Bible Study: 4 Lent (A)

March 30, 2014

Dale T. Grandfield, General Theological Seminary

“Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’” (John 9:39)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
1 Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Le roi est mort. Vive le roi!” The king is dead. Long live the king!

Wait. The king isn’t dead. What just happened? Does anyone hear shouts of coup d’etat?

Luckily it all happened far outside the capitol in Bethlehem. Nevertheless, the prophet Samuel committed capital treason. He anointed a new king for Israel while the old king was still alive. It would not be outside the norm for the reigning monarch to have him executed. No wonder Samuel talked back to God when heard the commission: “If he finds out, Saul is going to kill me.”

This little narrative recounts one of the most important events in scripture. Seriously. This moment when God chose, and Samuel anointed, set in motion the Davidic monarchy in Israel. That may not mean a lot at first glance, but here are a few important points.

First, to be valid, the King of Israel had to be chosen by God and anointed by one of God’s prophets.

Second, if God was unhappy with the King, God could choose another without notice and without respect to heirs or dynasties.

Third, let’s not forget that it is David’s line which, through the prophet Nathan, God promises to uphold forever.

And finally, remember your Jesse Tree in Advent? The Israelites longed to see the reestablishment of that Davidic monarchy during hundreds of years in exile, and from that expectancy came the promos of the Messiah – the great, culminating King of reunited Israel. As the prophets foretold that ultimate king, the gospels respond, telling us that Jesus of Nazareth was born to be that guy: the Messiah.

With such a quiet, backwoods, subversive plot-twist like Samuel anointing David, is it surprising, then, that God does not see as mortals see, and God does not choose as mortals choose?

That should be of comfort to us on the most basic level, because we know, then, that God isn’t looking at us in the way we look at ourselves. At the same time, it should stir us up to see how unorthodox God’s work is in God’s creation. It’s as if God is saying to us through a conversation with Samuel thousands of years ago: “Get ready, I don’t do things the way you expect.”

From a political perspective, what do you make of Samuel going behind King Saul’s back to anoint David king? Do you find anything untoward or even unfortunate about that?

Have you ever discerned anything? How is it possible to listen closely enough for the movement of the Spirit so as to look beyond how mortals see and choose and get at what God really wants?

Psalm 23

The 23rd Psalm may be, along with the traditional Lord’s Prayer, the most ecumenical, even interfaith, prayer. Everyone knows a little of “The Lord is my shepherd.” Go to a hospital or funeral where people of many different backgrounds gather, and more often than not, they can recite at least part of this psalm.

Perhaps that’s because this is a psalm of deepest trust in and satisfaction with God’s guardianship. There’s that word “Lord,” which in Hebrew is actually God’s ineffable proper name, “YHWH.” YHWH is my shepherd … I will dwell in the house of YHWH forever.”  It’s like talking about and to a beloved caretaker.

Yet this shepherd metaphor for God also portrays a gradual maturation of our faith, as God not only sees to our needs and wards off danger, but also teaches and motivates us.

Look at how the language changes. The first three verses are in the third person where God is “he.” But after the Valley of the Shadow of Death, the language takes a turn to the intimate and relational “thou.” In the first verses, God makes, leads, revives, guides. Then it switches, and the first person becomes the agent. “I walk.” “I fear.” “I dwell.”

And let’s not forget the assumed actions in relationship to God’s in verse 5: I sit and eat, and I am coronated. Thus God becomes the servant-priest and the prophet. What a sweet friendship we find here with God!

Finally, let’s focus for a moment on one little word, a verb in verse 6: yirdd’funi. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer Psalter, following the Coverdale translation of previous prayer books, translates: “Shall follow me.” But the verb has the connotation of pursuing or chasing after. So the literal translation from Hebrew is: “No doubt good and kindness will chase after me.” Thus, even when we all gown up and have become too busy to notice, God’s goodness and kindness is chasing, pursuing, and searching for us. That is a powerful image that recalls Jesus the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 sheep in order to search for the one that is lost. Even when we are not lost, even when we are simply unaware, God delights in us and gives God’s self to our care and betterment.

Have you ever found Psalm 23 to be a point of ecumenical or interfaith dialogue?

Are you most drawn to God in the third person (he) or in the second (thou)? Have you ever thought of God as your master? As your servant? Do you perceive God to be more kind, or more demanding?

As you examine your life and the lives of those around you, who have you seen God’s goodness and kindness chasing after you?

