Seward United Methodist Church
Sunday, May 20, 2018

Grief

Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 and 2nd Samuel 1

Last Sunday we talked about David’s victory over the Amalekites near the Brook Besor. But even as this was happening, another battle was raging about 80 miles to the north. In the Valley of Jezreel, King Saul and the army of Israel was facing off against the Philistines in yet another round of that ongoing conflict.

Israel lost the initial engagement, and they tried to regroup on the slopes of Mt. Gilboa, probably to get away from the Philistine charioteers. But it didn’t work. They continued to lose. Saul’s three sons who were with him, including Jonathan, fell in battle, and Saul himself was badly wounded.

Thinking he had no hope, Saul asked his armor bearer to kill him before the Philistines captured him. It was common practice in the ancient Near East that captured kings would be mutilated and forced to live in the court of their conquerors. Often their eyes would be gouged out, and their big toes and thumbs would be cut off. And then they’d be left to beg at the table of their conqueror for the rest of their lives. Saul wants no part of this. But his armor bearer refuses to kill him.

So Saul falls on his own sword. He takes matters into his own hands, rather than turning to God, which was basically the pattern of his entire life.

The next day, the Philistines, as they are going through the bodies, find him. They mutilate his body and take it home as a trophy. But we also learn that someone else got to Saul’s body before the Philistines, an Amalekite, a resident alien in Israel.

He travels straight to David, who is by now back in Ziklag, or what used to be Ziklag, and he tells his story. By his own admission, he claims to have killed Saul and brought Saul’s crown and bracelet to David.

We know his story is a lie. He was apparently a battlefield scavenger. After a battle there would be hundreds of bodies strewn about. They’d have money and weapons and armor, all valuable commodities. And he hit the jackpot; he found a dead king! And he was an opportunist. He knew the hatred that Saul had for David, so he presumed that David hated Saul in return. He thought he could ingratiate himself to David by bringing him this story and these treasures.

Why wouldn’t David be happy to meet the man who finally killed his mortal enemy Saul? Why wouldn’t David be flattered to receive the royal crown, especially when Saul had another son who did not die at Jezreel?

A lesser man than David would have been happy. But in David’s mind, Saul was still God’s anointed king, as long as he lived. God put him in that place, and only God could rightly remove him, not some Amalekite. And while it’s very true that Saul passionately hated David, David never hated Saul. He never gave in to hatred, never allowed it to rule his life.

David and his men tore their clothes, wept, and fasted till the end of the day. Even David’s men have caught on. Earlier they encouraged David to kill Saul, but now they have come around and mourn him as well.

At the end of the day, David questions the man again, and ultimately executes him for raising his hand against the king, as he testified himself. That part of the story bothers some people. But that’s probably because we live in an individualistic society that values opportunism. David lived in a community-oriented society that valued loyalty.

David composes a lament for Saul and Jonathan. As David did with so much of his life, he expressed himself in prayer and poetry. He prayed and sung his way through joy and danger. Now he does the same with grief. Later he ordered others to learn it as well and he recorded it in the Book of Jashar, which was apparently a book of poems and songs of ancient Israel that has not survived to today.

As he did in every area of his life, David lived passionately. And he grieved passionately. He didn’t just grieve for his friend, Jonathan, but also for Saul, who in many ways, was his worst enemy!

That’s strange to us, and not just the grieving for his enemy part. We live in a society that doesn’t do a good job of grieving, let alone grieving passionately. We tend to think that those who grieve openly are somehow weak. Not that any of us would say that to David, given the opportunity. We certainly wouldn’t tell the man who faced off against a giant or survived 15 years of being hunted in the wilderness that he was a weakling for weeping! But we might think it!

In our society, we are expected to deny our grief or to distract ourselves. “There, there, it’ll be alright! Just keep yourself busy. Go back to work, clean the house, etc.”

But denial and distraction don’t get rid of the pain of loss. Perhaps this is part of the reason our society has so many problems with depression and addiction. We’re trying to cover up and deny the pain in our lives, and it has to come out somewhere.

When I took my first course in Wilderness First Aid about five years ago, I learned something important about how wounds heal. The old wisdom was that if you got a deep wound, then you should stitch it up, cover it up. Well, that might work in a hospital setting where the wound can be thoroughly cleaned out before it’s closed. But it doesn’t work in the wilderness, in the real world where it’s likely to have dirt and bacteria still inside it. So the new school wisdom is to let a deep wound remain open. Let it heal from the inside out in due time, rather than closing it up. Let the dirt and infection work their way out of the wound, because wounds that are not exposed do not tend to heal.

Denied grief is a concealed wound. It won’t heal on its own. But outward expressions of grief can help us to deal with the inward pain of loss. In the ancient Near East, grieving practices were pretty much all open expressions. A grieving person would weep, cry out, tear their clothes, cover their head with dirt or ashes, fast from food or other pleasures, and wear “grieving clothes,” often for as much as a year.

And these things were not just done individually, either. When someone in town died, everyone grieved. Why? Because we’re social creatures. The loss of one affects all of us.

Maybe this is part of the reason that we struggle with grief. We live in an age of global connections and local disconnections. On any given day, 100 people might die in a plane crash on the other side of the world and our neighbor three doors down might die of cancer. And it’s possible that we’ll hear all about the plane crash, but not hear about the neighbor. How do we grieve for people we’ve never met? And how do we grieve as a local community, when in reality, there is no community?

If we hope to live fully, then we must face death fully. We must work through the reality of death. Because one of the few things in this world that is worse than death is denial. If we deny the reality of death, then we have trivialized something sacred: Human life, and the relationships that we have together as human beings. If we

deny death, then we deny that the life that is lost is sacred and meaningful. If we deny death, we deny that the relationship we had with that person, the love that we shared, meant something.

Every death is the loss of a potential future. Saul’s death was the loss of the possibility that he and David could be reconciled, the loss of the potential that somehow this hatred of Saul’s could end. The loss of Jonathan was the loss of the potential that maybe somehow they could be reunited, that their friendship could be rekindled. The loss of a spouse is the loss of a life of growing old together and enjoying the rest of our years with someone we love deeply. The loss of a parent is the loss of someone who cares about us and can continue to give us counsel and encouragement throughout our lives. The most difficult of all losses is the loss of a child, because so much potential future is then lost. Even the loss of an enemy should grieve us because it is the loss of the possibility of hatred turning into love.

Grief reminds us of what is important. And if we don’t grieve the future that is lost, then we can’t move on to a new future.

As Christians, we believe that death does not have the last word. We believe in the resurrection. So we do not grieve as those who have no hope, as the New Testament tells us. But we can’t celebrate the joy of the resurrection without first acknowledging the pain of the cross. Without the cross, there is no resurrection. Each is necessary for the other.

The joy of David’s kingdom could not be felt without remembering the pain of Saul’s kingdom. Israel’s first king was a profound failure. For 40 years the nation was led by a man who leaned on his own spear rather than leaning on God. What might the future have been if Saul had depended on God? That was the future that David grieved for.

 

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