13 June 1999; Purity

1. Introduction

There are times when I look at the lectionary readings set for the day and despair! What on earth am supposed to be saying about these particular readings? They really do seem to be set within a frame of thought that is totally different from ours. The temptation, of course, is to ignore them and to preach on something else entirely, but that way lies the danger of ending up, in C S Lewis' words, on the treadmill of one's ten favourite lessons and fifteen favourite hymns!

So let us at least try to make some sort of sense of these readings.

2. David's Escape

To understand the reading from 1 Samuel, we need to look back a bit into what has gone before. It's set during the reign of King Saul, Israel's first king. David, who will be king after Saul, is a court favourite, playing music during the evenings and, seemingly, killing Philistines during the day! The thing is, David has been so successful in battle that they have made up chants about him: "Saul has slain his thousands and David his tens of thousands". He's married the king's daughter, Michal, after having refused the eldest daughter on the grounds that he was a nobody and shouldn't marry the king's daughter. He had to pay a bride-price for Michal, one hundred Philistine foreskins, which sounds disgusting to our ears, but our standards are different!

So David is a real success. And, as we know, Saul's days as king are numbered largely, it seems, because he has got above himself and been disobedient to God's direct instructions, as relayed through Samuel. And Saul has become what in our day I think we would consider to be mentally unstable, one minute prophesying and praising God, the next minute trying to kill David. And gradually he becomes more and more anti-David, until one day David's wife Michal warns him that it is not safe for him to stay around court any longer, and he must flee for his life.

David is, naturally, very upset by this, and he goes to take his leave of his friend Jonathan, who happens to be Saul's son. Jonathan is horrified; he hasn't really been aware of any of these undercurrents, and asks David whether he is absolutely sure that Saul is trying to kill him. David and he agree on a method of proving Saul's feelings for him - David will go and hide instead of attending a forthcoming feast, and Jonathan will tell Saul that he has gone to celebrate the feast with his family. If Saul accepts this, then there is no problem; if, however, he is furious it will mean that he does want to kill David. And, sure enough, Saul is furious, so Jonathan gets a message to David to flee. And thereupon our reading begins.

In those days, worship wasn't confined to the Jerusalem - the Temple, after all, wasn't to be built for another generation - and the main shrine was at Nob. Nobody quite knows where Nob was - the settlement has disappeared - but they think it may have been around Mount Scopus, north of the Mount of Olives, and not too far from Jerusalem. And it was there that there was a major shrine, under the control of a priest called Ahimelech.

David needs help; he must meet his men at a prearranged spot, but he has no food for them. And back then they used to offer 12 loaves of bread to God each week, and these loaves were replaced once a week. Only the priests were allowed to eat the stale bread, which was probably just as well, as it must have been horribly stale by the end of the second week. Anyway, that is all the food that Ahimelech has available, and he can only give them that if they have kept themselves holy.

Now, it was the custom back then for men who were going into battle to conserve their strength by not having sex, rather like footballers today. I don't think they understood the human body quite so well, though, and I think they thought that you could use yourself up if you weren't careful. Nowadays it's just a matter of not getting tired, but it's the same principle.

David himself was caught out by that principle some years later, you may recall, when he has got Bathsheba pregnant, and she tries to seduce her husband Uriel, and he won't because they are at war. So David has to send Uriel into the front line of battle to be killed, and gets into bad trouble for his pains. However, that's an aside.

This time, David and his men are all pure, and say so very firmly indeed. So they are given the holy bread, and David is allowed to take Goliath's sword, that he removed from him so long ago, as he has had to flee unarmed. And thus, armed and fed, they are able to claim sanctuary in the court of King Achish of Gath. But because Achish is afraid of David, he has to pretend to be mad. In fact, that turns out to be a bad idea, too, because Achish says he has quite enough madmen already at his court, thank you very much, so David has to flee again.

3. The Gospel Reading

Well, that's our Old Testament reading. The New Testament seems much more straightforward and, I think, rather more familiar. We all remember how Jesus was accused of casting out demons by the power of the king of demons, Beelzebub, and how his reaction was "That's nonsense, you can't divide power up that way!" And he goes on to point out the importance of filling up the space that a demon has left or the demon will just return with seven friends, and be delighted to find his former home so clean and empty. And the final comment that blessing doesn't depend on who you are, but on what you do, i.e. whether you listen to God's word and obey it or not.

