St Barnabas and St Michael’s 5th February 2012
What do you think of when you hear the word “education”? I guess most of us think of teachers and classrooms and long, gloomy corridors smelling of disinfectant. Schools play a huge part in our life, and I think nearly every grown-up has some childhood memory of a special teacher, or classmate, or some misdemeanour that may or may not have gone unpunished. And whether or not our experience of school was positive, I believe we should all give thanks for the fact that in this country we have an education system to which so many people devote their lives – Education Sunday today gives us a chance to do just that.
But there are other forms of education as well. There is all the stuff that we learnt from our parents, or other carers, right from our earliest years. There is that constant flow of information that pours into our living rooms through the Internet and our television screens. And of course there is what is sometimes called the “university of life”, those experiences and events that mould and shape our lives, and make us very much who we are.
And it’s on this kind of education that I particular want to focus today. We’re continuing with our series looking at the making of a great king, David. In our story this morning he has still not yet reached the throne. Yes, he was anointed by the prophet Samuel way back in chapter 16, but since then he has spent much of his time on the run from the current king, Saul, whom the Lord had rejected. So as I began to look at this chapter, I found myself asking why David had to go through so much before he took his rightful place at the head of his people. Wouldn’t it have been simpler all round if once David had been anointed, Saul had been removed from the scene – killed by a passing Philistine, perhaps, – and David given the throne there and then. I am sure that given the choice David would have preferred that outcome to living like an outlaw.
But the more I thought about David’s life, the more I realised that the Lord was preparing David for an exceptional job by taking him through some exceptional experiences. All these stories of meeting Goliath, fleeing from Saul through a window, even faking madness in a Philistine town were part of David’s education. There weren’t universities or schools of higher education in his day. You couldn’t get an MBA in kingship, or an NVQ in throne management. David had to learn through practical action, and in fact many of the psalms in our Bible are, if you like, his notes on what he learnt – not only about kingship, but about the Lord Himself, and His plans and purposes. And the fact we have these stories today reminds us they were written down not only to entertain us, but also to educate, and help us understand how we too ought to live out our faith.
So let’s look at this passage and see what lessons David learnt, and how they might apply to us. And because I want to try and teach something from this passage, I have drawn out three particular points, and they all start with the same letter.
First of all, David learns a lesson about listening.
Now last time we left David out in the field waiting to hear how Saul would react to his absence from the feast. The chapter ends with Jonathan telling David to flee for his life. So David flees. First of all to the town of Nob, where he is betrayed by one of Saul’s henchmen, called Doeg, with the result that the king kills all the priests of the town. David moves on to a place called Keilah which he takes from the Philistines. Yet even after that victory Saul is still after his life. David moves from place to place, but the net closes in. In fact chapter 23 ends with David on one side of a mountain, and Saul on the other. David is only spared because a messenger tells Saul to come quickly and fight off yet another Philistine raid.
So you can imagine how David’s friends react when Saul comes in to the very cave where they are hiding. David’s greatest enemy is literally in front of him with his pants down, for -as one American translation puts it – he has come inside to use the bathroom. Surely this is the moment David has been waiting for. The men said, “This is the day the Lord spoke of when he said to you, ‘I will give your enemy into your hands for you to deal with as you wish.'” (v.4). And it seems hard to argue with their logic. The Lord has rejected Saul. David is the chosen king. Saul is now within striking distance, completely undefended. What better time could there be to strike?
Well, we thought last week about the value of friendship and how important it is to remain true to our friends. But another important lesson about friends is learning when to follow their advice, and when to have the courage to stand up to it. Because sometimes, especially when we’re young, it’s very easy to get carried along by what other people say. “Go on, have a cigarette. Everyone smokes, you know”. “Dare you to put a drawing pin on the teacher’s chair”. “I’ve just nicked a packet of sweets from that shop. Let me show you how”. After all, no-one wants to be unpopular. We all want to keep in with our friends.
And don’t think this kind of pressure doesn’t happen in churches. In fact, when our friends are Christian and, like David’s men, they claim to be speaking for the Lord, it can sometimes be that much harder to resist. “The Lord spoke to me and said you should go out with that man over there”. “I was praying for you, and I really felt you should borrow that money from your employer”. If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Christian leadership over the years, it’s to be very, very careful to start a piece of advice with the phrase, “The Lord told me”. Too many people have been led into situations they have later regretted because someone claimed divine authority for what they said.
So how we do know when a piece of advice is from the Lord or not? This was the very lesson David had to learn here. He did go along with his friends a little way, to the extent that he cut a corner off Saul’s cloak. But he also was open to that little voice called conscience, and in these kinds of situations conscience is the best kind of friend we can listen to. For nine times out of ten, conscience is nothing other than the still, small voice of the Holy Spirit, reminding us of what the Lord has actually said in His word. And if you find that what your friend is telling you to do goes against that word, it’s time to take a stand.
Afterwards, David was conscience-stricken for having cut off a corner of his robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do such a thing to my master, the Lord’s anointed, or lift my hand against him; for he is the anointed of the Lord.” That takes some courage, when you are the leader of a desperate group, fearful of their own lives. But if David had simply given into them, who knows what chaos and bloodshed would have happened in the land? David learned that day that, no matter what the cost, it’s more important to listen to the Lord than to your friends. Lesson number one.
