It’s Christmas! Get Thee Our of Gath!
It's Christmas! Get Thee Out of Gath!
1 Samuel 27:1-3 & St. John 1:12-14
I’d like to look at a passage from the Old Testament this morning. It’s not one of the lessons the lectionary gives us for today. In fact, you might wonder what is has to do with Christmas—unless you have a good memory and remember that I preached on it years ago—but it’s a passage of Scripture, part of a larger story, that I find myself thinking about every Christmas. The passage is 1 Samuel 27:1-3:
Then David said in his heart, “Now I shall perish one day by the hand of Saul. There is nothing better for me than that I should escape to the land of the Philistines. Then Saul will despair of seeking me any longer within the borders of Israel, and I shall escape out of his hand.” So David arose and went over, he and the six hundred men who were with him, to Achish the son of Maoch, king of Gath. And David lived with Achish at Gath, he and his men, every man with his household.
David’s story is long and interesting and it’s full of twists and turns and all sorts of excitement. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Saul, the man who was king before David, refused to give up his throne. He broke God’s law and God rejected him as Israel’s king. And so God chose a new king and sent the prophet Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint him. You might remember the story. God sent Samuel to the house of Jesse and told him that he would find the new king amongst Jesse’s sons. All of these fine, strapping men stood before Samuel. They looked like kings, but God said “No” to all of them. The youngest, David, wasn’t there. He was out tending sheep. Samuel had Jesse send for him and when he arrived, God confirmed that this young man was the one—Israel’s new king. Samuel anointed him. But Saul refused to give up the throne.
David was a boy. Saul was a man and a powerful and regal one at that. Scripture says that he was a giant of a man—head and shoulders above all the men in Israel. Scripture says, too, that he carried a great spear. It was with him all the time, even in his throne room. It became a symbol of his power and authority. And yet for all his size and strength, Saul was a coward.
Think of the story of David and Goliath. The story doesn’t start with David. It starts with Saul. He and his army were set to battle the Philistines, but they stood at a stalemate. The men of Israel were afraid because the Philistines had a giant, Goliath. He carried a spear like a weaver’s beam. I’m sure this is why the writer of Samuel tells us about Saul’s height and about his great spear. Sure the Philistines had a giant, but in Saul, the Israelites had their own giant to fight him. But Saul was afraid and Goliath knew it. Every day he would march out between the two camps and taunt them.
When David turned up to check on his brothers he was disgusted. There was Saul the giant, but he feared to go up against Goliath. He’d promised riches and the hand of his daughter to any man who would kill Goliath, but the men were still afraid. David rebuked them, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
They wouldn’t go up against Goliath so David did, but he didn’t go up dressed in armour and carrying a sword. He went up, the young shepherd with his slingshot against the giant and his spear. And David killed him. The really remarkable thing about David is his confidence. We might think that he was afraid, but went up against Goliath because he knew it was what had to be done. He trusted God, but was still afraid, thinking God might not pull through for him. But no. David doesn’t show an ounce of fear. He tells the men that in tending sheep he’s killed bears and lions and that Goliath will be no different. The hand of the Lord was with him then and it would be with him when he fought Goliath. David trusted the living God and had no doubts.
Saul took David into his house and made him one of his generals. Before too long David was outshining Saul. People were singing songs in the street in praise of David and comparing him to Saul. Saul killed his thousands, they sang, and David has killed his tens of thousands. Saul became jealous and it wasn’t long before he decided to take out this upstart rival. David ran and Saul came after him. This went on for years. Twice David was in a position to kill Saul, but Saul was still the king and David refused to harm God’s anointed. The first time, Saul accidentally found his way into a cave where David and his men were hiding. Saul had no idea David was there as David cut a piece off his cloak. He took it to Saul as evidence. “Saul, why are you out to kill me? I mean you no harm and here’s proof. I could have killed you, but I didn’t.” The second time—which we read about in 1 Samuel 26—David and his friend, Abishai, sneaked into Saul’s camp. They sneaked into the tent where Saul was sleeping. There was the giant spear next to him. Abishai whispered to David, “He’s fast asleep. Let me pin him to the ground with his own spear. One blow and you won’t have to worry about Saul anymore!” But David warned him, “No. Who can put his hand against the Lord’s anointed and be guiltless. As the Lord lives, his day will come. The Lord will strike him. Eventually he’ll die he’ll fall in battle, but the Lord forbid that I take his life with my hand.”
David wanted more than anything to reconcile with Saul. Instead of killing Saul, David stole his spear and his chamber pot. They ran up the hill outside the camp and then called down to wake the men up. They waved the spear and chamber pot so that Saul could see and David called down to Saul to tell him that if he’d wanted to, he could have killed him while he slept, but he didn’t.
Both of these times Saul apologized to David, but both times Saul was soon after David again. Still, David knew that it wasn’t his place to take the life of God’s anointed. When the time was right, God would take care of Saul himself.
David’s attitude is remarkable and there’s only one reason for it: he had faith in the living God and was confident that God would vindicate him. He remembered the day he had been anointed by Samuel. David had God’s promise and so he could say to Abishai, “God will take care of Saul.” The chapter ends with Saul’s words to David, ““Blessed be you, my son David! You will do many things and will succeed in them.”
