Sermon on 1 Samuel 25 delivered by Helen Paynter at Westbury on Trym Baptist Church, 10th November 2019. You can listen to it here.

The 9th November, 1938, was the night of broken glass for the Jews of Germany. All Jewish shops had their windows broken and their stock looted. More than 1000 synagogues were set on fire while fire crews stood by to protect the Aryan properties they adjoined. Feeding stations which had been set up by the Jews for feeding their destitute people were destroyed. The following day, 35,000 Jews were rounded up and taken to concentration camps. Many more were murdered there and then.

Kristallnacht. It was a watershed moment in the growing anti-Semitic activity of the Third Reich.

The Quakers of America knew that they could not stand by in indifference or fear. Having tried, and failed, to obtain permission through the German ambassador to take relief to the Jews of Germany, they decided on a bold action. Three men – Rufus Jones, Robert Yarnell and George Walton – set sail on the Queen Mary to go in person: a delegation from the Quakers of America to do whatever they could to help the Jews of Berlin.

The night before they sailed, in their farewell Meeting, Rufus Jones said these words.

There must be no illusions in our mind about this venture of ours. The difficulties of space, of distance, of stubborn ocean stretches we can probably overcome. Mountains can be tunnelled; they can even be removed. Matter is no doubt stubborn, but nothing in the universe is so utterly unconquerable, as a mind possessed by a set of ideas that have become entrenched and sacred. Our struggle is not with flesh and blood, but with an intangible set of intrenched ideas, what we now call ‘ideologies.’ We can almost certainly accomplish some practical things which need personal attention. Whether we can influence minds or soften hearts or make spiritual forces seem real that remains to be seen. We shall do our best and wisest and we shall go in the strength of God.

When they arrived, they met with Jewish leaders in Berlin and set up a plan for a speedy and extensive evacuation of the remaining German Jews. But permission would be required for such an action. After several weeks of negotiations and rebuffed approaches, they finally secured an invitation to Gestapo headquarters.

It was a large, grim building, and as they heard the great iron doors slam behind them, they were given tickets – ominously, not tickets to get in, but tickets to get out. In what must have been a terrifying and disorientating journey, they were led through seven corridors and climbed five flights of stairs. Finally, they met with two hard-faced Gestapo officers, while Reinhard Heidrich – one of the darkest characters in the whole Nazi regime and a chief architect of the holocaust – was in the room next door.

After reading their prepared statement, the Friends were left alone for a while. They bowed their heads and prayed silently – the only Quaker meeting ever held in Gestapo headquarters.

What happened next I will tell you in Rufus Jones’ own words.

The two men returned at the announced time and the leader said: “Everything you have asked for is granted. I shall telegraph tonight to every police station in Germany that the Quakers are given full permission to investigate the sufferings of Jews and to bring such relief as they see necessary.” It is unlikely that the message was ever actually sent. But in all other respects the promise made to us was kept, and the door was opened for the extensive relief which followed our visit, including the emigration of many Jews.

Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, for they will be called ‘children of God’.

When two elephants fight, goes the African proverb, the grass is trampled.

In the story we read this morning [1 Samuel 25] Abigail finds herself caught between two powerful men who are in conflict.

Powerful man number one – David. David feels he has a grievance and a just cause for vengeance. He burns with self-righteous fury. Such a person is very dangerous – especially if he is accompanied by 600 armed men.

Powerful man number two – Nabal. Nabal is indignant at what he sees as an unreasonable request from David. He is hot-headed, a drunkard, and very wealthy. Such a person is very dangerous.

This is a powder-keg. This is a highly dangerous situation for Nabal’s wife, Abigail, and for many others. In a later instance in David’s life, for example, conflict between him and Absalom led to the death of tens of thousands of people [2 Sam 18:6-8].

Abigail is caught between two powerful men who are determined to destroy one another. The elephants are squaring up to fight. And the grass will be trampled.

Who can speak into this situation? Who can bring about a climb-down? Maybe Samuel could have. Samuel did not lack for boldness, and he had David’s ear. Maybe Samuel could have de-escalated this incipient conflict. But the very first verse of this chapter has shown us that this is impossible. Samuel is dead. Samuel, who has been God’s mouthpiece for decades, will now speak no more. Who will now be the voice of the Lord in David’s ear? Where will guidance and correction be found now?

