Sunday, December 15, 2019

Bethlehem Devotion: Sermon on 2 Samuel 23:13-17

Nearly thirty-two hundred years ago, the longships sailed quietly into an obscure branch of the Nile Delta and dropped anchor, planning how best they'd conquer this land of Egypt. Aboard the high decks, Peleset warriors – their bristle-brush headdresses waving under the Egyptian sun – were eager to strategize. Having sailed from their island home between Greece and Turkey, they'd pillaged and plundered their way as pirates down the east Mediterranean coast, and now this would be their greatest prize. And surprise had always been on their side. But what the Peleset and their pirate allies hadn't counted on that day was the tactical genius of the pharaoh. No sooner had the Peleset rolled up their sails than suddenly the Egyptian rowboats, small and swift and sleek, surrounded them. The Peleset were ready for close-quarters combat, with their swords and spears; but the Egyptians came with archers, slingers, javelin-throwers, and grappling hooks. The Peleset scarcely had time to grab their large round shields to protect themselves before the volley of Egyptian arrows filled the air – many were killed in moments. Only when the Egyptian ships got closer could the Peleset fight back. But Egyptian grappling hooks, sunk into the wood of their longships, slowly overturned most of the Peleset vessels, capsizing them. And only a few escaped. Their side of the story would remain untold.

Decisively deterred from their dreams of plundering Egypt or settling there, the survivors contented themselves with sailing up the south coast of Canaan, to rendezvous with what was left of their land-invasion counterparts who'd tried and failed to barge into Egypt that way. The Peleset instead landed on the shore and invaded a few Canaanite cities – Ashkelon, Ashdod, Gaza. And a few generations later, they spread also to other Canaanite towns further inland, like Ekron and Gath. Generations went by. The Peleset intermarried with the locals, and often had to jockey for power with the other rising power in the land, the less technologically sophisticated band of invaders they heard were called Israelites. And for their part, where the Egyptians had known the other group as the Peleset, we today pronounce it 'Philistines.'

The Philistines, those former pirates whose failure in Egypt forced them to settle for Canaan as a consolation prize, may have been fierce invaders, but they were neither brutish nor uncultured. They loved art and the finer things. They decorated their pots with birds and boats, fish and spirals. They carved the prows of their ships into birds. They were more technologically advanced than the Israelites. They buried perfumes with their dead. Being perhaps related in some way to the ancient Greeks, the Philistines were a deeply cultured, sophisticated people, who no doubt looked down on the hill-dwelling Israelites as essentially hillbillies. But the Israelites had their own standards. Over the years, they watched as the Philistines intermarried with the Canaanites and mingled their old pagan ways with the local pagan ways. Their diet feasted on pigs and dogs. They buried stillborn infants in the floors of their homes. By the standards of the teachings that God gave to Israel, these Philistines were uncircumcised, unclean, unwelcome; and all their high culture is only “gilded toys of dust.”

A few generations after the descendants of those pirates settled in Gath, one of the marriages between Canaanite and Philistine bore fruit in the birth of a son, a large son – who knows how large he was born. And while likely his parents pronounced his name something like 'Walyat,' we today know him as Goliath. Goliath grew up as a worshipper of the Philistine goddesses and gods, he grew up enjoying art, he maybe had a hometown job when the army wasn't on the move. But just look at him: he was born for war. And he got his share of experience in it. But one day, when perhaps Goliath was in his twenties, he could scarcely have dreamed what was going on in an Israelite village over twenty miles away. In Bethlehem, unbeknownst to Goliath as much as to Saul, an elderly prophet of the God Goliath scorned was pouring oil all over the head of a Jewish shepherd boy. Goliath, oblivious as he stomped through the streets of Gath, had no clue what it meant when, to fulfill the anointing, Israel's God gave that Bethlehem boy a new heart, and the Spirit of the Almighty rushed upon that boy to make him a man of praise and power, wisdom and warfare. But that's precisely where we left off last week.

