Readings: 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13, Mark 4:26-34
Let us pray:
O God, open our hearts and minds that your word for us be heard. In Jesus name. Amen.
Today and over the next few weeks we are going to follow the story of David from the Hebrew Scriptures. David, shepherd boy, giant killer, king, musician, husband and father: a man who by all accounts was very human -fallible, courageous, vindictive, humble, one who valued loyalty but betrayed those who trusted him, who asked God’s forgiveness more than once. The story is an amazing tale of intrigue and political agility, of palatial living and life on the run, of David and his walk with God.
This is a time when the concept of lectionary passages for Sunday service is woefully inadequate. Over the next few weeks, that approach picks out certain parts of the rich and long life of David including the David and Goliath fight, David made King over a united Israel, the promise of eternal dynasty and the sad, rather salacious tale of Bathsheba. Yet there is so much more to this man’s life – much as we cannot pick out four or five episodes in our lives and be completely known by them, so we should not do this to David. So I am going to suggest that over these next few weeks we all do some extra reading – some filling in of the gaps before the next week’s passage. And for some of you this might be a good excuse to get together for a cuppa and share in the reading together – chapters 16 and 17 of 1 Samuel will take you through to the Goliath story of next week.
And so in this vein, let me develop the context and detail of the reading we heard today –you could say that the beginnings of story of David were way back when the Israeli people exercised what we would call today their democratic right – (you can read about this in 1 Samuel 8) When they realised that Samuel was getting old and his sons did not walk the way of God, they decided they would be much safer from invasion and enemies if they had a ‘real’ earthly king appointed to rule over them and lead them in battle rather that trusting in the rule of God alone. Samuel tried to argue them out of it with stories of how they would end up giving all they had to this king, their incomes, their children, and their lives – but was basically outvoted. Saul was that first King then –of the tribes of Israel who were scattered from Tyre in the north the southern point of the Dead Sea. And as you heard his reign was long and by the standards of the day fairly successful, winning battles and holding authority over a large area. But it is in the latter half of his rule that things started to turn to custard – where we get the sense of Saul moving away from total obedience to God and choosing to walk in his own way. This is amply demonstrated by the story that led into today’s reading. We are told that after brutal and bloody battle victory against the Amalekites in the south, Saul disobeyed the command of God to destroy all the livestock and kept the best to bring back. As you read the passage you can almost hear the blustering defensiveness – Saul first of all blames those with him: ‘They have brought them back...’ he says, and then he goes to plan B when he see that is not gaining much traction with Samuel – ‘we have brought the best for sacrifice to God’ he says. ‘Surely that is the right thing to do’. And again Samuel rejects his actions – God is wanting you to hear and obey, he says, that is way more important than sacrifices and burnt offerings. And Samuel and Saul parted ways, because, we are told, God turned away from Saul. And it is at this point, whilst Saul is still King, that Samuel is sent by God to seek out a replacement leader from amongst the sons of Jesse from the town of Bethlehem. But this is neither a safe nor wise thing for Samuel to do. Saul is not going to just let Samuel replace him – no way. And Samuel is no fool – he knows that now, in his rejection of Saul, his own life is of little value – the slightest misstep and he is toast. So it’s time for bit of political deviousness – take a heifer to offer as a sacrifice in Bethlehem, make sure Jesse and his sons come along and then you can, under cover, make contact with the one who will be king. And when this is done, Samuel, ever judicious, heads even further north to Ramah and keeps his head well down for some time.
I want to pick up on a couple of things that have stood out for me in this story so far.
The first is that nothing changes under the sun and there is much of this ancient tale that speaks to us today. The more we immerse ourselves in the story the more we can relate to the emotions and decisions and conundrums that Samuel and Saul and David faced, the more we can see very human figures who loved God and each other yet turned away in arrogance and fear from God and each other. When we read of Saul making his own decisions on what is right, not hearing the wisdom of others or the voice of God, we can totally relate. Much as I value my own thoughts and interpretations, I value equally the ability of the community of faith to moderate and input into those opinions and understandings – and from that discussion in the power of the Spirit comes a common wisdom and a caring approach to decisions and choices. Part of what we mean by community isn’t it?
Another interesting thought from this story is that living in God’s way doesn’t make life safe for you – in fact it is quite likely to make things much more dangerous because it often involves words and actions that are countercultural, anti-establishment. Take David for instance. I doubt that there would have been much celebration on his anointing as a future king – he was not presented with a crown and an invitation to move into a sumptuous palace – quite the opposite – he was entering a world of intrigue and danger. Picture the next step – Saul, we read, is afflicted by evil spirits and he calls upon David and his skill with the lyre to play music for him – music that relieved his demons and made him calm. But what would that have been like for David? It would be like walking on eggshells – does he know, how will he react, am I going to wake up tomorrow? And sure enough in time, his fears are realised and he is running for his life– but that is for later in the story. Here too we think on the times when we make safe decisions when we are really needing to rattle the cages of social practices that are unjust, hurtful, unloving, even if it means some discomfort to ourselves.
And lastly what intrigues me most about the story of David, and particularly in contrast to Saul – is the seeming lack of physical, social and family stature in this one chosen by God.
When Samuel seeks out Saul we read that he was not only a handsome (or more exactly a good) man, not a boy, but that he stood head and shoulders above everyone else, was from a wealthy family – an obvious candidate for strong leadership. David on the other hand was an innocent abroad, young of years and small of stature and laughed at when he offered his skills in battle. A very ordinary young man who accepted a calling on his life that was to prove extraordinarily dangerous and uncertain. It was his heart rather than his stature that proved to be big enough in accepting this challenge from God on his life. We can all think of ordinary people with huge hearts who have stepped out in extraordinary acts of courage when called to make a choice – the Corrie Ten Booms and the Rosa Parks and Martin Luthers, the William Wilberforces and the Kate Shepherds of this world –and I invite you for a moment to consider those people who you know who have chosen to respond to God’s dangerous call for justice and equality and compassion for all people with courageous, often difficult decisions and who do make a difference in this world. And remember – it may be you, and the person sitting next to you who has, in any number of ways, chosen to do what their heart calls them to over what is expedient and safe. And for this we say thanks be to God.