Ephesians 5:8-14

Going far back into pre-history, humans have been quite vulnerable to predation at night, partially because we are diurnal animals (that is, we sleep during the night and are active during the day) and partially because we lack sensory acumen and have hairless bodies, heavy heads and a slow two-legged gait. “Lions and tigers and bears! O, my!”

Imagine if we were in the woods with voracious wolves. In and of our own bodies, we would have precious little to ward off the beasts. That sounds like a nightmare! Yet, even if it’s tough for us in the 21st century, with portable electric light to illumine our darkest places and stark delineation between civilization and “the wild,” somewhere deep inside of us, mythically, day is good and night is bad.

And what characterizes the day? Light. What characterizes the night? Darkness. If we were owls, for example, we might feel completely differently. But we are not; and Christianity, from early times, used the imagery of light versus dark as a metaphor for the Christian life in the world.

That is precisely what this imagery is: metaphor. Christians aren’t really brighter than other people. While metaphor can certainly be useful and artistic, it can also, when taken too literally, make for many problems in interpretation. Then take a metaphor like “light in the dark” that plays on deep-seated evolutionary patterns, and the game is set for complete misunderstanding. Too easily this little passage in Ephesians could be taken as an us-vs.-them type of statement, or the promotion of some sort of dualism of good vs. evil. That is not what the writer of Ephesians is talking about.

Darkness is not over and against light. On the contrary, it is merely the absence of light. When light shines, darkness disappears because the light fills the void that was darkness. That is why it is important for the Ephesians to recognize in themselves the light of the Lord, to live as people filled with that light, and to expose all things to it. Once the light shines, it has an amazing way of reclaiming what was secret and dark. As it says, “Everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.”

When are other times recently when you have encountered light vs. dark imagery in the church and church year?

Based on what you know about the City of Ephesus and the ancient world, what do you think the “darkness” might have been? What type of shameful, secret acts were the people committing?

How have you been a shining light for the world recently?

John 9:1-41

Which is worse, to be blind, physically, or to have a blind heart and inattentive ears? In the wake of today’s gospel lesson, it might seem like an easy answer. Of course we’d want to be open and receptive to God in Jesus Christ. But if this same question were posed within a different, less obviously spiritual arena, I imagine our choice might be less cut and dried.

As brilliant as she was, few of us would want to be disabled as Helen Keller was, even if it meant being as intelligent. Think of Ludwig von Beethoven. How many of us would be willing to gradually lose our hearing in order to get at the deeper meanings of human frailty and limitation in our art?

Couldn’t we have a great impact without too much sacrifice? Certainly! But don’t be surprised when God does things quite unpredictably.

Yet, even when we recognize God’s subversive way, disability is a very difficult topic for us. So much of our lives are about what we can do. To say “I can’t” is a concession. To make too many concessions is weakness.

The church is not outside of that notion. We like our clergy and leaders, for example, to be paragons of capability: intelligent, high functioning, morally upstanding, well spoken, caring, and it doesn’t hurt if they’re good looking and well dressed!

The disciple in today’s gospel reading experiences a revelation of who Jesus is. This epiphany is facilitated by apt and clear theological argumentation on the part of this nameless disciple who was blind yet sees. Nevertheless, what may be even more important here is the means by which Jesus makes himself known.

In Jesus’ time, it was thought that the congenitally blind and otherwise disabled were disabled because they were born entirely in sin. That seems not so much a value judgment as a simple way of writing people off. In congregational life in the first century, being “congenitally sinful” meant spiritual as well as physical impoverishment.

That’s where God works. In a twist of plot, the story of the disciple who was born blind and healed shows us not only that Jesus is from God, but that God in Jesus does not necessarily choose the obvious people to demonstrate the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. Quite to the contrary, sometimes it’s in the unlikely that God demonstrates exceptional holiness. That’s often how God can speak to those who have been blinded by ability and the way things have always been done, shedding new light on the world.

Have you ever thought about the holiness and importance of human diversity in gifts, abilities and disabilities in and among our people, including our leadership?

What does it mean to you that (1) we are still striving to understand God’s full self-revelation in Jesus Christ, and (2) that Christ’s call to us is to cast no one out?

Have you ever felt disabled by an overwhelming sense of sinfulness? Impending judgment? If so, how did Christ’s healing hands break through your pain?

How have you felt disabled, weak or a failure in your life?  If so, how has that been a means of God’s revelation? How can your own sense of limitation lend perspective and open you to radical compassion?

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