A couple years later, Goliath would finally meet that young Bethlehem man. And Goliath would scorn him as nothing more than a pipsqueak, an unworthy champion to face down, a victim to feed to the birds and beasts. And by all the gods he knew, Goliath cursed at this scrawny shepherd. Goliath, like his smaller ancestors who fought the Egyptians with sword and spear and javelin, had forgotten his forefathers' hard-won lesson about the importance of not underestimating projectile weaponry – but more importantly, Goliath – in his service to dead idols and an unclean culture – had neglected the hard-won lesson his parents' neighbors had gotten from Samson: don't mess with an Israelite on whom Yahweh's Spirit rests! And soon Goliath, forehead crushed in by a stone, fell prostrate to the earth, where his own sword could be unsheathed by that Bethlehemite and used to silence the Philistine giant's proud boasts (1 Samuel 17).

Israel's champion, teenage David from Bethlehem, who (unbeknownst to Goliath) was the Lord's anointed, went on to have a sterling career as a military commander. He entered into a deep friendship with an older war hero, King Saul's son Jonathan, and married Jonathan's sister, the princess Michal. David likewise fought many courageous battles against the Philistine armies and earned widespread popular renown in Israel – to the point it made the disturbed king deeply jealous. Saul's opposition ultimately descended to a murderous rage against his own general, and even Prince Jonathan's attempts to reason with his father came to nothing (1 Samuel 18-20). David had little choice but to go on the run. He first went to the priestly town Nob where Eli's great-grandson Ahimelech was high priest, and David, as God's anointed, was allowed to eat the holy bread from God's presence to sustain him on his mission. But when he asked if there were any sword available, he was told that there was just one for him: Goliath's sword, the one David had once wielded to sever the giant's head, had been stored there as a relic of victory (1 Samuel 21:1-9). From there, David ran away – ran away to a most unlikely place to go, when you're carrying Goliath's sword: namely, to Goliath's hometown! But naturally, the town's king Achish didn't receive him favorably, so David escaped by making himself seem like a harmless lunatic and was sent away (1 Samuel 21:10-15).

And from there, we're told, “David departed from there and escaped to the cave of Adullam,” a place midway between Gath and Bethlehem. “And when his brothers and all his father's house heard it,” that David was there and a fugitive from King Saul, “they went down there to him. And everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was bitter in soul, gathered to him. And he became commander over them, and there were with him about four hundred men” (1 Samuel 22:1-2). All the disenfranchised, all the beaten-down and exasperated, all those hungry and passionate for change and fed up with the status quo – people like that who lived in the area, they went to David as their leader, joining him at the cave of Adullam.

And it may be during those days that today's story happens, although perhaps it took place later just after David had been recognized as king. But the appendix to the book of Samuel tells us a bonus story about a time when David was in the cave of Adullam, hunkered down with his supporters there. And while there, he gets some horrible news – perhaps from his parents and siblings, as they come to him. And the horrible news is this: not only have the Philistines invaded Judah, but the Philistines – Goliath's people, the descendants of the pirates – have seized control of, and are in a military occupation of, the little town of Bethlehem! Yes, we have a tale of when David was “at the cave of Adullam, when a band of Philistines was encamped in the Valley of Rephaim..., and the garrison of the Philistines was then at Bethlehem” (2 Samuel 23:13-14). And if this story does happen while David's on the run from Saul, I'm sure quite a few of those disenfranchised and discontented hundreds were fleeing the Philistines in Bethlehem, and going to the best Philistine-fighter they knew.

Think of David, receiving the first report that the Philistines are in Bethlehem. And think of what that must feel like to David. Now, when I was a boy, I moved houses from time to time, lived in my share of places, and yet I can still recall with affection some of my childhood homes. In my head, I can still walk through the rooms and see the table, I can hear the hustle and bustle of family life, I can run in the yards and smell the flowers. Maybe some of you can remember where you grew up. Perhaps it was a house up on the mountain. Perhaps it was a farm in the open spaces. Perhaps it was a simple house your dad built. But maybe some of your memories still bring you some joy. And the same was true for David. As a youthful man, he can still close his eyes and see Bethlehem through the eyes of a child. He remembers the layout of his parents' house, he remembers the texture of the wool of the sheep, he remembers the smells of the field and the taste of meals shared with friends. David's childhood home surely still holds a special place in his heart.

