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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Scandinavians today enjoy a healthy rivalry and respect. It is why they can tease each other in the way they do. Take them outside of Scandinavia and they are united blood brothers, but when they are home inside their borders, they can be downright mean to each other. Swedes prefer making fun of the Norwegians over Danes and Finns because, because, well, Norwegians are the most annoying of the lot. After all, these days, Norwegians are superrich because of the North Sea oil, and they’re all perky outdoors types who go mountain climbing just to say they did it. So here are a few jokes that Swedes tell about their beloved Scandinavian neighbors.
Why did the Finn bring a rolled-up piece of sandpaper to the desert? He thought it was a map. How do you sink a Norwegian submarine? You scuba-dive down and knock on the door. And How do you sink a Norwegian submarine again? Dive down and knock on the door again. Wait for them to open the window and say, “You aren’t fooling us this time!” How do you sink a Danish submarine? Dive down and knock on the window. Wait for them to open the door and say, “Come on, who do you take us for? Norwegians?” Everyone would agree, there is -one thing that Swedes have that the other Scandinavians do not. Good neighbors.
Yes, Scandinavians today enjoy a healthy rivalry and respect. But not all rivalries are healthy and respectful. Someone once said, competition brings out the best in products, and the worst in people. That was certainly true of King Saul. According to Hebrew scripture, Saul reigned over Israel for two years, although most Biblical historians believe that he may have served as king for nearly 20 years. Much of his reign was defined by Israel’s encroaching enemy the Philistines, and his rivalry with the young king to be David. The Book of Samuel dramatically and sadly tells the story of Saul’s decline and his fits of jealousy and paranoia that clouded his reign as the first king over Israel.
The rivalry between David and Saul began almost as soon at the giant Goliath fell to the ground. The Israelites, you may remember, wanted to be like all the other nations with a king who would fight their enemies. The Philistines were a constant, deadly threat. They controlled the coastal cities. They were technically and culturally more advanced and they had a well-trained army. The lucrative inland trade routes, however, went across Jewish territory, so the Israelites were always under attack. The young shepherd boy David was an instant hero with his slaying of the Philistine giant. The woman in the land sang his praises, “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” From that day forward, the rivalry began and King Saul kept his eye on David for he was afraid that David’s growing popularity would be a threat to his throne.
Surprisingly, David was tightly woven into King Saul’s family. David and Saul’s son Jonathan were closest of friends. They described themselves as soulmates. David was married to Saul’s daughter Michal, but that did not stop Saul’s resentment and jealously from building.
Scriptures tells of two occasions, when King Saul threw a spear at David as the boy played his harp for him. Actively, Saul plotted against David. Since David was peasant poor, Saul demanded that he slay 100 Philistines as a dowry or bride price for his daughter. Saul hoped that David would die in the process, in the end he killed 200 Philistines.
Time and again, jealousy and paranoia clouded Saul’s judgement and, time and again, David found a way to remain faithful to Saul and his family. In one harrowing scenes, David hid in a cave with Saul and his soldiers in pursuit. As Saul searched the darkened cave David managed to cut off a piece of Saul’s robe without being discovered. When David emerged from the cave, he revealed himself to Saul, and offered a speech that persuaded Saul to be reconciled.
Unfortunately, Saul’s paranoia was rekindled and he pursued David again. When David heard of this, he slipped into Saul’s camp by night, and stole the King’s spear and water jug, leaving his own spear thrust into the ground in its place. The next day, David revealed himself to Saul, showing the jug and spear as proof that he could have slain him. David then persuaded Saul to reconcile with him; the two swore never to harm each other. After this they parted. This time David left the country, while Saul ruled alone poised to fight the enemies of Israel. Saul and David never saw each other again. Yes, for the better part of Saul’ 20-year reign as king, his rivalry with David guided and colored his decision making.
So, enter the Philistines again. They had gathered in great numbers on Mount Gilboa to attack. Before the battle Saul visited with a medium who conjured up the spirit of the prophet Samuel, who before his death had prophesied that Saul would lose the kingdom. Samuel told him that God had fully rejected him, that he would no longer hear his prayers, that he had given the kingdom to David and that the next day he would lose both the battle and his life. Saul collapsed in fear.
