II Samuel 5:1-5,9-10
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
First Central Congregational UCC
15 July 2012
From the passage of scripture I just read, let us rewind the clock seven years.
Philistine power was, once again, on the rise -- they mustered for a major invasion of Israel in the hopes of defeating King Saul and re-occupying the country. In response, Saul prepared his forces. But Saul was no longer the brave, inspiring leader that he was when he first emerged upon the scene, back when he led Israel in a string of surprising military victories. After those victories he was celebrated by the people, and they acclaimed him king.
But those celebrations were long past. For years Saul had been falling apart. Every once and a while he still acted like a noble king. But more often than not he was paranoid, filled with rage, violent, even terrifying. At one point in the story he allowed the mass murder of the priests because they aided David while David was in hiding. When he was not raging, he was incapable of acting, sometimes paralyzed with fear and anxiety. This story may record the effects of a devastating mental illness which destroyed Saul's psyche. I am grateful to the authors of sacred scripture for giving us such a profound look into a troubled human soul.
When Saul saw the army of the Philistines, he was afraid, and his heart trembled greatly. When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, or by [lots], or by prophets.
Saul was no longer receiving the guidance of the Lord, because God had removed God's Spirit from Saul. Not only was he in emotional turmoil, he was spiritually in turmoil. In moments of deep pain and grief, many of us have experienced a disconnect from our source of life and hope.
You see, Samuel had died. Samuel, the final judge of Israel, the prophet and priest who had heard the voice of God since he was a child and had used God's guidance to lead the people. Samuel had been something of a surrogate father for Saul, helping him in the early days of his reign, sharing God's word with him. Saul relied upon Samuel and his connection with God. Even when Samuel became critical of Saul and denounced him, Saul still had this powerful connection to the old man. But, now, Samuel was dead, and Saul was utterly alone.
But Saul must have some word of what he was to do, so he broke his own law and sought out a medium. One was found in Endor, in the border region between Israel and Philistia. She had been banned from Israel and was there in hiding. The woman was at first uncertain of this stranger in disguise, wondering if this was a trap laid for her, but Saul swore his protection. "Whom should I call forth," she asked. "Samuel." And Samuel's ghost emerged from the ground, like an old man, wrapped in a robe.
The ghost asked, "Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?" Saul said, "I am in great distress. Tell me what I should do." Samuel's ghost was angry. He announced that Saul would be defeated, that he and his sons would be killed the very next day, and that David would be made king.
Immediately Saul fell full length on the ground, filled with fear because of the words of Samuel; and there was no strength in him, for he had eaten nothing all day and all night. The woman came to Saul, and when she saw that he was terrified . . .
she comforted him and gave him something to eat. Here at the end, Saul was a completely broken man. But in that moment, he found comfort, nourishment, and healing through the Medium of Endor. Even Saul deserved compassion and mercy, and found it in this excluded woman.
What of David, the young man, hero against the giant Goliath, the one whom we readers had long before been alerted would be the next king? What has he been doing all this time?
For years David had been in exile because Saul was afraid of him and was hunting him in order to kill him. David spent much of the time hiding in the wilderness pursued by Saul, but after years of hiding, he realized that Saul would sooner or later succeed in finding him, so David went to to King Achish of Gath and offered his services. This, of course, should surprise us, because Gath is the home of the giant Goliath whom David killed. David had built his military reputation around killing Philistines, and then he went and allied himself with them.
Achish gave David control over the city of Ziklag, where all of David's followers and their families went to live. David then worked for the Philistines, raiding various tribes and towns all the way to Egypt. The entire time, the Philistines thought he was raiding Israelite towns, but David deceived them. The Bible tells us that in each town he slaughtered the entire population so that no one would return to the Philistines and reveal his deception. We are explicitly told that he killed all the women of every village.
So, when the armies of the Philistines gathered to invade Israel, David too was there with the Philistine army. However, the other Philistine lords were afraid of David switching sides in the battle, so they compelled King Achish to send him away.
The Philistines then attacked and defeated Israel. Saul, did not want to fall into enemies hands, so he fell upon his own sword. Saul and his sons, including Jonathan, died there on the battlefield on Mount Gilboa. Thus ends the Book of I Samuel.
When the book ends, we are at a cliffhanger. The Philistines have conquered Israel and are in control. The king and some of his sons have been killed. David, the rebel whom many thought would be the future king, has allied himself with the Philistines. And where is God? In times of trouble, the people had relied upon God to send God's spirit upon a hero, someone like Samuel, who would lead the people, but God seems to have stepped away from history, allowing events to take their own course.