But now that childhood is being retroactively ruined. Pillaged. Plundered. Pirated. Because the Philistines are tearing through it. The Philistines are in Bethlehem, chasing David's old neighbors away. The Philistines are in Bethlehem, moving into the room where Jesse's wife once rocked David's cradle. The Philistines are there, feasting on the lambs born to the sheep that young David made to lie down in green pastures. The Philistines are there, dirtying and staining all that David could recall. They're redecorating the place. They're defiling it.

And in the middle of everything, with his heart made heavy and the discontent of others no source of levity, you can't blame David for catching and riding the wave of nostalgia. Because this is the dry season of the year, and it brings back memories of the harvests in his youth, helping his dad and brothers gather in the grain, working up a sweat, and then getting to quench his hot thirst with a cup of cool water that his mom hauled up from the community well tucked inside the town gate. To us today, it'd be maybe like remembering summers long past and thirsting for the flavor of Grandma's homemade lemonade. Because some things will always bring back childhood, familiarity, simpler times, when you first formed your tastes. And whatever delicacies you come to later enjoy, there's something about the flavors you grew up with, those distinctive qualities that open and widen the gates of memory – and that will always be a taste to long for.

So with David in a situation like that, heartbroken over the unclean Philistine occupation of his boyhood home, and left longing for simpler times, it's pretty understandable that David might muse out loud about just how refreshing it'd be to taste that same water one more time from that well. David doesn't mean to say anything that anybody might take action on. He isn't addressing anybody in particular. He's lost in thought. He's at the other end of memory lane. He's wistfully talking to himself. He's daydreaming with his voice. He's lamenting the war between idyllic nostalgia and a grimmer present reality. And out of that, his lips let loose the words, “Oh, who will give me a drink of the water from the well of Bethlehem by the gate!” (2 Samuel 23:15).

And here's where the action really begins. Three young men happened to be close enough to David at the time to overhear his wistful remark. And they're filled with love for David. They adore David. David is their hero, David is their inspiration, David is their driving flame. Since younger years, they grew up on stories of David and the tens of thousands of hated Philistines he and his soldiers killed. They grew up on tales of great exploits and knew they wanted to be just like David when they grew up. And now that they're here and with him – well, they wouldn't have come down to Adullam if not for David, and now that they see his face and hear his voice, they're a bit star-struck. These are three bold men who, if this happens while David's on the run, intend to earn a place in David's personal guard when he becomes king one day. So their heartfelt longing is to please David, to impress David, to satisfy David. And you know how, especially in the lead-up to this time of year, if you hear somebody you love mention offhandedly something they like, you might make a mental note to get that for them as a Christmas present, so that you can really surprise and impress them? Well, as it were, these three bold men decide it's time to go shopping for their hero. Because their yearning to please and impress David with a wonderful surprise, their longing to bring joy to David's heart and make David truly happy and satisfied, has for these men become an all-consuming desire. And now they plan to show their commitment in action.

So what do these three mighty men do? They hear that David's heart is set on desiring one gift, and it is not an easy gift to get. You can get it one place, and one place only: the gate to Bethlehem. So off they march. And that's no easy feat for their feet: Adullam is closer to Gath than to Bethlehem, and actually if they're coming all the way from Adullam to Bethlehem, that could be almost a fifteen-mile hike! It's undoubtedly an entire day's journey for them to get there, and if David mused about Bethlehem's well-water while thirsty under the hot noonday sun of an autumn day, perhaps the soldiers reach Bethlehem in the night. But to get there, “the three mighty men broke through the camp of the Philistines.” They had to fight their way through some guards, and no doubt inflicted a few casualties, maybe on some Philistine soldiers who grew up next door to Goliath. These bold men led a three-man charge through the camp and onto the Philistine garrison – they crossed the line, they exposed themselves to enemy fire, as it were.

