1 Samuel 19:1-18
by Daniel Harrell
Here’s hoping your Christmas was a merry one. If not, you technically have eight days to go. For some of us, turning to inspirational tales can help keep us in the Christmas spirit. For others we turn to 1 Samuel.
For those in need of an different dose of Christmas spirit there is a somewhat mawkish tale entitled “The Legend of the Robin” that explains how the the bird got its red breast. According to the tale, Mary coaxes the stable animals to stoke her fire so she can keep warm. (There’s no mention of where Joseph had run off to.) Unfortunately the cattle are no help, since all they can do is low and wake up the baby. Same with the sheep and the donkey. But then a little brown bird swoops down and fans the smoldering coals with its wings. The bird’s chest glowed as a flame ignited—in the embers, that is, not in the bird. And Mary said, “Dear bird, thank you so much for your thoughtfulness. From now on, you will always bear a red breast as a sign of the kindness in your heart.” Notice this story makes no mention of the kindness of people at Christmas. Perhaps that was intentional. The reason the holy family had to shack up with the animals in the first place was because people had no room for them.
Speaking of birds, I got flipped one while pulling into a parking spot at the mall this Christmas. I turned on my blinker to signal my intent as a car readied to pull out of a space over at Southdale. The other driver was irritated that I got there before he did, so he signaled back. Merry Christmas to me. Dawn was squeezing her way through the aisles at Target when a shopper rammed her with a cart. Apparently Dawn didn’t get out of the way fast enough because rather than apologize or say “excuse me,” the lady reared back and rammed her again. Christmas does have a way of bringing out the worst in people.
On a truly tragic note, at least 26 people were killed and 38 others were wounded Christmas Day when a car bomb exploded in a parking lot near St. John’s Roman Catholic Church in a southern neighborhood of Baghdad. The bomb detonated at the end of Christmas prayers as worshipers were leaving the church. The victims, mostly Christians, included women and children, as well as a number of police officers posted to guard the church. The Washington Post’s Michael Gerson wrote how in across North Africa and the greater Middle East, anti-Christian pressure has grown during the last few decades, sometimes subtle, sometimes overt.
For many, the only way to survive the season is to accept that it’s just like the rest of the year. Stay away from songs like “The Twelve Days of Christmas” which only bloat expectations. Stick with Shakespeare who reminds us that, “Oft expectation fails, and most oft there Where most it promises.” In other words: Let Martha Stewart convince you that holiday heaven is possible by turning enough toilet-paper tubes into festive tree ornaments, and you may be setting yourself up for disappointment.
Take coming to church this morning. You bundle up to brave the bitter cold this fourth day of Christmas expecting a few calling birds or at least some inspirational chirping to warm your heart and get you through the new year, only to be smacked by a depressing installment from the bitter life of the Old Testament King Saul. Having spent most of Advent in the Old Testament, would it have been so bad to take a break and devote ourselves to something a bit more merry and bright? My mother was telling me yesterday about a good friend of hers who only believes in the happy parts of the Bible, you know, like you find in the gospels. Why not preach something from one of those? Ironically, this morning’s account of King Saul’s second attempt on David’s life will get us there, and in a way more authentically apropos to Christmas.
If you’re unfamiliar with the story of King Saul, permit me a brief review: Saul’s story began with the ancient Israelites whining for a human king they could see with their eyes—their king up to this point having been the Lord God himself. Samuel the prophet, outraged by their insolence, declared their request a slap in God’s anthropomorphic face. However the Lord himself relented. Determined to let his people have what they wanted, the Lord let them have it by letting them have Saul. The Lord also gave Saul a dose of his Spirit, enabling this unsuspecting, bungling loser of a donkey-herder to enjoy initial success. But the bungling aspects of Saul’s personality soon reasserted themselves. First there was his botching up a burnt offering which he wasn’t supposed to light anyway. Then there was his misguided attempt to impress God by starving his army with a religious fast on the day they were scheduled to fight the Philistines. Compounding these blunders, Saul then rashly promised to kill his own son Jonathan for breaking the fast. (The army refused to let Saul keep that promise.) Finally, Saul failed to fully discharge divine judgment against the wicked Amalekites. Saul pulled up short, sparing the Amalekite king and looting their livestock as trophies for God.
But God didn’t want trophies—he wanted obedience. Therefore the Lord rejected Saul as king in favor of “a man after God’s own heart;” a man who turned out to be a boy. David of Goliath fame was out herding sheep when Samuel tapped him to be king instead. A good shepherd from the tribe of Judah and the city of Bethlehem, the Old Testament was clearly lining everything up for Christmas. In David the people would get a better king they could see; but in the Son of David to come, they’d see God himself.
With kingship came the spirit of kingship, which God transferred from Saul to David. However the Lord didn’t leave Saul spiritless. We read, “An evil spirit from the Lord came upon Saul.” And this for the third time. It’s disturbing to read about evil coming from God, a problem we’ll leave for another Sunday. Suffice to say here, there is solace to be had for those courageous enough to trace all things, including evil, providentially back to God. When evil does charge into your life (and it always does), it can be strangely comforting to know that at least somebody who loves you has a hold of the reins. Remember, for his own redemptive purposes the Lord unleashed Satan himself on some of the Bible’s best: famously Job, the apostle Paul and even Jesus. We should never presume ourselves immune.
For Saul, unfortunately, the outcomes were not so great. He suffered first depression, then deep green envy and finally downright neurotic obsession. David’s spirit-inspired success drove Saul crazy—crazy enough to try and spear David twice. By the time we get to this morning’s passage, Saul had cooked up a number of nefarious plots to eliminate David, none of which worked and one of which was foiled by Jonathan, Saul’s son and David’s best friend. David’s fame increased, which only drove Saul more crazy and increased his determination to get rid of his rival. David tries to soothe the savage king with his harp, only to have Saul hurl his spear at him and miss. This time, David doesn’t stick around for Saul to take a second try.
