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A Theater of Silence

I Samuel 28:3-25
David A. Davis
July 11, 2021
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I would like to invite you to find your seat, to take your place here in the theater about to be created by the reading of the biblical text from I Samuel. Think a ways back to a time you were in a theater, maybe the last time you saw a play here in Princeton at McCarter Theater. After a quick dinner in town and a rush to get to the theater, you find your seats minutes before the houselights dim and the curtain goes up. As you try to shift gears from “getting there to being there” you take a few deep breaths to try to clear the fog after a crazy busy day. Because you don’t even remember the name of the play, not to mention what it may be about, you leaf through the playbill looking for some notes, some snippets, something to help you prepare for what you are about to experience on stage.

When it comes to your upcoming experience of the reading of I Samuel 28, consider me something of your playbill providing some character notes. First, there is Saul. King Saul has long ago fallen out of favor with the Lord. Saul was first introduced to scriptures stage as the most handsome of men who stood head and shoulders above everyone else, both in size and beauty. He had been anointed ruler over Israel. He did have a rather inauspicious beginning to his reign. As the royal selection process came to an end, Saul was trying to hide over in the corner with a bunch of suitcases. Time and time again, as the story is told, Saul was not being obedient to the Lord’s command. Saul’s missteps had religious implications, military implications, and moral implications. One notable example of disobedience stands out. Notable not because of the magnitude of disobedience. But notable because it reflects the epitome of the conundrum of war, violence, and God’s perceived role in these ancient pages. According to I Samuel, Saul disobeyed the Lord in not completely destroying the Amalekites. Not only that, Saul’s people kept the best of the sheep and the cattle as the spoils of battle. Samuel doesn’t mince words with Saul. “You have rejected the word of the Lord, and the Lord has rejected you from being king over Israel.”

            Samuel. That brings us to the second note. Samuel was the faithful judge of Israel who was something of an overseer of the people’s desire to have a king. Saul, of course, was that king. Samuel was God’s chief communicator in the relationship with Saul. It was Samuel who continually reminded the king that Saul and God were not on such good terms. Just prior to the coming scene, Samuel dies. In the aftermath of Samuel’s death, things for Saul were just getting worse. Samuel makes yet one more appearance. This time, it is from the grave.

Last, and probably least, we will encounter the character known in tradition as the witch of Endor. She is referred to in various translations as a medium, or the woman with the spirit. The Hebrew term is translated “ghostwife”. In communicating with the dead, the medium practiced a form or ritual that was unacceptable according to the laws and ritual of the people of Israel; unacceptable before the God of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Rebekah, Jacob, Rachel, Leah. In fact, the practice of spirituality, or channeling, or seance-ing, or witchcraft….whatever it was, it had been outlawed by a decree from the king; King Saul himself. So the story drips with irony, as Saul, in a move of ultimate desperation, goes to see the forbidden witch of Endor.

It is a tragic play, really. King Saul, in all of his frailty, having collapsed in fear, was given the royal treatment by the woman of Endor. Far from his people, the chosen people of God, far from the trappings of royalty, far from his own family and his warrior sons, and most important, far from God. Yet, he was given a banquet prepared by a religious outcast who treated him like a king. A fatted calf was prepared like the one offered to the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of Luke. A banquet like those described in the parables of Jesus. In the wider narrative, clearly Saul is going away into the night to his own death in battle. The woman of Endor prepared a last supper for him. A bit of kindness and grace from the hands of one he himself condemned A last supper for a now insignificant, disobedient, fear-wrecked king. A meal with the voice of Samuel still hanging in the air in ghost of Christmas-past kind of way.

