All Night to Thanksgiving

1 Samuel 31.1-13
Sermon by Michael Usey
November 23, 2014

The men were dressed all in black when they started on their dangerous journey.  It was dusk when they set out, so they hugged their families, and prayed that they might return to them soon.  The equipment that the men carried was heavy: ropes, hooks, long ladders, and a couple of litters for the return journey.  They walked quickly but quietly, as they were going deep into enemy territory.  To be discovered would mean a painful death.

The going was extremely hard, since they only had torches for the first part of the trip.  Once they crossed into hostile territory, they put out the flame, and had to move over the rocky ground simply by moonlight.  But they were focused on their mission, grateful to have clear vision in both eyes to navigate the rough terrain.  The stars shown with the milky eerie brightness of the desert sky.

They walked for hours, ten miles in the dark, with stealth and care.  Finally, in the dead of night, they arrive at their target: a walled city, with formidable tall and imposing gates.  The 60-foot high walls were top with archer stands, battlements, and animalist idols.  And, near the top of the wall was a grizzly sight: four naked headless corpses hung from the wall.  The bodies had been terribly abused.

But the men were not fazed; it was for these that they had come.  They worked with speed and strength in four teams.  They used the hooks and ropes to gain access to the bodies—easy enough, but to unfasten them and lower them to the ground with care while not being discovered was tricky.  They removed the four heads from the spikes atop the walls on which they were displaced.  A mixture of fear and honor made them work quickly.  Within ten minutes they had arrived, scaled the walls, cut down the bodies, and left—all without be detected.  They ran from the walled city for a mile before they felt safe enough to secure the corpses to the litters they had brought, then headed home.

They arrived home at noon.  Others washed the bodies and wrapped them with love and care.  The four bodies were burned in a fierce fire, until only the bones remained.  They were buried under the sacred tree in the city, and all the people mourned and fasted 7 days.

Who were these four who died, and who were the ones who risked their lives to recover their bodies?  Why is this weird footnote even included in 1 Samuel? And why in the world is Michael talking about this dark story on the Sunday before thanksgiving?  Can’t we hear about pilgrims and turkey?  Shouldn’t sermons like this come with a PG13 rating?

The beginning of this story is back 20 chapters, in 1 Samuel 11.  Nahash is the king of Ammon (contemporary Jordan in the north); his name means “snake,” onomatopoetically  —“Nahassssssh.”  In his land east of the Jordan River, he made a habit of gouging out the right eyes of the Israelites he conquered.  The tribes of Gad and Rueben (who had settled in Gilead) were his primary victims.  The cruel blinding combined humiliation and torture.  Imagine a population of one-eyed men, women, children, and their animals walking the streets, daily reminders of the sadist Nahash.  But 7000 Israelites escaped and took refuge in the walled fortress of Jabesh-Gilead.  Nahash came after them, and laid siege to the city.  When the people of Jabesh-Gilead offered themselves up as slaves in return for peace, Nahash made the outrageous counter-offer: “only on the condition that I gouge out everyone’s right eye.”

With this, Nahash stepped into the ranks of the world’s most brutal oppressors, where he rubs shoulders with Herod the Great and Nero, Tamerlane and Genghis Khan, Hitler and Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot.  It’s by no means rare for someone to inflict gratuitous torture and humiliation on the hapless in our fallen world.

The leaders of Jabesh-Gilead asked Nahash for 7 days respite to send messengers to the rest of Israel.  Then, if no one came to save them, they would give themselves up to Nahash. The evil king granted it. Imagine the terror as the people of the city waited to see if a deliverer might come.

The messengers came to Saul’s place at Gibeah and told the people what was going on. As the people broke out in loud wails, Saul showed up. He was coming back from the field with his oxen. Saul asked, “What happened? Why is everyone crying?” And they repeated the message that had come from Jabesh.

The Spirit of God came on Saul when he heard the report and he flew into a rage. He grabbed his oxen and butchered them on the spot. He sent the messengers throughout Israel distributing the bloody pieces with this message: “Anyone who refuses to join up with Saul and Samuel, this will be the fate of his oxen!”

The terror of God seized the people—which can happen if you’re holding a bloody piece of hacked-up oxen—and they came out, one and all, not a laggard among them. Saul took command of the people at Bezek. There were 300,000 men from Israel, another 30,000 from Judah.  Saul pulled the army together, made a forced march through the night across the Jordan River to Jabesh.  The distance was only about nine miles but the terrain was difficult.

Saul instructed the messengers, “Tell this to the folk in Jabesh-Gilead: ‘Help is on the way. Expect it by noon tomorrow.’”  The messengers set straight off and delivered their message. Elated, the people of Jabesh Gilead sent word to Nahash: “Tomorrow we’ll give ourselves up. You can deal with us on your terms.” Long before dawn the next day, Saul had strategically placed his army in three groups. At first light they broke into the enemy camp and slaughtered Ammonites until noon. Those who were left ran for their lives, scattering every which way.

The people of Jabesh-Gilead never forgot that Saul saved them from the torture and humiliation of having everyone—children, women, men and animals too—being painful blinded in one eye.  See, when Saul heard of what Nahash was going to do, he was not only shocked; he was moved to action.  It was the very first thing he did as the first king of Israel.

So years later, when Saul and his 3 sons are killed in battle with the Philistines, the people of Jabesh remembered—and acted.  Saul was immensely unpopular by that time, and he was no longer God’s choice as king.  His body had been stripped of his armor and displayed in their temple.  Beheaded and desecrated, Saul’s and his sons’ nude bodies were hung on the wall of Beth Shan as gruesome trophies.  But the people of Jabesh remembered—and they did something about it.  Gratitude compels action.