David runs away and Saul comes after him, ordering a couple of his hit-men to stake out David’s apartment and take him out in the morning. This time it’s Saul’s trusted daughter who saves David’s life; a daughter who was also David’s wife. Warning him of daddy’s danger, Michal lowers the greenhorn king down through a window to safety.
So what does this story have to do with Christmas? A deeply disturbed ruler obsessively envies a newborn up-and-comer as a threat, as one endued with the full spirit of God. This same ruler gets double-crossed by those he thought he’d connived into trusting him. There’s an abuse of imperial power, attempted murder, a tip-off and a getaway, followed by fury and lethal reprisals. That’s Christmas the way that Matthew’s gospel portrays it. It’s the passage printed in your bulletin.
In Matthew’s gospel, Christmas will always be associated with somebody trying to kill Jesus. A deeply disturbed King Herod envies the newborn Son of David as a threat to his own political sway. Hoodwinked by the Magi who went home by another route without giving up Jesus’ location, an infuriated King Herod goes off on an infanticidal rampage, slaughtering all the male babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to take out Jesus. As Michal warned David to flee to Ramah, so an angel warned Joseph to flee with Jesus. “And so was fulfilled what the Lord spoke through the prophet,” Matthew wrote, acknowledging that God’s providential hand remains on the reins of all things. Matthew quotes Jeremiah 31: “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be consoled, because they are no more.”
In Jeremiah 31, “Rachel weeping for her children” is a poetic reference to the Babylonian exile. Rachel represents all of Israel mourning their deportation, an outcome of their wickedness and persistent rejection of God. Rachel weeps as she watches her posterity carried off into captivity. However, God who banishes for sin is the God who redeems from sin, and thus the linkage of Rachel to Herod’s crime. The citation of Jeremiah 31 is intentional. There, the prophet responds to Rachel, saying, “Restrain your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears, for there is hope for your posterity, your children will return to their homeland. … for the time is coming, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant I made with their forefathers… the one they broke, even though I was their husband,” declares the LORD. “This is the covenant I will make: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, for I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”
Jeremiah 31 finds final fulfillment in Christ who labels his death “the blood of the new covenant” and whose resurrection signals that sins are forgiven and forgotten forever. Rachel’s weeping for her children mirrors the women weeping for Jesus at his graveside. Then angels appear with good tidings of great joy: Christ is risen. The cross of death has become the crux of new life. Ask people to describe a Christmas they’ll never forget and you’ll often hear a horror story. Christmas may bring out the worst in people. But Jesus takes out the worst in people.
A number of Christmases ago a friend named John joined in sharing around the table our own unforgettable Christmases. For John, his horror story was not his own, but one he was involved in. He’d volunteered to deliver presents for charity dressed up as Santa Claus, being the only guy in town with the beard and the stomach to pull it off. John was at a gas station filling up his—sleigh—when this fellow walked over to ask what he’s doing. John’s like, what do think I’m doing? I’m out delivering presents to good girls and boys. The fellows nods in approval and then gets into his truck and drives off. But no sooner had he rounded the corner, he turned drove back to John and explained how he never does this kind of thing, and his wife will probably kill him, but he’s desperate and wonders whether John, I mean Santa, “could you stop by my house?” He was laid off after Thanksgiving and couldn’t afford any presents for his kids this year. He’d been scrambling for work, but nothing was turning up. He was starting to get scared, but thought that maybe a visit from Santa might at least help the kids think things were going to be OK.
Clearly no Santa could say no to that. So they went to the poor man’s house where as predicted, his wife read him the riot act for inviting over a complete stranger who’d been driving around the countryside in a Santa suit. Who does that? Still, John admitted it was pretty wonderful to freak out a family who figured they’d be be suffering their worst Christmas ever. The kids loved it. Their miserable lives got a break, some presents, and perhaps some hope too.
So I know that I shouldn’t be confusing Santa and Jesus—even if they are both bearded guys who know if you’ve been bad or good and then give you good stuff anyway. But you get the point. Writer George MacDonald put it like this: “The love of God, which is his essential being, … is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns—that the farther from him, it burns the worse, and that when we turn and approach him, the burning begins to change to comfort, which comfort will grow to such bliss that the heart at length cries out with a gladness no other gladness can reach.”
David escaped the wrathful envy of Saul, forced to sneak out through a window only to be murderously pursued by Saul for the rest of 1 Samuel. The Israelite people get run out of Israel for cheating on God. Rachel weeps for her children and refuses consolation. The holy family, scandalized and homeless, barely get their presents open before they’re on the run from Herod’s homicidal rage, only to return to have Jesus crucified anyway—horror stories that set the Christmas stage. King David becomes the prototype king and ancestor of Christ. The Israelites get a new covenant and a new start. The cross of death becomes the crux of new life.
In Baghdad, St. George’s Anglican Church—despite damage from five bombs in the past three years—still packs in hundreds for worship who stubbornly proclaim Christ their newborn king. In obedience, the church runs a clinic full to capacity with patients receiving primary medical care that the hard-pressed state hospitals are unable to provide. Unemployed and disabled people can collect a weekly ration of food provided by the church that just about enables them to survive. There is a small school for children, a bookshop and a mothers’ union that operates all hours of the day to minister to the needs of women who’ve lost loved ones to conflict. Theirs is a work rooted in prayer, sacrifice and service. Rachel finds her consolation. A Savior who is Christ the Lord.