July 25, 2021 – “God Saves”
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
Theme: Even in times of grief, God brings light out of darkness.
Grief is a thin place to me, is it for you too? A thin place is where the wall between this world and the next seems to be closer than ever before. Our awareness is heightened so that we feel as if we’re existing in both worlds simultaneously.
It’s similar in tone to Holy Week. As communities all around the world begin to pour their energy into this yearly tradition leading to the celebration of Easter, I can feel it. I can feel the collective bending toward the narrative events of the week – the Last Supper, the Gethsemane Garden, Jerusalem, and Calvary. I feel the way it clashes a bit with spring awakening around us, in the trees budding pink and white, tulips and crocuses stretching to the sky, even the birds chasing each other in their mating rituals. It’s this collision of time and events all around me that provides a doorway to this thin place – a realization that something is brewing beneath the surface. Some of it pours out of the cracks and crevices from the way everything brushes up against each other. Particularly in the last days of Holy Week, the darkness of lament and grief overwhelms everything.
Lament. Even the word itself feels heavy, doesn’t it? To lament means to mourn, to grieve, to wail in response to loss. It’s a public expression of the raw, inner pain we feel when we’re faced with death, destruction, dashed hopes, and devastation. But given the magnitude of those feelings, lament can be an appropriate, certainly understandable, and perhaps necessary response to such pain.
This is the darkness in which David finds himself in our reading today. King Saul and his son Jonathan, whom David loved dearly, have died in battle, and David cries a mournful lament. David is lost! He had roamed the Judean wilderness with his band of soldiers. He had crisscrossed the mountains and valleys as a Philistine mercenary. He had learned every nook and cranny, every cave and spring, while being chased by King Saul. But now he’s completely lost in his lament! There was no valley so dark or so lonely as this one. It was the valley of the shadow of death. David enters the valley lost because of the announcement: Saul and his son, Jonathan, are dead!
David’s grief is palpable as he tells the very land and all its people to mourn with him. With grief this profound, it’s hard to see how light and life can ever appear again. It can be That way when it comes to us, too. There’s the soft but factual voice of the doctor. There’s the hysterical voice on the telephone. There’s the obituary notice in the newspaper. There’s a news bulletin that disaster has struck. However it comes, we begin our journey into the valley.
Sometimes it helps us to learn the details. It gives time for the heart to catch up to the mind. How did it happen? David wanted to know that, too. But the account of Saul’s death is varied in the biblical record. In 1 Samuel chapter 31, Saul takes his own life after being wounded in
battle with the Philistines. In our reading today, an Amalekite kills Saul upon the request of the dying king, for which David orders his execution. In 2 Samuel chapter 4, it’s simply that the Amalekite delivered the announcement of Saul’s death with an attitude that leads David to personally kill him. There’s no solution to the difficulties between these reports, except to admit an error. The fog of war. The accident happened so fast. He was fine just that morning. Details or no details, correct or confused, the fact is unaltered: Saul and Jonathan are dead, and David is beside himself in grief.
So, David expresses his lostness in the demonstrative practice of Eastern grief. He and his 600 soldiers sit, with their clothes torn, filling the air with the loud wail of pain. They fast from food until sunset. And in the time that follows, David puts his feelings into a writing his lament. We have it in the lesson before us today.
From its beginning to its end, this poem is plaintive. Lostness and grief drip from every verse. Not only is David’s personal grief expressed here, but also a call for national grief, and even for nature to groan over the loss.
David’s personal loss comes from the death of a friend, Jonathan. It is recorded in 2 Samuel 1:26, “I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother; you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful, more wonderful than that of women.” It’s one thing to experience the death of a loved one. It’s another to experience the death of your closest friend. Friendship is a relationship that can run thicker than blood. Between our closest friends there’s an intercommunication of the psyche, of our souls, our whole being. To lose a friend is to lose a part of yourself. It’s to walk the valley of the lost.
We know what David is saying, don’t we? We’ve been there. Whether we arrive in that valley by the death of a friend, we recognize that personal grief also comes at the loss of a job, or the loss of a limb through illness or accident. It comes when we move from a community or have a goal unfulfilled. Grief is the experience of shuffling through life as though no sunlight can ever pierce the darkness, and there are no road signs that point the way out. Grief is the experience of being lost within familiar surroundings. We live in the same house, we sit at the same kitchen table, but the feeling of lostness remains. Grief is almost a nonphysical experience, because it’s untouched by space, and it seems that time stands still.
