When I was young, I used to play with my next door neighbor all the time. I don’t know quite how to explain just how often we were together. I remember getting in trouble with his dad one time for calling their house… at 7:00 in the morning… on a Saturday. Well, I knew he was up, so why should I have had to wait? This friend and I were so in-sync that there was a time when I picked up the phone to call him, only he had already called me, and I lifted the phone before it even rang. That’s how close we were – practically reading each other’s minds. Now, there’s nothing weird at all about kids being best friends, being connected at the hip. And it’s especially not weird for next-door neighbors to become friends.
The thing is, on the surface of it, we had basically nothing in common. I mean, we both lived in really thoughtful, caring, churchgoing, two-parent families. But he was the third of four children, I was an only. He was three-and-a-half years older than me. He was (and is) handsome and tall, and I’ve always been kind of short and dumpy. He’s always been a gifted athlete – one of those kids who just takes to any sport he tries in seconds, and I had to try really, really hard to get to be “acceptable” at any sport. He was so active that, when we were kids, he couldn’t sit through his favorite movie – all 88 minutes of The Little Mermaid. We had to go outside and play basketball for an hour or so just so we could watch the second half of the movie. Whereas, I’m more the kind of person who likes to make a nice, little, me-shaped divot in the couch. Even today, this guy takes his vacations from his two full-time jobs (personal trainer and occupational therapist) to go mountain climbing – he does this like three times a year. Even simple things were different between us when we were kids – he went to private school, and I went to public.
Of course, we both liked church, and since he had a religious education in school, we had a particular set of biblical characters we liked to compare ourselves to. Those characters were David and Jonathan. After all, my name is David, and his is, of course, Jonathan. I remember laughing about that with him once as we sat in my basement talking about school. Looking back, there was a lot of them in us: best friends, even if it’s not likely. Yet, devoted to one another in a way that time and distance can never diminish.
As we’ve grown up, I realized how important it was that when we were just pre-teens, we could see ourselves in characters in the Bible. Part of the reason that I have spent the last few months preaching from the Old Testament is just this: our faith, our engagement with the Bible, are strongest, not when it’s an old book with even older stories, but when we see it as something living, something that teaches us timeless truths, something that we can connect to. The Bible is our window into God’s purposes for us; it’s our way of understanding who God is. Without it, we are left with just our experiences. Don’t get me wrong, our experiences of God are deeply meaningful, and cannot be neglected. But my experiences and yours are different, whereas the story of the Scriptures is something we can all share.
The stories we hear in the Old Testament are not the same as the New Testament, which teaches us about Jesus. But the stories of the Old Testament are just as important, as they are the stories that Jesus himself grew up hearing in worship. The New Testament is the story of Jesus – a human being like us… but who is also God, and therefore profoundly unlike us. The Old Testament, on the other hand, is the story of people exactly like us. Living in a world with a lot less technology, sure, but otherwise, victims of the same types of tragedy, subject to the same sorts of flaws of character, in the same kinds of relationships as ours. Therefore, we continue to read these stories – these things that can seem so disconnected from us.
These stories are not ‘history” meaning, “his story,” meaning “someone else’s story.” They are “outstory.” These are stories of people like us, and stories that we can learn from – learn both about God, and about one another.
Two weeks ago, I read to you and preached from the story of David and Goliath. This week, I want to pick up right where we left off. We finished at the end of chapter 17, the point at which David has become a hero. This starts to irk Saul. You may or may not remember, but Saul was the first king of Israel. He was… well, just an okay king. No one’s favorite, but definitely not the worst king Israel would ever have. And like a lot of people, Saul was a really insecure guy.
Basically as soon as David starts getting treated like someone special, Saul starts getting jealous. After all, he’s the king! Why is anyone else getting attention? Saul was so insecure because he knew how much he had to lose. Of course, he had so much to lose because he had so much to begin with, but that’s how it often plays out. David starts to get popular; Saul starts getting resentful. This story, though, has a wrinkle, a twist. And the name of that twist is Jonathan.
David and Jonathan are best friends; not just best friends, but something akin to blood brothers. Jonathan is said to have “made covenant” with David; that is, he pledged to be David’s best friend. And he did this in an era in which people’s word was their bond, and it would be unthinkable to go back on a word like that. But in this passage, we see the roots of conflict.
In fact, Saul goes so far as to try a two-pronged approach to dealing with David. On the one hand, he promises his eldest daughter to David. This ensures that they will be allies. We probably all know from history classes that marriages have been used by the powerful to ensure peace for a long time. But Saul has another secret strategy, too. He keeps David as a commander in the army, and sends him to the front lines. That way, the Philistines can finish the job Goliath tried to start, and David will likely die in battle. Unfortunately for Saul, this backfires big time.
David wins more and more battles, which only makes him more popular and makes Saul more insecure. In the meantime, Saul marries off Merab, his eldest daughter, to someone else (David does end up marrying Michal, Saul’s second daughter). Eventually, David realizes how dangerous it is for him to remain near Saul, so David flees. Saul then begins a manhunt for David, trying to murder him. And all the while, David has an ally right in Saul’s family – Saul’s only son, Jonathan. Jonathan is often the one keeping David alive. He’s the reason David knows to leave town in the first place; he tells David of Saul’s intentions and strategies. He keeps his best friend alive, even though it directly flies in the face of what his father wants to do.
So many people assume that David kills Goliath, becomes king, and everything works out for him. But in many ways, the hero of his story is Jonathan, the best friend who disobeys his family to help his friend. So, as I’ve had to ask in just about every Old Testament story we’ve read this year, what is this passage supposed to be teaching us? I mean, it’s an interesting story, but… so what?
Well, I think it’s mostly story about where God puts us in the world. We’re put into all sorts of weird places and circumstances. We can’t possibly know what those situations are going to yield. We can try to make hard and fast rules, like we read in the Ten Commandments – “Honor your father and mother.” But, in this story, Jonathan is the hero here for going against his family and disobeying that commandment. Of course, that’s because his father is in a murderous rage and trying to kill an innocent kid. If there’s a time to disobey your parents, that’s it. But that’s the thing: so often in life, the situations we’re placed in are not so easy to create rules for, because we can’t possibly plan for every eventuality. For so many of us, the critical moments in our lives occur in places we’d never have imagined ourselves being, so how do you make rules for that? Instead, we hear stories like this one, to inspire us to act correctly in the face of difficult situations.
Whenever we make a difficult decision, like Jonathan does where others will view us as being against our family, we’re likely to face judgment from others. But sometimes, God is asking us to do just that. In fact, our first allegiance is not to our family, not to our friends, not to our country, but to God and God alone. The passage tells us explicitly that “the Lord was with” David. Jonathan can see that he can’t help his dad – his dad has transgressed what he’s supposed to do as king and ruler, so he helps his friend, whom he can see is fulfilling the work of God.
Undoubtedly, we’ll be faced with difficult decisions in this life about whom we’re supposed to help and where we’re supposed to be in this life. This is a passage that teaches us that, no matter how difficult those decisions, what’s important is following what God is doing in our lives. Those things are hard on us, but we have to have courage, as Jonathan did. When we make a decision, we do it prayerfully, and do our best to please God. When we do what’s right, we see it borne out in the results. We have to approach the hard parts of life with humility, prayer, and putting God first. In this way we honor God – by putting God at the center, not just of our prayers, nor just our Sundays, but in our everyday relationships with everyone. May we have the courage of Jonathan to make the hard choices and follow after God. Amen.