“Why have you disturbed me by bringing me up?… The Lord has done to you just as the Lord spoke by me; for the Lord has town the kingdom out of your hand….Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord….”  Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord. Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord. You did not obey. And no, there are no ethical, moral kudos tossed Saul’s way for not carrying out what Samuel himself calls “the fierce wrath” of God. The Shakespearian-like exclamation point is clear. “You did not obey”

I didn’t waste my time visiting the “rent a sermon”, “grab an illustration”, “here’s your three points” websites mentioned in the newspaper article this week. If I did, I am not sure there would be anything for I Samuel 28 and the witch of Endor anyway. But if there was, I am guessing that the material would offer a stirring indictment of alternative forms of spirituality. Some kind of take down of  the spiritual flea market of the day, and mediums, and palm readers, and witchcraft, and maybe even yoga. That would be the easier, low-hanging sermon fruit…perhaps. But the woman of Endor plays such a minor role in this unfolding drama. And, for that matter, she is the only bit of grace in the scene.

The more compelling aspect, the more intriguing maybe even faith-boggling part, the theological grist that you can’t just ignore is the ultimate divide between Saul and the God who made him king. That seemingly irreparably broken relationship between God and Saul played in the context of s sacred page full of battle, violence, death, sacrifice, and the challenging character of God. Old Testament dramas like this one resist simple truth, or the verse highlighted in your bible, or the catchy sermon title lifted from a website. They resist preachers like me trying to make you feel better about all the theological complexity. And here in the 28th chapter of I Samuel, the text resists me giving you an easy answer when it comes to the silence of God.

Earlier in the scene, as Saul was surrounded by the Philistines, he was (perhaps understandably) overcome with fear and his heart trembled greatly. “When Saul inquired of the Lord, the Lord did not answer him, not by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.” The voice of the Lord was intentionally silent. It seems to me that the preacher, the reader, the audience in the hearing and experiencing of this text, cannot really avoid this theater of the silence of God. Saul’s relationship with God had long since deteriorated to nothingness at best, animosity or wrath at worst. Yet, in the depth of a present crisis, Saul calls back. No answer. No word. Nothing from God. But the truth is, it is a hauntingly honest portrayal of human nature, of human history, of human life. Time and time again, when faced with the apocalyptic crises of life, or the broader despair of the world’s plight, or a collapsed high rise building that is now a graveyard, the people of God have had to ponder the apparent silence of God. Saul’s not the only one!

The biblical tradition’s own conclusion regarding Saul and his relationship with God is quite clear. Clear at least in I Chronicles 10:13. “So Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the Lord in that he did not keep the command of the Lord; he consulted a medium seeking guidance, and did not seek the guidance from the Lord.” Actually, Chronicler, according to the story, before Saul went in costume to the medium, he inquired of the Lord. But the Lord did not answer. And the words of Samuel still echo. “Because you did not obey the voice of the Lord”.  Because you did not. You did not. Your unfaithfulness. Poor old Saul.

Have you ever been to the theater and chuckled during the curtain call when the audience boos the villain? This morning it is not clear whether to boo poor old Saul or to just cry for him. The best theater, the best plays, are the ones where something of the play continues a bit in your mind, in your ears, in your imagination as you head out to the street to encounter the world once again. It’s not just the musical that gives you a take-away that keeps playing in your heart. The best theater keeps simmering, even for a moment.

Some preachers, some traditions, and some listeners prefer easy answers when it comes to questions about God, the life of faith, hard parts of scripture, and a relationship with God that sometimes runs the risk crumbling a bit. I, for one, am willing to let the questions simmer a bit. This drama that is life, and God, and God’s call to faithfulness. Let the voice of Samuel continue to echo a bit as you turn to head out to the street and face the world this morning. Because you did not. You did not. Your unfaithfulness. The apocalyptic turmoil of the world may bring questions about the silence of God. But it also, the plight of the world and your place in it ought to stir your desire for faithfulness and obedience. Every step along the way out there ought to reflect something of your relationship to God.

As you allow the drama to simmer, to continue a bit in your mind, in your ears, in your sacred imagination, in your life, in your faith as you head to the street, before you get to far, the echo of another voice can be heard. Another echo in this drama about life and faithfulness and God. “While we were still sinners died for us….God proves God’s love for us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8) While we still did not. While we were yet unfaithful…because of our unfaithfulness. Unfaithfulness. And Christ died for us. Christ still for us.