It seems like David should be feeling good about things, but the very next thing we read are the words, “Then David said in his heart, ‘Now I shall perish one day by the hand of Saul.” Here’s the man ordained by God to be the next king. Here’s the man who has so confidently trusted in God. Not only has he trusted God, but things seem to be going so well. He and Saul had just been reconciled. And yet David suddenly fears for his life and he runs off in fear. And he doesn’t just feel from Saul in any old direction. He runs to hide with the pagan Philistines, with the greatest enemy Israel had in those days. On top of that, of the five Philistines cities, he chooses to go to Gath—the home of Goliath. David takes his family and six hundred warriors and goes to hide in the most despicable place imaginable, to hide amongst the people who had mocked the God of Israel and his people. And David didn’t just go there to hide. He signed on with Achish, the prince of Gath, as a mercenary. David and his men spent the next two years raiding the surrounding countryside—even raiding their own people.
David had just experienced divine deliverance form his enemy and he rejoices and right on the heels of that deliverance and that rejoicing he despairs that Saul is going to kill him and cries out, “There is nothing better for me than that I should escape to the land of the Philistines!” David thought there was nothing better for him than to abandon Israel and escape to live with pagans.
David had more than one low point in his life. We might think of his great sin with Bathsheba, when he committed adultery with her and then had her husband murdered. That could have been the lowest point in his life. But let me suggest that even lower than that was this point when he fled from Saul. Here was the man whom we’re told had a heart after God’s own heart. Here we have a man anointed by God to be the king of Israel. Here we have a man to whom God had a made a promise. And yet he loses his faith and spends the next couple of years being the exact opposite of what God had called him to be. Because he had forgotten God’s call. Because he had forgotten God’s anointing. Because he had forgotten, most importantly, God’s promise.
You’re probably thinking: What does any of this have to do with Christmas? Well, Brothers and Sisters, it has everything to do with Christmas, because David’s fear and his lack of faith in God’s promises weren’t unique to David. You and I often struggle in the same way. If you are a Christian, if you are a follower of Christ, and if you have put your faith and trust in him as Saviour, then God has called you, God has anointed you, and God has a made a promise to you. We read earlier in the lesson from St. John’s Gospel:
But to all who did receive him [that’s Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the rightto become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:12-14)
The Christmas message is that in Jesus, God came to reconcile sinful and rebellious men and women to himself. Jesus came to provide a means of forgiveness and reconciliation as he gave his life for ours. But that’s not all he did. He rose from the grave and ascended to his throne that we might one day rise ourselves and be restored to our place as God’s sons and daughters. Through Jesus, God has given us life and restored us to our priestly vocation. He’s made us his stewards and sends us out, not just to live the life of Jesus, not just to live the life of his kingdom, but to proclaim it to the world. God promised to Adam and Eve that he would provide a means of restoration to himself and to the life we have in his presence. Jesus is the fulfilment of that promise and the earnest of the promise of the life of the age to come. Jesus is the proof that God truly will make all things new, that he will set all things to rights—the Incarnation and the Cross are the evidence of his love. The Resurrection and Pentecost are the evidence of his life and his authority. As David fought for his life, so we fight for ours. The world, the flesh, and the devil battle against us and we against them, but the birth, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus embody God’s promise of life and rest and peace.
St. John, in Revelation 21, gives us an amazing picture of life in the New Jerusalem when Jesus has returned and finally consummated his kingdom. He gives us hope saying that on that day there will be no more darkness, no more tears, and no more death. That’s the fulfilment of God’s promise to us: the end of sin and death and our restoration to the life we were originally created for. In the midst of that scene of beauty, though, John also brings us back to hard truths. He lists those who will not be a part of Jesus’ kingdom: murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars”. Yeah, we think, those are pretty big sins. But that’s the later part of the list. Do you know which two sins begin the list? The list starts with the cowardly and the faithless. The cowardly and the faithless. Brothers and Sisters, there is no excuse for Christians to live in fear or to live in faithlessness. David fell into sin more than once – and they were some big ones – but his greatest sin and his lowest spiritual point came when he feared Saul and ran to hide with the enemies of the people of God. And he did that because he forgot the promise of God.
We’re prone to the same thing. God calls us to live courageously for Jesus, but we too often fear the consequences of doing so. We fear that if we take a stand for God’s truth we might offend people. We fear that if we stand for righteousness it might cost us a job or a relationship or a reputation. We fear that if we take a stand for the gospel of Jesus Christ we might lose our dignity. We fear that if we hand over our all to Jesus we might be left destitute. Brothers and Sisters, as Christians we often do just what David did: We fear the battle because we’ve forgotten God’s call and his promise, and we run off to hide in Gath with the Philistines.
Dear Friends, we have no reason to fear because it’s Christmas. Today we’re reminded that the Word of God became flesh, become one of us, died the death that we deserved, and rose from grave to conquer sin and death and to reconcile us to God. Christmas reminds us of the power and authority that stand behind our baptism. God Incarnate came to redeem to sinful men and women, that being united with him we might be adopted sons and daughters of God. Christmas reminds us that our heavenly Father has made the down payment. Christmas reminds us that though we may be fighting battles today, Jesus has already won the war. Our enemy is mightier than we are just as Goliath was so much mightier than David, but our defender and champion is God himself. That’s good news. And so, this Christmas, take the message of the angels to heart: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”
If you are in the Lord Jesus—if you have turned aside from everything else to follow him—fear not. As he called David, he has called you. As he anointed David, he has anointed you. As he made his promise to David, he has made his promise to you. Fear not. As St. Paul wrote for us: “If God be for us, who can be against us?”
Let us pray: Almighty God, who gave your only Son to take our nature upon him and to be born of a pure virgin, grant that we, who are born again in him and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit through our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.