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Sermon: One Bad Moment

June 26, 2009

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

Soccer’s World Cup is the biggest sporting event on the planet.  In 2006, Italy and France were tied in the final game, 1-1.  French star Zinedin Zidane—also known as “Zizou”—had scored his team’s only goal.  Zizou was one of the greatest players in the world.  He is one of only two players ever to be named FIFA’s World Player of the Year three times.  He was on a list of the greatest soccer players of all time.  And he was about to make his final play on a professional soccer field.

The score was tied 1-1, and there was very little time left in the game.  Zidane was in a heated battle with one of the Italian players.  The Italian player, we later learned, was saying some hateful and insulting things about Zidane’s family.  Suddenly, Zizou turned and head butted the Italian player in the chest.  The Italian dropped to the field.  It was a devastating hit.

The referees gave Zidane a red card, ejecting him from the game.  The French player walked off the field, and soon after, the Italian team won the World Cup on penalty kicks.  It was Zidane’s last act as a world class soccer player.  He retired soon after.

Imagine what it takes to make a career as a professional soccer player.  Think about the tens of thousands of hours of practice and exercise and proper diet and travel and interviews.  It takes a single-minded devotion to commit so much of yourself to reach that level.  Zizou was recognized as one of the best players ever in the world’s most popular sport.  Yet, for most people, he will forever be defined by his last action as a player—the vicious head butt of an opponent.  A lifetime of accomplishments was erased by a single moment of anger and frustration.

*   *   *   *   *

If you are a public figure, nothing is hidden.  Every mistake, every cruelty, every foolish action will come to the light.  Every contemporary politician has learned that unhappy truth.  As we will come to see later in the summer, that also happened to David, the greatest king of Israel.  And he wasn’t alone.  The Bible holds nothing back.  It reveals us every character flaw in every man and woman chosen by God.

Today’s scripture focuses on the aftermath of the deaths of Saul and his son Jonathan.  Saul had been king, but because he was neither obedient nor humble, God was sorry for making Saul king.  Israel’s first king was also the first king to fail.

While Saul was still the king, young David came to live in the palace.  David played his harp, and the music had a soothing effect on Saul.  It was clear that some sort of mental illness was taking hold of Saul’s spirit, and David’s harp was the only medicine.

While in the court of the king, David became fast friends with Saul’s son Jonathan.  The Bible tells us that David’s and Jonathan’s souls were bound together in friendship.  “Jonathan loved [David] as his own soul” (1 Samuel 18:1c).  Jonathan gave as a gift to David his clothes, his belt, his armor, his sword, and even his famed bow.  And as David remained in the royal court, he became more and more successful, and more and more honored (1 Samuel 18:1-7).

This made the king jealous, and Saul looked for an opportunity to kill David and shared this with Jonathan (1 Samuel 18:10-11, 19:1).  Of course Jonathan, who loved David, told his friend and helped David to escape.  Jonathan even lied to his father to help David get away.  While David was in hiding, the two friends met secretly and shared their grief over Saul’s murderous rage (1 Samuel 19-20).  Repeatedly, Jonathan went out to give comfort to his good friend, risking his father’s wrath.  Eventually, David had to leave the country.  He went into the land of the Philistines, the hated enemy, in order to save his life (1 Samuel 27-28).

This was not a happy time in the lives of these three men.  Saul was suffering from madness and jealousy, and his son was lying to him and helping his enemy.  David was persecuted by his mentor, and spent his days in exile.  Jonathan was caught between his father and the man who was Jonathan’s closest friend.  In the midst of this soap opera there were the ever-present Philistines, the mortal enemy.  Finally, in a massive battle with the Philistines on Mount Gilboa, the enemy overwhelmed Saul and his men, killing both Saul and Jonathan.

A messenger came to David with this sad news.  You can imagine that this was a bad day for David.  The king of Israel was dead.  David’s soul mate Jonathan was dead.  “How the mighty have fallen!”

In our scripture lesson for today, David led the people of Israel in a song of grief.  It was the eulogy for these two men:

Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places!  How the mighty have fallen!…

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely!  In life and death they were not divided; they were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.

