The Right First Steps
I Samuel 30:1-9a
May 7, 2017
On April 10, 1912, owners of The White Star Shipping Line bragged that their newest, prized craft was “the largest passenger steamship that had ever been built.” It was, they said, “the ship that could never sink”. Yet, only 4 days later, the Titanic sank when on April 14 the great ship struck an iceberg and 1,500 of the 2,200 people on board lost their lives.
Tragedy is rarely ever expected. We don’t expect the doctor to say we have cancer. We never think we will come home to an empty house and a note from our spouse. We don’t plan for the night that the police officer stands at our door to give us the news that our child has been in a horrific accident.
Without question, the hard places of life almost always catch us off guard and unprepared.
That was the way it was for David as well in our passage for today from I Samuel. This truly is a unique chapter in the David story. It happens in the period after David’s anointing by Samuel as Israel’s second king but before the death of Israel’s first king whose name was Saul. In this interim period, between David being chosen as successor and Saul dying, David is on the run. Saul was extremely jealous of David’s rising fame just as we would be if our heir apparent at work had already been named and folks were already paying them more attention that they were to us.
By on the run, I mean that David was hiding out with some of his supporters in the land of one of Israel’s biggest enemies who were the Philistines. In essence, David and the Philistines had struck a deal. David and his men would fight on behalf of the Philistines in their military skirmishes and battles and the Philistines would give David and his men a town to live in called Ziklag and they would offer David their added protection against Saul.
In turn, I Samuel 30 is set while David and his mean are passing time living in Philistine land. As the chapter opens, they have been with the Philistines fighting one of these skirmishes that they had agreed to assist with against one of the border enemies of the Philistines. When they return to Ziklag completely exhausted- mentally, physically and spiritual from the fighting – disaster awaits them. Ziklag has been ransacked by another enemy of the Philistines known as the Amalekites. The wives and children of David and his men have been taken captive and likely enslaved, the town has been burned to the ground and many of the their prized possessions have been stolen. It is an unexpected and awful situation to say the least.
In the midst of it all, David quickly receives the brunt of the blame. After all, he is the one who led them to Ziklag and Philistine territory and he is the one who should have known that at least a few of them should have stayed behind to guard the women, children and their homes. Anger and then blame lead to the men suggesting that they should take out their frustrations by having David stoned. Again, in their minds, he needs to be put to death for the likely death of their wives and children.
They are all in a tragic, unexpected mess. But, David is really in a mess as their leader. And yet, it is here, in the worst of situations that David is at his best. In several key ways, David takes the absolute best and right steps when tragedy knocks on his door. What are these right steps? Let me name three. First, David chooses to remain calm in the midst of the chaos all around him. Second, David chooses to seek God’s guidance. Third, David decides that they need to act not wallow in their misery. All of these decisions are good, right steps in and of themselves. But, together, collectively as a trio of decisions, they show us David’s remarkable brilliance as a leader and the way that God infected his life and permeated all of his decisions. In turn, all three steps are worth our time and our attention. So let’s take a moment and think about them individually.
First, David chooses to remain calm in the midst of the chaos all around him. Again, their wives and children are gone. Their homes have been burned to the ground. Their possessions have been taken. And, to make matters worse, the conversation among the men is that David is to blame and thus he should be killed. David had every reason to have a nervous breakdown, to be overcome with emotions and anxiety or to simply walk away unable to deal with what was in front of him. Yes, verse 6 is very upfront in saying that David was distressed in light of what was facing him. Yet, his overall response is that of calm, peace and a pervading attitude that says that somehow things are going to work out.
When I think about David’s disposition, I remember a moment during my junior year of college. For over two years on the university level, I had made excellent grades and I was beginning to look at graduate programs and think about the future. At the time, I was taking an Introductory Philosophy class which was a required course for my major. When, I got my paper back after our first test, I almost had a stroke. There staring me in the face was a big fat “F”. To say I went into panic mode is an understatement. That very afternoon, I cancelled a visit to one of the graduate programs I was considering because after that one test I determined I was no longer smart enough to attend that particular school. Off of the one test, I also convinced myself that I was on my way to flunking Philosophy. Ann Marie and I were dating at the time and I remember her encouraging me to go and see my professor and at least talk to him. I can still see the look on his face. When I arrived at his door, he looked at me and said, “I have been waiting on you”. For the next fifteen to twenty minutes, he calmed me down, convinced me all was going to be well and assured me that I had plenty of time to overcome my poor start while giving me some tips on the best ways to approach studying Philosophy.
