God as you offer us in your Word, both caution and hope, ay we learn from the stories we read in scripture and find good news for our own lives.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS 1 Samuel 21:10-22:5, NCV
10 That day David ran away from Saul and went to Achish king of Gath. 11 But the servants of Achish said to him, “This is David, the king of the Israelites. He’s the man they dance and sing about, saying:
‘Saul has killed thousands of his enemies,
but David has killed tens of thousands.’”
12 David paid attention to these words and was very much afraid of Achish king of Gath. 13 So he pretended to be crazy in front of Achish and his servants. While he was with them, he acted like a madman and clawed on the doors of the gate and let spit run down his beard.
14 Achish said to his servants, “Look at the man! He’s crazy! Why do you bring him to me? 15 I have enough madmen. I don’t need you to bring him here to act like this in front of me! Don’t let him in my house!”
22 David left Gath and escaped to the cave of Adullam. When his brothers and other relatives heard that he was there, they went to see him. 2 Everyone who was in trouble, or who owed money, or who was unsatisfied gathered around David, and he became their leader. About four hundred men were with him.
3 From there David went to Mizpah in Moab and spoke to the king of Moab. He said, “Please let my father and mother come and stay with you until I learn what God is going to do for me.” 4 So he left them with the king of Moab, and they stayed with him as long as David was hiding in the stronghold.
5 But the prophet Gad said to David, “Don’t stay in the stronghold. Go to the land of Judah.” So David left and went to the forest of Hereth.
Matthew 14:22-33, NCV
22 Immediately Jesus told his followers to get into the boat and go ahead of him across the lake. He stayed there to send the people home. 23 After he had sent them away, he went by himself up into the hills to pray. It was late, and Jesus was there alone. 24 By this time, the boat was already far away from land. It was being hit by waves, because the wind was blowing against it.
25 Between three and six o’clock in the morning, Jesus came to them, walking on the water. 26 When his followers saw him walking on the water, they were afraid. They said, “It’s a ghost!” and cried out in fear.
27 But Jesus quickly spoke to them, “Have courage! It is I. Do not be afraid.”
28 Peter said, “Lord, if it is really you, then command me to come to you on the water.”
29 Jesus said, “Come.”
And Peter left the boat and walked on the water to Jesus. 30 But when Peter saw the wind and the waves, he became afraid and began to sink. He shouted, “Lord, save me!”
31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught Peter. Jesus said, “Your faith is small. Why did you doubt?”
32 After they got into the boat, the wind became calm. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped Jesus and said, “Truly you are the Son of God!”
SERMON Cave Dwellers
At first glance, it would seem that Peter was a failure. But as we have been emphasizing, failure is merely learning what not to do, and you move on from there.
Herman Melville took it a step further when he wrote, “He who has never failed somewhere, that man cannot be great. Failure is a test of greatness.” (quoted by John Ortberg in If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat, p. 135) Peter was indeed destined for greatness, certainly not an easy life, but one that took him much further than this fisherman might once have imagined.
When a toddler falls, it’s to be expected. That is why we call them toddlers; it describes their wobbly gait when they haven’t learned to walk steadily yet. Peter was a professional as a fisherman, but in terms of living in faith and water-walking he was still a toddler. We don’t scold toddlers when they fall; we help them up and encourage them to try again. Jesus immediately helped Peter back up and pointed out that his faith was still weak. Maybe it wasn’t so much a scolding as a reality check that Peter could handle as an adult learning a new way of life. Peter had a long way to go, and so do we. Ortberg claims, “Both the saving and the scolding are evidence of Jesus’ love for Peter.” (p. 136)
Ortberg goes on to suggest two potential reactions to a failed attempt. It can paralyze you or it can energize you. When something doesn’t go right do you give up or do you get more determined to try another way? Daniel Goleman reviewed research on top athletes and musicians with regard to how they managed failure. He notes a key factor in their “emotional traits – enthusiasm and persistence in the face of setbacks – above all else.” (quoted by Ortberg on p. 136)
Ortberg uses King David as an example of this. We heard a lesser known snippet of David’s story in our Old Testament reading today. But let’s review more of his story. I’m taking this from a chart in Ortberg’s study guide for If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat as well as from the original book.