David doesn’t try to answer the “why” question that so often comes to mind in our grief. But he describes what happened. Saul and Jonathan were killed in war, with Saul “falling on his sword” when he was wounded in battle (1 Sam. 31: 4– 6). David doesn’t ascribe reasons to God or some abstract and unknown references to God’s purposes. Even if he did know why, nothing would change or alleviate the crushing feeling of his loss. He’s grieving and angry at the means by which Saul and Jonathan died, and he gives voice to this experience. All our grappling for reasons pushes us in the direction of finding answers to questions and then giving these answers to others, as if this solves the existential nature of suffering. But it doesn’t, does it?
Answers to the why question may elude us, but one answer to lament is the act of lamenting itself. That is, allowing people to actually lament. As David shares his experience with lament,
we too need to do this as we relate the stories of loss within our lives. Loss of friends and family members, loss of homes and jobs, loss of health, among many other losses, all elicit normal responses of lament. And we must be careful to not hurry this process up or try to lessen the significance of the loss.
David’s mourning cry at the death of Saul and Jonathan is both raw and painful. Sadly, as Christians, we’re not well-schooled in lament. In general, our Christian culture focuses on the joy of the resurrection—the insistence of new life in the face of death—so much so that we may be reluctant to linger in grief. How do we share in grief together? What communal practices help us name and navigate the deep waters of lament? Our experience of overwhelming losses during this pandemic, of violence against people of color, of mass casualtiesandloss,hasrevealsthesegapsinourcommonlife. David’slamentisanopportunity to pause and name our losses.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in her book Learning to Walk in the Darkness, “If it happened in a cave, it happened in complete silence, in absolute darkness, with the smell of damp stone and dug earth in the air. Sitting deep in the heart of Organ Cave, I left this sink in: new life starts in the dark. Whether it is a seed in the ground, a baby in the womb, or Jesus in the tomb, it starts in the dark.”
When we’re grieving, the laughter of strangers and even the bright colors of flitting birds and summer flowers feel like a bit of an affront to the depth of our emotions. A little too pretty, too happy, and too awake. Perhaps we’re not ready to move on from the darkness quite yet. As Barbara Brown Taylor says, “I have learned things in the dark that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there’s really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”
So often, we experience grief alone. Just in the span of the last two generations, mourning clothes announced our grief. Women with broad-brimmed black veiled hats and men with crepe hat bands made it obvious that someone in the family had died. In these days, with these practices no longer common, no one may notice, and the way through the valley may seem so even more lonely. Our public smiles hide our personal heartaches. Pleasant greetings mask inner emptiness. The invitation to dinner, once accepted, may never reveal the back pains, the stomach pains, the headaches, or the heavy chest – all physical symptoms that are a normal part of grieving. Rather than bringing others down, we keep these symptoms and this pain to ourself in our grief.
But David doesn’t want to do his grieving alone. There’s a call here in his lament for a national grief. Saul and his sons were the glory of Israel. Just as a whole nation turns out in excitement for a royal wedding, so also the nation should mourn the loss of its leaders. That loss is a calamity for us all, regardless of how aligned or misaligned we feel with their politics. Even though Saul had pursued David relentlessly to kill him, David sets aside his personal animosity towards Saul and asks in verse 24 for the daughters of Israel, “… weep for Saul who clothed you in scarlet and finery and who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.” David was
asking the people of Judah to join in his lament. He wanted the very words of this lament to be learned and recited. He wanted the people to be reminded that they too were lost, without a leader. In verse 27, David proclaims the lament of war, “How the mighty have fallen! The weapons of war have perished!”
We too need to walk through the national valleys of our lost. We need to learn and recite some the accounts of our past. We need to walk silently through the Arlington National Cemetery and take note of the stark, white, crosses, row upon row, acre upon acre. People of all nations need to walk past the gas ovens of the Nazi death camps. We need to tell the stories of the men on the Bataan death march. We need to retell the stories of the Civil War, Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Shiloh, and Bull Run. We need to decry the horribleness of war, to declare it as the supreme manifestation of sin, and to have all war abolished! We need to stand together before our war monuments and give thought to what they have done and what was settled at what cost. We need to consider the loss of the best of our people, and the non-productive use of our natural resources. We need to walk together through the valley of national loss, so that we might come out as better people on the other end.
So deep is David’s grief that he wants even creation itself to groan over the awfulness of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan in battle. He expects the mountains to experience the loss. In verse 21, David’s lament says, “Mountains of Gilboa, may you have neither dew nor rain, may no showers fall on your terraced fields.” Stand there as a silent sentinel, David is saying. Cry until there is no moisture left to cry. Join me in experiencing the desolateness of the walk through the valley of the lost!
Nature does that sometimes for us. It shares in the depth of the human experience of grief. It asks for all the people of the world to stand together silently in the face of natural disasters. Visitors to the remains of the city of Pompeii catch a sense of the great loss that came suddenly upon it at the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. So also, we can stand helpless before the reruns, on television, of incidents like the explosion of the first atomic bomb, the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, the desolation of the lands in California after these massive wildfires. We can observe the sheer power of nature by watching rivers of lava rush through the valleys to devour homes and people as volcanos erupt in Hawaii. We can resolve to walk those battlefields of our own past and vow that this shall happen never again. Nature can be key to our healing.