And then, having slipped through, they “drew water out of the well that was in the gate.” They pressed into a confined space to do their work. Now, how long does it take to draw water out of a well like that? This is no sophisticated modern well, and it certainly isn't as simple as turning on the faucet and watching the water just gush effortlessly out. They have to take off the well's lid, they have to lower a pot down on a rope, they have to wait until it reaches the water and fills, then they can haul it back up. Only then are they ready to return. So we read that the three mighty men “carried it” away from Bethlehem, back through the Philistine lines, so that only two had their hands free to fight off any further Philistine danger. And then, throughout the night and into the morning and afternoon, they no doubt took turns carrying the bulky pot on their shoulders, as they marched the miles back to where they'd last overheard David's wistful wish (2 Samuel 23:16).

This was a laborious thing. It was not a simple trip. It took a real investment of effort, of hard work, to make this gift happen. But they did it for love – the love of their hero, God's anointed. It was an immense labor of love. And it was definitely a dangerous mission. Any one of them, all three of them, could easily have gotten themselves killed. They could have ended the day with their blood on the tip of a Philistine spear. They could have gotten cornered by Philistine swordsmen. The aggression in Philistine eyes could have been their last sight on earth. They put their lives on the line for that gift – all to bring back water and a story.

So these three men come to David and insinuate themselves into his attention. And David looks at them, tired and worn out and sweaty, with a jug on one's shoulder, which they hand over to David as they explain what had happened and why. They tell him they'd overheard him the other day, talking about how much he missed the taste of water from Bethlehem's well – so despite the Philistines, they'd gone to get some. “And here's your gift, David. We hope it tastes even better than you remember it! Go ahead and take a drink.”

How must David feel? He's deeply awed and shocked – impressed with the boldness of their exploits, their ability to disregard fear for the sake of their mission, their willingness to put life and limb on the line when it's called for. David's humbled by the depth of their devotion to him – perhaps it's almost a bit awkward to be such a hero in their eyes. But the one thought that horrifies David is that this chain of devotion should terminate merely at him, and not extend to a higher link than a hometown hero and earthly king. So I wonder if the three mighty men understood what it meant as David took the jug they handed him, and then instead of lifting it to his lips as they expected, he overturned it and watched it drizzle out into the dust. Were they offended? Were they hurt? Were they dismayed? How much did it shock them that David “would not drink of it” (2 Samuel 23:16)? But instead he poured it out – “poured it out to Yahweh and said, 'Far be it from me, O Yahweh, that I should do this! Isn't this the blood of the men who went, jeopardizing their lives?'” (2 Samuel 23:17).

In saying that, David pointed back to the pages of God's Law, the times in Leviticus where an animal would be sacrificed and its blood would be poured out at the base of the altar (Leviticus 4:7). It was the act that any and every Israelite hunter was supposed to mimic: whenever they caught any game, they were told, “Whoever takes in hunting any beast or bird that may be eaten shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth, for the life of every creature is its blood: its blood is its life” (Leviticus 17:13-14). And the same priestly libation would be imitated by every Israelite butcher in the towns and villages, even in the little town of Bethlehem whenever any of Jesse's sheep were butchered: “You may butcher and eat meat in any of your towns, as much as you desire..., only you shall not eat the blood; you shall pour it on the earth like water” (Deuteronomy 12:15-16). God told them to revere the blood of any creature as being the substance of its very life, a gift from God, and so sacred to God that it could not be treated like a mere object to be consumed: the life had to be offered back to God as a thing too precious for mortal lips.

But where Israelite priests and hunters and butchers poured out blood like water, now David pours out water like blood! Because he sees a deeper meaning in God's rules, he reads the wisdom between the lines, he catches the vision that motivates it. If the life of a sheep or deer or bird is so sacred that mortal lips can't touch it, how much more to be cherished is human life in the sight of God. Life can never be reduced to a commodity. Life can never be bartered and sold. The blood of life is too lofty a gift to commodified and passed from soldier to hero as a mere thing. And this water from the well of Bethlehem, by the time it reaches David's hands, has become infused with the lives that were gambled over it. The water is no mere physical object right now: It carries, subsumes, is indelibly marked by every live possibility, every potent potentiality, that was invested in its procurement. Had they slaved over an oven, the cake that emerges would be indelibly marked by the costs of that slavery. Had they insisted they'd put their blood, sweat, and tears into a project, whatever they built would be indelibly marked by that blood, that sweat, those tears. And now, because they had gambled their lives so lavishly and with such incredible risk, their exploit has been so daring and so incredible that, even though they survived to make it back, it constitutes a living sacrifice (cf. Romans 12:1) – of which this jug of Bethlehem water is the substance.