When the men of Jabesh-Gilead hear what has happened to Saul, they remember the debt of gratitude they owe him, walk all night into enemy territory, retrieve his body, and bury it honorably.  This act of gratitude is even more impressive when you realize that this is a debt that they have been waiting to pay for 40 years—the entire length of Saul’s reign. Some of the valiant men who made the journey that night weren’t even born yet when Saul had saved their town, and yet they are still willing to risk their lives to protect his honor.  Gratitude compels people to act.

It’s the time of year that we remember those who have loved us and helped us along life’s odd and winding paths.  They might be parents, friends, professors, teachers, grandparents, strangers, officers, firefighters, colleagues, co-workers, lovers, partners, family.

But gratitude compels actions.  Remembering needs the teeth of doing.  To honor someone’s role in your life is not merely to recall his or her name with affection.  Sometimes it means marching all night to rescue their dead body and carrying it 10 miles to be buried with honor.  More often, it will mean something else less dramatic, but gratitude demands action. Remembering what someone did for us impels us to honor them

Who helped you in your life? Who was there for you when no one else was?  Who was your Saul when life threated to blind you?  What are the names of the people who stood by you in the most difficult of times?

Heart of being a religious person is gratitude.  “Thank you” might be the purest prayer we can make.  And, the heart of the bible is remembering.  Remember those who came before, for their stories makes our story possible and brim with meaning.

Who was there for you when you were a child?  Was it a teacher who spent time with you on your times tables, or an adult who read to you, a coach who taught you the sport you now love?  At the Feast of Caring this week to benefit Greensboro Urban Ministries, I sat next to one of the two doctors who recognized that our son Zachariah had bacteria spinal meningitis when he was 9 months old.  They saved his life by their quick action, and I think they saved mine too.  Who was there for you when you were a child, and what will you do to honor them?  Gratitude compels action.

Who was there for you when you were a teen?  Did a police officer charge you with the lesser offense?  Did a teacher take an interest in you when no one else did?  Did a youth minister keep you from killing your future or yourself?  Growing up in San Diego, my youth minister was neither bright nor competent.  I remember him saying once, “Why would anyone read a novel?  They’re just made up stories.”  Honestly, that is the only thing I can ever remember him saying, but to be fair I quit listening after such an ignorant statement.  But I had a SS teacher who wore suits and flip-flops to church, who taught me that God’s name was YHWH, and he engaged in me in fun, thoughtful discussions every week; I still remember many things he said.  I don’t know where he is now.  Gratitude compels action.

Who was there for you when you were in college?  What family fed you when you ran out of money before you ran out of month?  Who gave you grace on a paper or a test or a grade that you didn’t deserve?  What friend or lover saw you as the diamond in the rough you were back then, and brought out the best in you?  Basil Thompson was my SS teacher while I was at Baylor.  He was the university’s head legal council; he ran around with the important and the rich, yet he treated those he taught like they were his closest friends, and he let us in on the ethical dilemmas he has a lawyer representing a Baptist university. Basil and his wife were an island of care and sanity When I was 2000 miles from home, and widely considered by all an idiot for leaving San Diego.

Who changed your life when you were adult?  Who had the chutzpah to say to you, “Do you think that you maybe drinking too much?”  Who said, “You know, I have found a group of joyful thoughtful Christians, and I think maybe you’d benefit from them too.”  Who said, “You’re missing the boat. You need to spend more time with your son (or daughter, or wife or husband)”?  Who, exactly, had the brass ovaries enough to say, “I’m sorry, but I think you’re wrong about this.”  Who took a chance and gave you your first job, or a bank loan when you were on the bubble?  Who reminded you that God loves you, and is always with you?  A wealthy friend of mine turned 50 a while ago, and instead of buying a cool new car, or throwing a huge party (and there is nothing wrong with either of those), he decided to endow a scholarship at Guilford College, where he had graduated, because he said, it was such a difficult time for me, and I had absolutely no money and few friends, broke and lonely.  Remembering should lead to doing.

I have no idea what remembering the people who were God’s messengers of grace to us might lead us to do. Send a letter, plant a tree, take a journey, read to kids at a school, become a scout leader, start a scholarship, or something much creative. Our theme for Advent/Christmas & Epiphany is Entertaining Angels.  (Entertaining as a verb, not an adjective; we’re not talking about very entertaining angels, as funny as they might be.)  As you know, the word angel in Greek means `messenger,’ so we’re interested in the angels without wings, the one who were messengers of God’s grace to you back in the day.  We’re asking everyone if they would take a moment to write about one messenger, one angel in your life.  750-900 words, no more that 1000 please, and we’ll feature them in worship and in the Collage in December, January and February.

In just a moment we’ll invite you to take communion; the Greek word is Eucharist, which means thanksgiving.  We will remember and act, being grateful for the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  The servers this morning are some of the recipients of our senior servant leadership award.  They remembered what had been done for them, and they have paid it forward. After you partake of the elements, you’ll handed a piece of paper, on which we invite you to write the names of three people who were God’s messengers to you, angels without wings.  You’re the only one who will see this, and we hope this will give you a good start to write about one of them.

The story of Saul’s death doesn’t end with this burial.  Many years later David, now king of Israel, will finish the story.  He went and got the remains of Saul and Jonathan, Saul’s son whom David loved like a brother, from the leaders at Jabesh Gilead (who had rescued them from the wall at Beth Shan where the Philistines had hung them after striking them down at Gilboa). He gathered up their remains and took them to the land of Benjamin and gave them decent burial in the tomb of Kish, Saul’s father. Gratitude compels action.  David remembered and did something about it.  It is not enough merely to remember and be thankful; we must also act.