In the Wilderness

A narrative sermon, continuing the Weird Bible series

He sat by himself under a starlit evening sky. He knew what he had to do, or at least he decided on his next action, but what would it do to his relationship to the 600 warriors who were out here with him? How many lives was he putting in danger? But he was exhausted. Years of running and hiding. Nowhere safe to call home. In the morning he would form an alliance with a Philistine leader that would at least buy him some time. No way Saul would hunt him in Philistine territory. Is it treason? How did it come to this? And where was God in this situation? He had always felt so close to God, but now God was absent.

Had it really been so long ago? He remembered the days of growing up with his family in Bethlehem. Life was peaceful and simple. He was the youngest of nine brothers, so he was constantly teased and yelled at by his brothers. When they were able to make grown up decisions like serving in the military, David was forced to stay behind and tend his father's sheep. But he didn't mind. He as part of a family and this was his responsibility.

One day a stranger came to town, someone of great importance. He wanted to meet Jesse and all of his sons. Jesse didn't even think to bring David back from the fields. He was just a boy. But when Samuel, God's prophet, said, "No, none of these is right; do you have another son?" Jesse remembered David! Hey, it wasn't the first time he was left out. Upon seeing David, Samuel pulled from his pack a small vile of oil and poured in on David's head. Everyone laughed. Future king. Sure!

But then Samuel insisted on taking David to meet the King of Israel, the great Saul. Saul immediately liked David, naming him his personal armour bearer, which meant little more than personal gopher, but still... he was now hanging out in the king's tent! And when Saul became nervous or frustrated, David would play his harp. It would soothe the king and calm him down.

The armies were constantly going to battle with the Philistines throughout David's childhood. His brothers served in the army. He was far from the frontlines, playing the harp for King Saul. One day, word came to Saul's tent that the Philistines' greatest warrior, Goliath, was challenging the Israelites and mocking their God. Saul, and his entire army, would do nothing day after day. No one was interested in one on one combat with a giant. David had enough. "I'll do it!" Saul and the others in the court laughed. "You're just a boy," David heard someone say. He had heard it many times before. Saul out his armour on his armour bearer to illustrate how tiny David was-- as if he needed to be reminded-- and Saul was much smaller than Goliath! But David would not take no for an answer, taking off the king's armour. He didn't need it. He had his faith, a slingshot, and a few stones. Saul relented. He liked the boy. Guess he's have to start another nationwide search for a harp player.

But David won the victory over the giant, and with it fame. For the kid who was always forgotten and mocked for being too small, David was now a celebrity. David befriends Jonathan, the king's son and heir apparent. Still in the king's service, David notices a change in Saul. He was moody before the Goliath deal, but after he was constantly angry. As he played his harp one day, David had to jump away from Saul's mighty spear, his favored weapon of war. Why did Saul throw it at him? And it happened a second time! Then Saul named David commander of one of his armies, and sent them to the frontlines to fight the Philistines. David won, over and over again. Later David figured out Saul sent him there for the enemy to kill him, a strategy David himself would deploy years later.

People began to sing about him: "Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands!" The crowds were celebrating his victories, but Saul heard the singing as treason. He made David, his most successful general, the target of his wrath. The war with the Philistines would be put on the back burner, except when there was significant danger; the war against David was beginning.

With Jonathan's help, David fled to the wilderness to escape Saul. For years, the current king hunted the future king, David only escaping at the last moment. Sometimes David got the better of Saul. Twice, David had the opportunity to kill Saul, first while the king was wandering around the caves, and another time while he was sleeping in his tent. The soldiers wanted David to kill Saul, but he refused. Saul was the Lord's anointed. David would not harm him. So he would take trophies, run away, and share them with Saul from a safe distance. First, a piece of Saul's robe. Second, the spear Saul used to torment David with, and Saul's water jug. "Hey King Saul," David would say. "Just a reminder that I could have killed you but didn't. And that you are wasting all this time and energy trying to kill an innocent person, you ally and servant."

But all the running and last-second escapes had taken their toll. David had nowhere else to go. Spies were everywhere. He and his mean were exhausted. So the next day he would work out a deal with the local Philistine leader. He would cross over into enemy territory and go into service for the other team. Was he betraying his people? His God? He knew how Saul would answer the question, but what about God? Throughout his youth and early military service God was always close by. "Should I attack them at such and such time and place?" David would ask. "Yes! Go for it! You'll win." He would approach the local priest with his thinking. "Will it work? Is it the right thing to do?" he would ask the man of God. "Yes. God will go before you and you will win." But out here in the wilderness, there was nothing but silence and doubt. In every way, he felt alone.

He remembered one of the stories from his youth, the one where Jacob couldn't sleep the night before reuniting with his brother Esau after so many years. What would happen the next day? There was nowhere left to run. Jacob never slept that night. He wrestled with a stranger all night long, refusing to let go of the stranger until he revealed his name. Jacob later understood the stranger to be God, and when the sun arose the next day, he walked out to meet his brother, but he did so with a limp. The encounter with God changed him forever.

As the sun rose after a sleepless night, David prayed to God:

A Psalm of David, when he was in the Wilderness of Judah.
O God, you are my God, I seek you,
   my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
   as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary,
   beholding your power and glory.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
   my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
   I will lift up my hands and call on your name.

My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
   and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
   and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
   and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
   your right hand upholds me.

But those who seek to destroy my life
   shall go down into the depths of the earth;
they shall be given over to the power of the sword,
   they shall be prey for jackals.
But the king shall rejoice in God;
   all who swear by him shall exult,
   for the mouths of liars will be stopped (Psalm 63).

David approached the local Philistine leader and made his deal. He walked with a slight limp. He would spend the next year and change living safely in Philistine territory, fighting and defeating local tribes who were not Israelites, people who were enemies of David's tribe of Judah. The day before a war with the Israelites was to happen, the leader said to David, "Now we'll see how good you are in battle!" David replied, something vague like, "Yeah, you'll see what you need to see!" But the Philistine generals wouldn't have it. "No way that Israelite champion is fighting next to us! They will turn on us in the battle and kill us! Don't you know who this guy is?? Goliath killer? The one they sing about: "Saul has killed his thousands, but David has killed his tens of thousands!" He's got to go!

Soon thereafter, Saul and Jonathan were killed in battle. David would have little time to grieve. The demands and responsibilities of leading a nation would become his. But he would always remember his wilderness experience. Sometimes it's those times when we feel most separated from God that God becomes most real. The wilderness can be a lonely place. But in the quiet we can be brought close to God's heart:

for you have been my help,
   and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
   your right hand upholds me.