Who could bring peace to a situation like this?

Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, for they will be called ‘children of God’.

This story reads almost like a dramatization of part of the book of Proverbs. Proverbs has several characters that we meet time and time again. One of them is the Fool.

The Fool, in Proverbs, is someone who is morally culpable. He is high-handed in his sin and will not listen to the voice of wisdom. He does not follow the way of the Lord. Instead, his ways lead to destruction and death. He is self-destructive and intemperate. His words and his actions will lead him to ruin.

Nabal’s name means ‘Fool’.

In contrast to the Fool, is the wise man of Proverbs. The wise man generally walks in the ways of the Lord – but when he departs from them he is willing to be corrected. He will listen to the voice of wisdom. In fact, he will recognise it as the voice of God.

David said to Abigail, ‘Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has sent you to meet me today! Blessed be your discernment. [1 Sam 25:33]

So reading this story in 1 Samuel, it is as if these two characters have stepped off the page of Proverbs and come to life before us:

Fools think their own way is right,
but the wise listen to advice.
Fools show their anger at once,
but the prudent ignore an insult [Prov 12:15-16]

But there is another important character in Proverbs – the one who brings God’s word of guidance and instruction, the one who holds out the way of life. Her name is lady Wisdom.

Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals,
she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
“You that are simple, turn in here!”
To those without sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.” [Prov 9:1-6]

And now, my children, listen to me:
happy are those who keep my ways.
Hear instruction and be wise,
and do not neglect it.
Happy is the one who listens to me,
watching daily at my gates,
waiting beside my doors.
For whoever finds me finds life
and obtains favor from the Lord;
but those who miss me injure themselves;
all who hate me love death.” [Prov 8:32–36]

And so, as these powerful men square up for battle, with the voice of the Lord silent because Samuel is dead, Abigail steps into the role of Lady Wisdom.

Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, for they will be called ‘children of God’.

Abigail’s journey to David must have felt quite as perilous as the journey into the heart of the Gestapo did for those three Quakers. She has moved beyond the protection of her husband – who is, in any case, unlikely to be of much help to her – and is travelling directly towards his sworn enemy.

And that sworn enemy, as we the readers have been told, has strapped on his sword and is accompanied by 400 similarly armed men. This is no small military outfit. This is not a group of people that a woman, accompanied by just a few youths, would want to meet. In the logic of the day, revenge upon a man can easily be enacted upon his wife.

But peacemaking is a risky endeavour. It can entail great personal cost.

When elephants are squaring up to fight, those who come between them to broker peace may be trampled.

So Abigail goes out, meek and riding on a donkey, to bring the word of God; she sets her face to deadly peril to do the costly work of reconciliation; she climbs a hill to broker peace.

Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, for they will be called ‘children of God’.

And, against all expectation, David meets her with kindness and respect. For – at this point in his life, at least – he is acting as the wise man of Proverbs. He is the one who will listen to the voice of Lady Wisdom.

And Lady Wisdom, when she speaks in the personification of Abigail, has the longest speech of any female character in the whole Old Testament. We will close by hearing her words again. Hear how she averts evil. Hear how she appeals to David’s better nature. Hear how she speaks of the blessings of a clear conscience. Hear her appeal for peace. Hear how she is the voice of God to the one who will hear it.

 “Now then, my lord, as the Lord lives, and as you yourself live, since the Lord has restrained you from bloodguilt and from taking vengeance with your own hand, now let your enemies and those who seek to do evil to my lord be like Nabal. And now let this present that your servant has brought to my lord be given to the young men who follow my lord. Please forgive the trespass of your servant; for the Lord will certainly make my lord a sure house, because my lord is fighting the battles of the Lord; and evil shall not be found in you so long as you live. If anyone should rise up to pursue you and to seek your life, the life of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of the living under the care of the Lord your God; but the lives of your enemies he shall sling out as from the hollow of a sling. When the Lord has done to my lord according to all the good that he has spoken concerning you, and has appointed you prince over Israel, my lord shall have no cause of grief, or pangs of conscience, for having shed blood without cause or for having saved himself. And when the Lord has dealt well with my lord, then remember your servant.”

Blessed are the peacemakers, said Jesus, for they will be called ‘children of God’.

A sermon for Remembrance Day
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