Nothing has gone as planned. Back in the opening story of this book, Hannah, the mother of Samuel, had prayed for God to fulfill her desires and give her a son whom she would turn over to God as God's instrument. When God gave her a son, she sang a great song:
My heart exults in the Lord;
I have triumphed through the Lord.
I gloat over my enemies;
I rejoice in Your deliverance.
The foes of the Lord shall be shattered;
He will thunder against them in the heavens.
The Lord will judge the ends of the earth.
This book that began in promise, ends in defeat. There is no king. Israel's enemies have conquered the country. God seems absent. We have returned to the chaos with which the book began.
Even David, who held so much promise and potential, is wondering around out in the wilderness, allied with the enemy, guilty of brutal murders himself. It looks like David isn't going to work out either.
I Samuel speaks to those times of confusion and ambiguity. It is a story for those times when promises go unfulfilled, when all your plans have failed, and life makes you anxious.
The opening chapters of II Samuel hardly improve the situation. One of Saul's sons, Ishbaal, was taken away to a city in the eastern side of the country. There he was crowned king , but Ishbaal was weak.
The nation split apart. The tribe of Judah rejected Ishbaal and crowned David as king. What ensued was a seven year civil war in which David and the people of Judah fought with Ishbaal and the rest of Israel. In the midst of the war, Ishbaal was murdered by his own people, but it dragged on for more years, before finally the elders of Israel went to surrender to David and receive him as their king.
Chapter seven, which I read earlier, is not some grand, glorious moment when David has finally achieved success. It is a surrender brought about by years of violence. We must wonder: how many people have died so that David could ascend the throne? The Books of Samuel remind us of the danger that always surrounds power and the drive to succeed.
Popular writer Eugene Peterson wrote in his commentary on these stories,
The effect of this sustained narrative treatment is to immerse us in the human condition – this is what is involved in being a human being, created and called, judged and saved by God – all the complexity of glory and difficulty involved in our human condition.
It might surprise you to know that the more I read these stories in I and II Samuel, the more I felt at home in them, because I believe that they describe a time very similar to our own – a time of anxiety, a time of fear and disunion, a time of danger and violence.
When I was in high school, the Cold War came to an end. There was excitement and hope that we were entering a new world order where democracy, the rule of law, and peace would be ascendant. Germany was reunified; democracies were born in Eastern Europe; an international coalition cast Saddam Hussein's troops out of Kuwait in just a few weeks. The rest of the nineties was filled with economic prosperity, and, despite troubling episodes in various parts of the globe, we entered the new millennium with a great deal of optimism and hope for the future.
But all that changed in the new millennium. A contested presidential election, the tragic events of September 11, 2001, wars, tsunamis, hurricanes, more terrorist attacks, and a global financial collapse. As a result of all these things, our lives have changed. We go through security checks that we would have objected to only a few years ago. Our political leaders seem completely incapable of working together to solve the incredible problems that we face. And there is a society-wide loss of civility and respect.
I think that we are collectively suffering from anxiety, and with this anxiety has come all of its partner emotions – grief, anger, fear, cynicism, and sometimes even depression.
In your orders of worship, there are blank pieces of paper. I want you to take those out and grab a pen or pencil, and I want you to write down what currently makes you anxious. Either something in your own life or something in the wider world. In order to find healing and hope, it is important to name our anxieties. In a moment, at the conclusion of this sermon, Stephen will play a longer than usual instrumental opening to our next hymn, in order to give you a little extra time to think and write.
Then, I want you to fold up those pieces of paper and put them in the offering plate when it comes by. I will take the papers this week and offer them in prayer to God. They will be anonymous and confidential and seen only by myself.
Our ancestors in the faith also lived in anxious times. In their anxiety, they sought God's help. Today's Psalm began, "The earth is God's and all that is in it." That gives us hope. The way things are now, is not the way they have to be. The Source of life and beauty lures the world toward goodness.
When Saul collapsed with fear in her presence, the Medium of Endor prepared him a meal. She took care of him, nurtured him, and showed compassion. This gentle, human act did not change the course of history, but it brought a moment of healing for this one troubled soul. And that simple act was recorded, so that it could be remembered for all time.
Does her act reveal something important? I believe it does. I believe she reveals a way to live through anxious times. She reminds us that despite all our differences and our life circumstances, inside each one of us is a Source of care and compassion. And I believe that Source is a divine Source.
In the midst of our anxieties, let's get in touch with that divine Source of life and compassion inside each and every one of us. That way, we can nurture one another and find healing and salvation.