the identity of Jesus.  We see the heavens ripped open wide.  We see the Spirit of God rest on this Jesus to signify that Jesus will indeed be the one who comes to be our rescuer.  We hear the very voice of God proclaim that he loves and is well pleased with Jesus.  What we do not hear, explicitly anyway, but we do pick it up in the verses that lead up to Jesus emerging from the water, is that Jesus baptism marks the beginning of Jesus’ divine mission.  Mark takes pains to connect Jesus with God’s work in the past and to Israel’s hopes for the future.  Jesus is up to something.  In Mark’s narrative Jesus will be on the move, doing God’s work and preaching God’s message. 

It is the same way with our baptisms.  We may not visibly see the heavens tear open.  We may not see the Spirit of God descend upon us and we may not hear the words of God himself declare us to be his sons and daughters, the children he loves and is pleased with, but that does not mean that this is not what is happening.  As we emerge from the baptismal waters we begin our journey.  Yes, it is a journey away from sin and the death that is a result of our sin, but we also begin to take the first steps in fulfilling the mission that Jesus has given us.  And what is our mission?  It is the same mission that Jesus embarked on after his baptism: it is the mission of salvation, the mission of bringing good news of release for those imprisoned, healing for those who are sick and broken, comfort for those who are sad and mourn.  It is a mission that declares that there is one who is coming who is stronger, stronger than all that seems to defeat us day in and day out, the small things and the large things.   

Like Jesus, as he began his mission we will be tested and tried.  We will be told that the way of Jesus is not practical, that it does not work.  We will suffer as Jesus suffered.  We will go unrecognized as ones who know the truth about the world and how it should work.  We might even be called upon to die.  But we will be vindicated by the resurrection power of God. 

As we move into this new year, may we walk toward fulfilling our mission.  May we do so knowing that the one who has called us, loves us, is pleased with us, and will help us on our way. 

Critical Discussion Questions:

1.     How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
a.     Mark wants us to see very clearly that God is the same God who has been working in, through, and for Israel. This same God now walks among men as Jesus.  Israel’s hope for salvation can now be touched and felt.
b.     God is in the process of sending Jesus to fulfill his mission.  God sends us too.  

2.     What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
a.     Prior to the sending that takes place at our baptism, we must first repent and confess our sins.  This is a turning away from the old life and mindset to a new life and a new family.  As we turn from our old life we turn toward our new life with our new identity and new mission.
b.     We are defined by our status as beloved children of God.   

3.     How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
a.     Children, good ones anyway, do the will of their Father.  Our baptism signifies our adoption as children of God.  We are shaped by this new identity.

Specific Discussion Questions:
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly.  Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.

1.     Have you been baptized? Why or why not? What happened at your baptism?
2.     Why does John the Baptist appear in the wilderness?  Why does his ministry start and largely remain there?
3.     Mark tells us that the content of John’s messages was that people should repent and have their sins forgiven.  John specifies that this repentance and forgiveness happens in baptism.  Why does John bring together baptism with repentance and forgiveness?
4.     John proclaims that one is coming after him who is very powerful.  Whom do you think John’s original hearers might have thought was the identity of the one who was coming? 
5.     John says that the one who is coming will baptize with the Holy Spirit, unlike his baptism of water.  How might John’s baptism and Jesus’ baptism be similar?  How might they be different?
6.     Right after Jesus’ baptism we are told that the heavens were torn apart.  Read Isaiah 64:1-4.  How does what happen in Jesus’ baptism relate to the hopes of Isaiah?
7.     Why does the Spirit descend on Jesus?  Why does God say what he says at the end of the passage?
8.     Jesus’ baptism is a public sending.  Jesus is commissioned to go on his mission of redemption and salvation for the world.  Is our baptism similar or different than Jesus’?  If similar, why?  If different, why? What is our mission after our baptism?

[1] R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark: A Commentary on the Greek Text, New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI; Carlisle: W.B. Eerdmans; Paternoster Press, 2002), 57.
[2] R. T. France, 65.
[3] M. Eugene Boring, Mark: A Commentary, The New Testament Library (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 41.
[4] France, 70
[5] Ibid., 75
[6] Ibid., 77
[7] Boring, 45