- Beyond succeeding against the giant, Goliath, David was “brave, courageous, and successful…loved by many,” yet King Saul’s jealousy turned David into a wanted man on the run.
- This means David lost his job in the palace, his wife who was the princess, and his home.
- David’s life was repeatedly threatened. He moved from place to place without a real home. Living in the wilderness without resources of his own, he and his men were often hungry and thirsty.
Our Bible reading tells us David was afraid of Achish king of Gath. He should be. Goliath whom David killed as a youth was from Gath. Relationships were still strained between Gath and Judah. David’s only hope in going to Achish for help was that they now shared a mutual enemy in Saul, but just in case, David pretended to be a madman. That didn’t do the trick. No help was extended in Gath. All David could find for he and his men was a cave named Adullum. Others in dire straits began to gather around him there.
That cave can represent for us the times that we have nowhere to go, when hope is thin. Ortberg writes, “The cave is where you end up when your props, supports, and crutches get stripped away.” He goes on to say, “Perhaps you are in the cave because of foolish choices. Perhaps it is the result of circumstances you could not even control. Most likely it is a combination of the two.” (p. 138) The cave can be any kind of loss: health, job, loved one, home. The cave can be the diminishing of financial or human resources. The cave can be the devastation of a natural disaster or war. There are numerous reasons you might find yourself a cave dweller not in Adullum but in something that feels like failure or oppression, desperation or depression. We have all been cave dwellers in this sense at some point in our lives and perhaps even right now.
David is not the only Old Testament figure to spend time in a cave. It’s also part of Elijah’s story. For all that God brought Elijah through - famine, confronting King Ahab, overcoming the prophets of Baal – when Queen Jezebel chased Elijah, he was also a man on the run in the wilderness as David had been. God led Elijah to a cave on the mountain where God came to him not in the quake or the storm but in a still small voice that asked, “Why are you here?” What Ortberg wants us to see is that God was present in the cave both with David and with Elijah.
Ortberg makes an important claim with regard to cave dwelling, “The cave is where God does some of his best work in molding and shaping human lives. Sometimes, when all the props and crutches in your life get stripped away and you find you have only God, you discover that God is enough…you experience the liberation of realizing that it is okay to be inadequate and that God wants his power to flow through your weakness.” (p. 139) I am reminded of Paul writing, “’My grace is enough for you. When you are weak, my power is made perfect in you.’ So I am very happy to brag about my weaknesses. Then Christ’s power can live in me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
If I look at the times in the Bible when God allowed his people to do without, so that they could learn to rely once again upon God, I think God has continued to allow that in the Church. From time to time historically, portions of the Church have grown so wealthy or powerful or confident in themselves that God hit the reset button and let them live in a cave, metaphorically speaking. Just as being a Christian doesn’t mean special protections and privileges from the realities of life, neither does being a church mean things will always go well. Individually and corporately Christians are called to live not in our own strength and resources but to live in faith relying on, guided by, and living for God. That’s who we were created to be.
David’s life continued with ups and downs and many challenges after the cave. Sometimes they found help and sometimes not. David’s mentor, Samuel, and his best friend, Prince Jonathan both died while David was still a fugitive. Other than his loyal soldiers, these two men had been David’s only allies. At one point all of their families were captured. There are many bad news stories along the way. But we know the later chapters of David’s story. Long after the cave, David’s home was back in the palace, and David himself sat on the throne. The resilience we talked about last week; David had it, too!
Out of the darker days of David’s life come a genre of psalms that we tend to ignore, laments. The heading to Psalm 142 reads, “A maskil of David when he was in the cave. A prayer.” (NCV) The lament begins,
1 I cry out to the Lord;
I pray to the Lord for mercy.
2 I pour out my problems to him;
I tell him my troubles.
3 When I am afraid,
you, Lord, know the way out.
In the path where I walk,
a trap is hidden for me.
4 Look around me and see.
No one cares about me.
I have no place of safety;
no one cares if I live.