The important thing, of course, is the comment about not remaining empty. You cannot, as Jesus points out, be neutral. If you are not with Jesus, you are against him - and, as he points out on another occasion, if you are not against him, you are with him. There's no such thing as neutrality in this life, no matter how much we might like to wish there were. So we are either full of the things of God, or full of the evil one. We may or may not believe in demons, or we may think that such things are manifestations of mental illness, but in either case, if one has received a healing from God, the important thing is to be filled with God, not remain empty, ere worse befall.

4. But What Does it Mean?

But what does all this mean? We are not footballers, to refrain from sex before the big match! And, thank you, we'll have no comments about ice-skating competitions; you can come and watch me and Robert skate whenever we have a competition, but I'll thank you not to speculate!

However, I do think it is about purity. But not in terms of not having sex, or whatever. I think it's more positive than that. It's about being filled with God's spirit, and being pure that way. If you read the story of David in the book of Samuel, as I did when I was preparing this sermon, you will see that the constant refrain is that the Lord was with David, and it showed. And if the Lord is with us, in that sense, we can't provide a home for evil spirits. The Lord was with David, so he could be given the holy bread and Goliath's sword, and make his escape safely from Saul. The Lord is with us, for God's holy Spirit has been poured out on all people. If we are filled with God's Spirit, then there is no room for evil spirits, or demons, or whatever.

For David's crowd, being pure was about outward things. You only have to glance at the book of Leviticus to see how easily a person could be made unclean; in fact, when David doesn't turn up the first night of the feast, Saul doesn't even ask where he is, assuming that he has become ritually unclean and thus unable to appear. It was that common! It's only when David doesn't turn up the second night that Saul begins to wonder where he is.

Jesus, however, turned all that upside-down. He said it wasn't what you ate, or even what you did, that made you unclean, but how you thought. He himself had little time for uncleanness - you see him touching lepers and dead people and women with haemorrhages and so on, all of which your normal Jewish person would have thought several times before doing. It was all too easy to become unclean inadvertently, never mind doing it on purpose. But for Jesus, this sort of thing doesn't matter. It is the purity of your heart that matters, your outlook. We, speaking after Pentecost, would say that it is whether you are filled with the Spirit that matters. Whether you are God's person, open to God's working in your life. It is God's Holy Spirit who makes us pure, not physical things.

5. Conclusion

Now, you know as well as I do that even though "it is for freedom Christ has set us free", as Paul wrote to the Galatians, it's not about licence. We know that the fruits of the Spirit is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control", contrasted to the "works of the flesh" as Paul calls them. But it's not about sticking religiously to a set of rules; it's about being a certain kind of person. What St Paul calls "Sanctification", and Wesley called "Christian perfection". It's not something we can achieve on our own, it's something that we gradually grow into as we go on with God, and become more and more completely God's person.

The thing is that anybody can keep the rules, even while inside they're being totally rebellious. And you've done that, no doubt, and I know I have! You do something - or more probably, don't do it - because that's what Christians should or shouldn't do. It is quite normal. But as we go on more and more with God, it should be that we do, or don't do, things because that's how we want to behave. Nothing to do with rules - we'd behave like that even if it was totally against the rules! We do what we do because we are God's people, and this is who we want to be.

Of course, this is going to take a lifetime, if not longer. Wesley thought it was attainable in this life, but he didn't think he'd attained it! And I know quite well I haven't, and I'm sure you'd tell me you haven't, either! But we should be growing steadily into that kind of person. I say "should" and realise, even as I say it, that that turns it into being yet another thing-we-must-do-because-that's-what-Christians-do! But I don't mean it like that. If we are not growing steadily into that kind of person, that probably means that we are not really serious about being Jesus' person. If we are committed to being Christians, committed to following Jesus, then we will be steadily growing into holiness. And that is true purity, not what we do or don't do outwardly! Amen.

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