True to Samuel’s prophecy, the battle at Mount Gilboa was a complete disaster for the Israelites. Three of Saul’s sons were killed. Fearfully, Saul pleaded with his own shield bearer to kill him before he died in the hands the Philistines, but the armor bearer refused, and so Saul fell upon his own sword. The victorious Philistines recovered Saul’s body as well as those of his three sons and displayed them for all to see, but at night the inhabitants loyal to Saul retrieved the bodies for cremation and burial.
That is all the lead up to today reading of David’s lament over Mount Gilboa and the death of King Saul and his son Jonathan. We would expect David to mourn his closest friend and soul mate Jonathan. But surprisingly, David mourned over King Saul as well, the very man who tried repeatedly to kill him. In fact, David cursed the place where Saul died, “You mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew or rain upon you, nor fields of offerings!” Obviously, there is something here from the story of Israel’s first kings that we are to ponder, and I rather suspect that it is about the folly of unhealthy rivalries.
When I was living in Wittenberg, Germany, the birthplace of the Protestant Reformation, I often worshiped on Sunday mornings in the majestic neo-gothic, cathedral like Castle Church where Martin Luther posted the 95 theses. Within the church is the grave where Luther is buried as well. It is a place of history, fables and legends. One of my favorite stories tied to that church is the May 1547 visit of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. His armies had just taken the city when he entered the church to encounter the place where Luther was buried. Luther had caused him great headaches. Charles V was a devout Roman Catholic who resented that the reformer had created division with his realm. Legend states that while Charles was standing at Luther’s open grave, he was urged to give the heretic’s remains to the funeral pyre. Charles supposedly answered, “He has met his judge. I only wage war with the living and not with the dead.”
I rather suspect that David’s lament over King Saul bears that same pathos and wisdom. Often in death, we feel the need to battle our rivals one last time. Yes, we are taught that we can only rise above them if we put them down permanently. David warns us against that folly. If we embrace that pattern, we will simply continue to go down the same bitter path to a dreary end. David began his lament by choosing to focus instead on Saul’s tragic death. “Tell it not in Gath, proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon lest the daughter of the Philistines rejoice.” David had plenty of reasons to tell the whole painful, embarrassing story of Saul’s paranoia and resentment. But he did not want to give satisfaction and joy Saul’s and his real enemies- the Philistines. They would seize upon it and use it for their own purposes. David’s commendation to his soldiers was simply to refrain from telling unfair stories and details that diminish their rivals. That is tough. We all want to justify our words and actions, and to make ourselves look better, but sometimes, the nobler choice is to let them go. As Emperor Charles said, “I only wage war with the living and not with the dead.”
David chose to celebrate Saul’s good achievements instead of his failures. “O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury, who put ornaments of gold on your apparel.” Rivals often feel a need to highlight the failures and the losses, but David chose to honor the positive gains of Saul. We all have rivals- especially in our professional lives. They’re often our closest competitors, and the ones we’re highly motivated to defeat. Although we often see them as enemies, our rivals can also be our greatest allies. That’s how we should look upon them. That is what David chose to see in Saul. Rivals have the power to transform us to be focused and to do good. Entrepreneur Wade Eyerely said, “Sometimes the only people who understand what you’re building are your ‘competitors.’ If you expect everyone is looking to put a knife in your back, you’ll miss the folks looking to put their arm around you and encourage you on your way.” Unfortunately, for many people today, rivals do become their enemies. The believe that only one person can be right and the other must be wrong. They obsess, fear and become paranoid about their rival’s every word and thought -even in death. My friends, misery loves company, and if you choose to focus on the failures of your rivals, you will plenty of others to share your disdain. Do not run that course. As Emperor Charles said, “I only wage war with the living and not with the dead.”
The shepherd boy David was not yet 30 years old when Saul was killed upon Mount Gilboa. He had chosen to view his rivals with healthy respect. He chose to look for the best in people- even in death. That is our challenge today as well. We should always look for the best in people, trusting that God is their creator, father and ultimate judge. For these reasons, David could lead the kingdom of Israel into its united golden age. And as David’s descendent Jesus would teach us more clearly, we must love both our enemies and our friends until the day they die, trusting that God will bring the best from their lives. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.