Ortberg declares that these laments which are basically complaints to God are the most frequent among the psalms. (p. 141) While I get a different impression of God’s tolerance for the everyday complaints of those in the wilderness with Moses, David’s laments are accepted and heard. Perhaps the difference is that those Hebrews in Exodus griped and grumbled without hope or faith, whereas David expresses his faith alongside his complaint. The next verses of Psalm 142 demonstrate this.
5 Lord, I cry out to you.
I say, “You are my protection.
You are all I want in this life.”
6 Listen to my cry,
because I am helpless.
Save me from those who are chasing me,
because they are too strong for me.
7 Free me from my prison,
and then I will praise your name.
Then good people will surround me,
because you have taken care of me.
We are free to express our honest doubts, fears, worries and concerns to God as well as our frustrations and complaints, but it’s not enough to leave it at that. David’s example, and I believe Peter’s as well, is to put our hope and our faith in God beyond the lament. That added expression of faith should also lead to action. Ortberg writes that “God never brings discouragement. Always, his guidance leads to motivation and life.” (p. 143) When we would be frozen in discouragement, Ortberg recommends an active expression of faith, to “take action toward change.” (p. 143)
What Ortberg writes from Psychologist David Burns on the cycle of lethargy rings true for me in my own life, in many things I have read, and in my observations of others.
“When I’m faced with a challenge and I do nothing, it leads to distorted thoughts – that I am helpless, hopeless, and beyond change. These in turn lead to destructive emotions – loss of energy and motivation, damaged self-esteem, feeling overwhelmed. The end result is self-defeating behavior – procrastination, avoidance, and escapism. These behaviors then reinforce negative thoughts and the whole cycle spirals downward.” (Ortberg, p. 144)
Everything I have learned from my coach and other readings on rewiring our brain relates to this, that negative thought patterns will continue unless we intentionally disrupt them. Moaning and groaning reinforces the negative. Replacing negative thoughts intentionally with repeated expressions of faith, counting our gratefuls or blessings helps reroute the brain’s tendency.
Action is another powerful disrupter of negativity. That action may be persistence, to not give up on a dream. It may be learning something new. It may be intentionally changing a behavior. It may be an act of charity or kindness. Take one step in a positive direction. Let that lead to the next step and the next and the next under God’s guidance.
When Peter sank, he asked for and accepted help. He got back in the boat with Jesus. He continued to follow Jesus and learn more from Jesus. He didn’t give up and go back home. He kept going and growing.
Perhaps you remember the movie “Chariots of Fire” based on the true stories of Harold Abrams and Eric Liddell. After Harold lost to Eric for the first time, he wanted to give up. The movie quotes him as saying, “I run to win. If I can’t win, I won’t run.” To which his girlfriend Cybil wisely responded. “If you don’t run, you can’t win.”
David didn’t give up. In the end neither did Elijah. Peter didn’t give up. Neither did Jesus. They all faced challenges that threatened to do them in, but in the end they all gave their lives wholeheartedly to God’s service. Neither David nor Elijah’s journey ended in a cave, but God did meet them there and gave them strength to continue. Peter’s journey didn’t end when he began to sink, but Jesus was right there with him, and gave him the motivation to keep growing. Jesus’ life didn’t end in the cave-like tomb. God was with Jesus even in death and raised him to new life and glory.
What looks like the end might just be the page to be turned before starting a new chapter.
We may not know exactly what the next chapter of our life will be. We don’t entirely know the next chapter for the church either. We do our best to discern where God is leading us and to prepare for the contingencies. Part of our preparation for the next chapter is to continually exercise our faith and trust in God. We practice water walking in faith with Jesus just as a toddler practices taking steps: first holding someone else’s fingers, then taking steps from one person to the next who is holding out their arms and giving words of encouragement, finally walking with more confidence but still in a direction toward what we trust. David and Peter learned the walk of faith one step at a time as long as they were willing to take those steps, and so will we. That is what the journey asks of us, to keep taking those steps with God.
Our current series for Jan. 12 - Feb. 23, 2020 is based on Rev. John Ortberg's book, If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get out of the Boat. This is a great book if you are stuck in a rut and wondering about the possibilities of a new adventure OR if you are facing some stormy challenges in your life and need to move forward. You'll find the gist of it here in these messages.