In that moment, I did what we are all prone to do. I overreacted. I made a bad situation far worse than it was and I convinced myself all hope was lost. In the very teeth of the storm, I was ready to throw up my hands and give up. Yet, it wasn’t the end and all was not lost. I actually ended up with a B in the class. It was not my best but it was not my worst by a long shot.
David is in a mess. But, he doesn’t overact. He remains calm. He does so to a large degree because of the very next move he makes which is to seek God’s guidance. I Samuel says it this way – David found strength in the Lord.
Specifically, what David did was to use an Old Testament way of being in conversation with God. Samuel says that David asked the priest Abiathar for the ephod. The ephod was a holy satchel that contained two stones. One was a “yes” stone and the other was a “no” stone. By asking God “yes” or “no” questions the priest could reach into the bag and discern God’s answer. If the “yes” stone was the one the priest grabbed and pulled out then the answer from God was affirmative and vice versa. Samuel tells us David’s questions were very specific – “should we pursue this enemy?” And, “will we be able to overtake them?” To both, God said “yes”.
Sometimes, God does not answer our prayers or cries for help in crisis in the direct way that David was answered. Yet, this immediate decision of David to invite God into the equation for help, guidance and peace of mind is crucial for us to see. It is also important to know that inviting God to be a part of our struggles happens in lots of ways. In the midst of life’s hard places – our prayer life should increase not decrease. Likewise, our commitment to the life of the church – worship and Sunday School – should remain our priority not what we do if we have time. And, our attentiveness to seeking God’s voice through conversations with Christian friends and mentors should be a must not just a good option. Yes, it is easy to run away from God when life gets hard as if God has let us down by allowing difficulty to come our way in the first place. Yet, it is so important to see that David resisted the temptation to blame God and run away from God. Instead, David turned to God believing that in the Lord he would find his greatest help.
Finally, and equally important, David chooses to do something. Rather than wallowing in the misery of the moment, David leads his men to respond to the tragedy that had befallen them by going after those that had attacked Ziklag. The point here is that tragedy and unexpected hardships often lead us to inactivity and to the belief that there is nothing we can do. We sit down, throw up our hands and in sadness act as if all is out of our control.
Without question, there is often a lot in tragic moments that is out of our control. But, at the same time, there are usually a few things that remain within our ability to fix or address and focusing on and giving ourselves over to whatever those things are is a critical move for us to make.
I love the story of the brother and sister who lived in a house on a wooded lot that contained lots of squirrels. Some of you in this room understand their pain!?! Actually, in their situation they had two different opinions. The boy hated the squirrels and the girl loved them. He wanted to get rid of them and thus had set traps all over the yard to catch them and the girl wanted no harm to come to the fuzzy little creatures. They may have been a nuisance, but for her, God had created them and she loved them. One day, the little girl said to her brother, “I am praying that God will not allow you to catch a single squirrel!” “Oh yeah? And, do you really think God is going to answer that prayer?” her brother replied. “I am positive God will answer that prayer,” said his sister. “Positive? How can you be so sure?” he asked. “Because after I prayed, I took a sledge hammer and went out in the back yard and smashed all of your traps!?!” she replied.
Cute, but true. We pray, we seek God’s help, we listen for God’s guidance but we also do what we can. We take a step. We do what is in our control. We walk the tight rope between letting go of what we have not control over while avoiding the temptation at the same time to do nothing while sitting down and wallowing in our misery. David and his men were exhausted and heartbroken. Yet, in prayer, God challenged them to go after those who had invaded their camp. In response, they did just that. They chose to act.
Years ago, I read a little piece in Reader’s Digest about what to do if you are ever caught in a blizzard. Now, as you know, since I grew up in Alabama that is very helpful information to have at hand! Yet, there was something really interesting in the piece. According to the article, when you are in a blizzard, the worst thing you can do is to sit still and wait for someone to come to you. Instead, the author said, even if you don’t know exactly what is ahead and even if the snow is almost blinding, it is far better to take one step at a time and inch by inch try to walk.
Tragedy, the unexpected, crisis – they all take us by surprise, leave us with our mouths open and stop us in our tracks. Yet, here, at Ziklag, David reminds us of some beautiful principles. If we will caution ourselves not to overact, if we will immediately seek God’s guidance and if we will ask ourselves what remains in our control and what is it that we can do, we will take the right first steps to overcome whatever it is that life brings our way. Amen.