The second lesson David learnt that day was about leading
What do I mean by this? Well, I want you to imagine it’s a Sunday morning. You have just heard some other verses from Matthew chapter 5, verses 23-24: Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift. And the Lord clearly speaks to you that you need to go and make peace with someone you are cross with.
So what do you do? You resolve that week to go and find that person, and do something positive about it. But then it’s Monday. You’ve got lots of things to do. Perhaps you can sort out your differences tomorrow. Then Tuesday comes, and then Wednesday. On Thursday you actually bump into that person. You’re not ready for that meeting. You begin to chat. You remember what the Lord said to you on Sunday. But it’s Thursday now, and you seem to be getting on quite well. And he wouldn’t really understand, if you told him why you were so cross. You have to go. As you leave, you’re aware your conscience is trying to tell you something. But you tell yourself the Lord understands why you couldn’t do anything about the situation. Not then. And so life goes on…
People say the Bible is hard to understand, that it’s difficult, that it doesn’t really apply to today’s world. Maybe there are some parts of the Bible are like that, although I think that when you get down to it, there’s far less than most folk recognise. But actually I believe the real issue is that we don’t actually do as much as we should about the parts we do understand. We know what it means to go and be reconciled to your brother. We sometimes just don’t want to obey what Jesus says.
In our reading today it would have been all very well for David simply to let Saul go, and pride himself on his self-restraint. But he learnt another important lesson that day – about taking the lead and actually acting on the Lord’s commands. From a human point of view, it was sheer folly to go after Saul and address him as “My lord, the king!” David must have known that Saul’s bodyguards were around, and they had their orders to strike first, ask questions later. In many ways his actions were as foolhardy as going out to face Goliath alone, armed only with a sling and five smooth stones. But he quite literally stepped out in faith because he wanted to put God’s word into action.
And indeed David’s speech can be a model for us about how to seek peace and reconciliation.
First of all, it is full of respect and good grace. He calls Saul lord and king and father. Now I recognise we couldn’t use this kind of language in today’s culture, but surely there are ways we can show respect in a society where people tend to swear first, and think later.
Secondly, he is able to show Saul proof of his good intentions. That piece of cloak he cut off becomes the evidence that he did not intend to harm him. Maybe for us we could show our good intent for someone by following Jesus’ advice about going the extra mile or turning the other cheek. After all, I can think of several people who came to know the Lord not because anyone preached to them, but because someone unexpected cared for them, showed them undeserved love, in genuine and very practical ways. The corner of material showed David’s good intentions towards Saul. What is it, I wonder, that we could do for others?
And thirdly although David is convinced he is right, he lets the matter rest in the hands of the Lord. Verses 12-13: May the Lord judge between you and me. And may the Lord avenge the wrongs you have done to me, but my hand will not touch you. As the old saying goes, ‘From evildoers come evil deeds,’ so my hand will not touch you. And with a few more words, David leaves the matter firmly in Saul’s court. He does not tell Saul what to do. He does not demand his rights. His is a model of grace and humility, one that we would do well to follow.
So David learns a lesson about listening. He learns a lesson about leading. And thirdly, he learns a lesson about loving.
For a brief moment – long enough at least for David to gain some distance – Saul recognises his guilt. He weeps aloud and says: You are more righteous than I …You have treated me well, but I have treated you badly. And I guess if I was in David’s shoes, I would have been tempted to leap in and say, “Yes, you jolly well have. What are you going to do about it?” But instead David listens – patiently, respectfully. And by holding his tongue, David hears a most remarkable admission and request from Saul. Verses 20-21: I know that you will surely be king and that the kingdom of Israel will be established in your hands. Now swear to me by the Lord that you will not cut off my descendants or wipe out my name from my father’s family.
The ball is now well and truly in David’s court. Here is the man standing before him who has made his life a misery. He has killed people who have tried to protect him. He has given away David’s wife, his daughter, to another man. Yet now he recognises that David will one day be king and asks for mercy. What would you do in that situation? It’s all so easy to jump onto the next verse, and say, “Well, of course, David would swear an oath to him and keep his promise”. But I see David’s men standing at the mouth of the cave watching his every move, I see Saul’s bodyguards itching for a fight. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage to do the right thing.
Yes, David provides a wonderful, concrete example of what Jesus meant when He said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. But the thing about any good education is that it joins up all the lessons into one coherent whole. Saul and David would never have reached this point if David had listened to his friends instead of his conscience, or if he had stayed in the cave and not taken a lead. Loving your enemies isn’t a question of having warm, fuzzy feelings about people you don’t like. It is an attitude of the heart that comes from hearing what God’s saying to you and acting on it.
And in that sense none of us ever stop learning. David had to keep on learning from God right to the very end of His life. And so should we. For that in the final analysis is what means to be a disciple, constantly learning from God, constantly putting our faith into action, constantly showing love to all, even to those who persecute us. May God give us all grace to follow David’s example and may He write these lessons on our hearts.