Is there any way out of this valley of the lost? Frankly, it may seem that the answer to that question is no. But, for those of you who are walking in that valley now, I want you to be assured that the valley does end. You won’t always feel the way you feel now. Those feelings will change. Contrary to what we’ve been told, they will never completely disappear. They will rear their head again at the most unexpected moments. A new normal has come into your life. But the pain will eventually salve itself over your heart so you can bear up under what seems like such crushing grief. It’s possible that you can love your home again. You can enjoy doing the things you used to do. Spring flowers will grow in the shadows of the valley. It happens on your schedule, not on the schedule of anyone else, because the grief I feel will be different from yours and yours from mine, so we must embrace it for ourselves.
During this time, remember that we are Christians! As the Apostle Paul wrote, in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14, “Brothers and sisters, we do not want you to be uninformed about those who sleep in death, so that you do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him.” We’ve experienced the love and support of God before. Depend on him now! To his grieving disciples, Jesus says, in John 14:18, “I will not leave you desolate; I will come to you.” He says the same to us now. His love supports those who grieve.
Remember the one you lost. Remember also the ones who are still with you. Tell them how you feel and what you’re experiencing. Let them step into your valley with you, take you gently by the hand, and accompany you on your journey. They may not always understand, and they may not always have the words to say, but their presence is something you will always remember. When you’re ready, let them help you plan for your future, maybe even day-by- day. Map out some activities, some schedule, and let them help you stay with it. Know that your grieving experience is an opportunity to grow. Growing seldom happens without tension, pain, or suffering. Our loss isn’t given to us to force growth upon us, but it is available to help us come out the other side even stronger in our faith and trust in our Lord. Stretch yourself. Become more than you are. Don’t let the experience be for naught.
We stand together at the edge of these valleys of loss, or we walk together through them, and know that something is terribly wrong! But among all the debris that comes floating by, there’s something to grasp that’s worth keeping. For the Christian, this is our confident reliance on a good and gracious God who walks every valley with us. He walks with us in our loss, and even when it seems the earth itself has turned against us. Paul says it so well in Romans 8:38-39: “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I want to close today by sharing a poem with you titled, “When Things Get Lost.”
When Things Get Lost
May we be like David: human enough to be sad to recognize the worth of those who are lost to us.
May we be like David: honest enough to say who it is we love and know that love is held in grace.
May we be like David: loved enough by God to face what is hard and be made more fully human by it.
May we be like David: powerless enough to lament and strong enough to weep for those he loved.
This is the life God has for us. This is what matters. Not victory. Not conquest. Not triumphalism. This is what matters – that God holds us in our grief and saves us even here. In the face of all the horrific injustices and inequities, and the seemingly constant stream of devastation of humanity, not only in the faraway places, but right here in our own backyard, amid the darkness of our sufferings, we need to lament to remain present. With so many innocent lives claimed by death in the COVID pandemic and for all those who death touches with its icy fingers, God is at work, redeeming our human suffering and saving us from this grief by being with us right there in the darkness.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Proclamation of the Word “My Peace”
2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27
David Hears of Saul’s Death
1 After the death of Saul, David returned from striking down the Amalekites and stayed
in Ziklag two days.
David’s Lament for Saul and Jonathan
17 David took up this lament concerning Saul and his son Jonathan, 18 and he ordered that the people of Judah be taught this lament of the bow (it is written in the Book of Jashar):
19“Agazelle[a] liesslainonyourheights,Israel. How the mighty have fallen!
20 “Tell it not in Gath,
proclaim it not in the streets of Ashkelon,
lest the daughters of the Philistines be glad,
lest the daughters of the uncircumcised rejoice.
21 “Mountains of Gilboa,
may you have neither dew nor rain,
may no showers fall on your terraced fields.
For there the shield of the mighty was despised, the shield of Saul—no longer rubbed with oil.
22 “From the blood of the slain, from the flesh of the mighty,
the bow of Jonathan did not turn back,
the sword of Saul did not return unsatisfied.
23 Saul and Jonathan—
in life they were loved and admired, and in death they were not parted.
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
24 “Daughters of Israel, weep for Saul,
who clothed you in scarlet and finery,
who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.
25 “How the mighty have fallen in battle! Jonathan lies slain on your heights.
26 I grieve for you, Jonathan my brother;
you were very dear to me. Your love for me was wonderful,
more wonderful than that of women. 27 “How the mighty have fallen!
The weapons of war have perished!”