O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul…

I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

How the mighty have fallen, and the weapons of war perished!  (2 Samuel 1:19, 23-24a, 26-27)

It is a beautiful lament, but you see what David did in his song?  David does what we always do at funerals and memorials services.  He glossed over the troubles and failures, and he focused on Saul and Jonathan at their best.  David sang that “the sword of Saul” never returned “empty.”  Not so.  Remember Goliath?  Saul was so afraid of the giant he wouldn’t go out onto the battlefield.  David claimed that “in life and in death [Saul and Jonathan] were not divided.”  That’s not literally true, either.  David was the one who came between the two men so that Jonathan lied to his father to protect David.

It was a rough and difficult life for Saul and Jonathan.  Saul, in particular, disobeyed God and lost his right to be king over God’s people.  But in that time of grief, David knew there was no sense in bringing all that pain out into the open.  He wasn’t being dishonest.  As we do at funerals, we choose to remember people at their best.  Saul wasn’t only a mad man.  He was also God’s anointed and a father who loved his son.

It may be that French soccer player Zinedin Zidane will be remembered only for his head butt, and not for his spectacular play on the field.  It may be that Michael Jackson will be more remembered for his troubles and bizarre behavior than for his talent.  But what is the right way to remember someone?  Who was the real Saul?  Who was the real Zidane?  Who was the real Michael Jackson?  The truth is that each of us is a mixture of good and not-so-good, success and failure.

God sees each one of us through grace and through the perspective of the cross.  God knows who we are at our very best; God knows our potential; God knows who we can be.  The other stuff?  The head butting, the disobedience, the failures?  God doesn’t let those things define who we are as God’s children.  Like the speaker at the eulogy, God is more concerned about you at your best.  That’s how God defines you.

In his letter to the church in Rome, the Apostle Paul wrote that while we human beings were still sinners, God sent his son to us.  While we were still practically enemies to God, Jesus died on a cross for our sake.  Doesn’t that tell you something?  God knows we sin.  God knows we fail.  But God’s love for us is bigger than our sin, bigger than our failure.  Your identity in God’s eyes is who you are at your best, not who you are in your one bad moment.  Or even several bad moments.

If God loves us that way, if God, as David did with Saul and Jonathan, remembers us at our best, then that tells us a lot about how we should live together.  Ken Callahan tells a story of a young man named Tom who was the quarterback and captain of his high school football team.  He was an all-state player and led his team to championship after championship.  He was a straight-A student and had scholarship offers to several excellent universities.  Tom went off to school, but soon, and inexplicably, he quit the football team.  Then, in the second semester, he dropped out of school altogether.  What could have happened to such a fine young talent?

Well, the truth was that even though everyone else knew he was a talented young man, his own mother would always say, “Tom, you could have done better.”  “Tom, it wasn’t quite good enough.”  “Tom, you should have done more.”  A lifetime of these nagging criticisms finally broke him down.  He lacked confidence in himself, and he couldn’t take it anymore.  Everyone knew Tom was a great success, but inside he felt like a failure.

And, of course, what do I do?  When I look at the kids’ report cards, I first look for the low grades and poor marks for work habits.  When I check chores, I look only for the spots that were missed.  I spend way too much effort correcting my children—or my wife.  But the truth is that we can re-learn that behavior.  We can choose to start seeing others the way God sees them, focusing on who we are at our best.  I can choose to make three positive comments every time I catch myself criticizing someone.  I can prepare myself ahead of time by thinking that I will first look for my son’s best work on his report card.  I will first look for what my daughter did really well on her chore.  Of course, there is always room for improvement.  We just don’t have to point that out all the time.

It might seem like a little silly thing, not even worth being included in a sermon.  But it isn’t little.  Too many of us hear—again and again—that we could have done better.  We begin to believe that we are defined by who we are at our worst.  But the Gospel truth is that God doesn’t see us that way.  God sees each one of us through the eyes of grace.  Your true identity is who you are at your best and who you can become.  Never forget that.

So yes, Saul and Jonathan were beloved and lovely.  They were not divided in life or death.  They were worthy of being remembered at their very best, gifted by God, loved by God.  And so are you.

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