Because they put their lives into it, their gift of water to David became inseparable from offering themselves to him as a living sacrifice. And for all David's heroic merits, he saw how wrong it would be for him to hoard the living sacrifice of another for his own consumption. Far be it from David to slake his thirst on human life! Far be it from David to taste the well-water that, by being infused with the wager of life and death, had become morally and spiritually equivalent to blood! And so David takes the earthen vessel from their hands, filled with water materially indistinguishable in its chemical composition and mineral content from the water he grew up drinking in his Bethlehem childhood; and David pours it out to Yahweh, pours it out to his God. David does not condemn the three men. He does not chastise or castigate them. He does not rebuff or rebuke them. He does not indicate they did anything wrong. No, they did something bold, something brave, something beautiful. It's a good gift – so good that it's bigger than David, it has to rise higher. David has to undertake a holy regifting. Having received a living sacrifice into his hands, David subdues his own thirsty desire and crucifies his nostalgia and gives the gift up to the One truly worthy of it, and of whom this drink itself is – through daring love – made wonderfully worthy!

And so the tale ends, with Bethlehem still (though only temporarily) under Philistine occupation. But David's heavy heart has been turned to heavenly things, as a gift brewed up in Bethlehem and sanctified by the journey is poured out for the refreshment of God's thirst to see human love grow great and warm. These three soldiers, with matchless daring, offered their service and their gift to their king and hero and leader – a leader who would and could pass that devotion along to God, a gift jointly from him and them.

And Bethlehem is the place at the heart of it all – the beleaguered place of trial and test, where commitments are proven as to how far they'll go. Bethlehem is the place where the measure of love and devotion is marked. At Bethlehem, three unnamed soldiers displayed such incredible devotion toward God's anointed king that the gift won through their devotion, the gift infused with their very lives, could be turned over to God as a sacrifice. All these things point forward to “great David's greater Son,” who would be born in Bethlehem, who knows how many steps away from that very same well – perhaps the well whose water Mary would drink to hydrate herself as she groaned in labor pains to bring her own Maker into the world in our flesh and our blood. It could surely only be the water from this well that would first hydrate the cells in Mary's body that would create the milk that the infant Jesus – God's Anointed King – would drink there in Bethlehem.

One day, like David, Jesus would have his own bold mighty men – men like Paul, for instance, who described his adventurous exploits of living by faith as like being “poured out as a drink-offering” for King Jesus (Philippians 2:17; 2 Timothy 4:6), just as David's mighty men's living sacrifice was poured out to God. But unlike David, Jesus' great longing is not for a village childhood gone by, but for the bright hope of the earth renewed from sin's plunder and death's piracy, earth turned to Eden, and the hope of walking with us in the garden in a trust unbroken. And it is to spread the good news that Jesus' good longing will satisfy all of ours – yes, to live in this gospel is how Paul poured himself out as a drink-offering and offered himself up as a living sacrifice.

What would we dare at Bethlehem? Dare we to break the lines? Dare we throw caution to the wind for Jesus? Dare we devote to King Jesus all our thoughts and words and doings, all our days and all our hours? Dare our hands perform his bidding and our feet run in his ways? Dare our eyes see Jesus only and our lips speak forth his praise? Dare we really invest our lives in the gift, give ourselves to him as a living sacrifice which he can himself pour out to his Father, just as he already poured out his lifeblood to his Father to cover and to cleanse us who trust him? For long has this world been under occupation, and Jesus has broken through the camp and overrun the lines of the garrison. He risked, he bled, he poured out his all – and his all is infinite. If we would have Jesus as our Hero, what would we dare to bring him the gift he desires, sanctified by the journey? How much does our devotion dare for the King? How much do we love a heroic Savior? Enough to regift all you've been given to him? This week, church, in a world still pillaged, let us learn to dare a Bethlehem devotion, and dare it all for Jesus... all for Jesus!

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