Judges 13:1-15; Psalms 97; Acts 5:27-42; John 3:22-36
Today we begin the story of one of the most famous and unreliable judge of all, Sampson. Again, the Israelites have done what is evil in the sight of the Lord and this time they are captive to the Philistines. Philistia was a sea-faring culture on the cost between Israel and Egypt, with vastly superior weapons (steel chariots), and continually vexed Israel for the next several hundred years. The story opens with an angel of the Lord (God) visiting the wife of Manoah (notice that we don’t know her name, only that she is Manoah’s barren wife). God tells her that she is to bear a son. Consequently, she is to drink nor eat any fruit of the vine, other strong drink or eat any food that is unclean. This is not heavenly pre-natal medical advice; this child is to be a nazarite, dedicated to God from birth. A nazarite was someone who has taken special vows to set him or herself apart for the Lord, to be holy, and not to be in any way defiled. Nazarites were to abstain from all strong drink, from any fruit of the fine, were not to cut their hair, and were to have no contact with death. Even if their own parents died during the vow, they could not attend to them. Nazarites came to be understood as symbols of spiritual strength and vitality born of their consecration to God. The entire structure of the life and vow can be read in Numbers 6:1-21. Manoah’s wife tells him of the encounter. He asks God to send the messenger again, and God does, again, while she is sitting alone in the field. She goes to her husband and leads him back to “the man” to inquire for himself. Again, the command is given: his wife must not drink strong drink or eat unclean food until the child is born. He is to be a nazarite from conception through his entire life. The lesson ends with Manoah asking permission to prepare a meal for the visitor, just as Gideon prepared a meal for God that was ultimately consumed by fire.
The psalm celebrates God’s sovereign rule over all the earth—not just Israel!—and utilizing material from other psalms as well as many themes from Second Isaiah (40-55), creates a hymn of praise that recognizes the Lord as King. References to lighting and storm challenge the notion that those were the work of the Canaanite god Baal. Not simply the earth, but the heavens as well, proclaim God’s glory. Though nothing can fully contain God’s glory, it puts to shame those who bow down before worthless idols. For the Lord is not simply a god, but God of all the gods. This is a conviction that emerged in Israel upon its return from Babylon. The Lord had rescued them from the land of the wicked and now continues to “sow light for the righteous,” leading them in God’s way. “Rejoice then in the Lord, O you righteous. Give thanks to God’s holy name!”
The apostles have been lead back into the presence of the council where the High Priest demands to know why their order that the apostles stop preaching and teaching in the name of Jesus has been disobeyed. Peter responds, “We must obey God and not men,” and uses it as an opportunity to again proclaim the good news of Jesus, as well as the fact that they, the council, are the very people responsible for executing the one God sent as leader and savior, to give repentance to Israel, and who has now been raised and exalted to God’s right hand. This is the one they have been called and equipped to proclaim. More, they are not his only witnesses; the Spirit of God is also witness to him, and has been given to them and to all who obey God in this regard. The apostles’ response “cuts them to the quick,”—enrages the council members to the point that they are ready to put the apostles to death. In the midst of this chaos, a certain Pharisee among them, Gamaliel (a rabbi renowned in Judaism, and one of Paul’s teachers [Acts 22:3]), asks that the apostles be put outside so the council can confer. Once that happens, he gives his sage advice. After mentioning several other uprisings led by charismatic figures, he notes that this has happened before and nothing has come of it. His council is, leave this alone. If this is of “man” it too will come to nothing. But, if it is of God, then nothing can stop it, and, in fact, they might just find themselves standing in God’s way! The council heeds Gamaliel’s advice. Instead, they have the apostles flogged (no small form of punishment), order them to no longer speak in Jesus’ name, and release them. The apostles, for their part, take the beating, rejoicing that God has considered them worthy of bearing shame on behalf of Jesus. And, of course, they continue to bear witness to him as the Christ.
The encounter with Nicodemus complete, for now, Jesus and his disciples move on to the region of Judea where Jesus spends time with his disciples baptizing new followers. Note that this is one of the few places in the gospel narratives where we know of Jesus baptizing followers in much the same way as John did. And, of course, this is in the same region where John is baptizing, which again, brings John back into the story as witness. One of John’s disciples comes to him to report that Jesus, to whom John himself bore witness, is now baptizing “all who come to him.” John responds that Jesus can do nothing that has not been given to him from heaven. He then again reminds them that he is not the Christ but rather, one who was sent ahead of him. “The bridegroom has the bride,” is his way of identifying Jesus as the “coming one,” and himself as forerunner and “the friend of the bridegroom.” As his friend, John rejoices, knowing that Jesus must increase while John must decrease. There follows a series of saying about Jesus and John: Jesus from above, John from the earth, and the affirmation that the one who has come from heaven speaks the word of God and gives God’s Spirit without measure. He is the Son of God to whom God has given all things. Those who believe in him have eternal life; those who do not obey him will find the wrath of God abiding on them.
Author: The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson
Created: June 21, 2012
The Rev. Dr. Fred R. Anderson, Pastor of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, offers thoughts on today’s lectionary readings.