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A Leadership Casualty
December 8, 1974

St. Paul's United Methodist Church

 We Americans living in 1974 know only too well the meaning of leadership casualty. We have seen a president fall, a vice president fall, five powerful white house officials in jail, and now a respected congressman loses his balance, engages in bizarre behavior and is hospitalized. Well, let's face it, it is not easy being a leader. It’s not easy to bear the responsibilities with the accompanying pressures and tensions. In fact, it's not easy to live and it never has been.

Our window this morning, number 10, depicts a man who had a very rough time handling his life. Saul was a leader. Saul was Israel's first king. Saul started in glory. The Lord said to the prophet Samuel, “Here is the man who will rule my people.” Here is the man. When Samuel anointed Saul as king, he spoke the words which are inscribed on our window, “Then the Spirit of the Lord will come mightily upon you.” And the Lord did bless Saul. Saul was a popular king. Saul was very capable. Saul was effective, as were the heroes of our day who fell.

But Saul couldn't make it. He couldn't handle the pressure. He couldn't handle the tension. The story of King Saul is a tragedy. Saul was a leadership casualty. Saul lived at the end of the confederate period. Joshua organized the tribes of Israel into a loose confederacy with a series of judges to govern them. But as the nation grew and as their enemies grew stronger, especially the Philistines who lived in the coastal region, it soon became apparent that they needed a stronger government. They needed focus, central leadership. And so many people began clamoring for a king. They said, “Let's unite our tribes into a kingdom. Let's have a king.” Samuel the prophet was never happy about this decision, but he accepted it. He was instrumental in deciding who that King would be. He anointed Saul as King. Samuel was not happy but he went along with the decision and saw it was a good thing. Saul was a good king; and that's the point. Saul was capable, he was effective. He led many successful military battles. He held the enemies off. He ignited the nation. He brought harmony to the tribes.

One of his accomplishments was to break the Philistine monopoly on iron ore smelting. This was at the beginning of the Iron Age. Because of Saul's success, he paved the way for the economic glory and success of David and Solomon who followed him because they used iron. Saul was an effective King but he had difficulties inside himself. He felt alienated. Saul lived in a transition period, a time between the collapse of the old tribal confederacy on one hand, and the birth of the new monarchy on the other. He lived in between and times of transition are always characterized by insecurity, uncertainty, chaos, tensions, crises, and these he could not handle. He first felt alienated from the past, from the Confederacy, from the old traditions. He had a break with Samuel, he disagreed with Samuel the prophet. Samuel felt that he had brought the word of the Lord to Saul. At the same time Saul was a little afraid of Samuel. He was afraid of his influence over the people. He was afraid of Samuel’s power. For him Samuel represented God. Samuel represented the traditions of the past. And when Samuel lost confidence in Saul, when Samuel felt that someone else should be king, Saul went into a deep depression. At their last meeting together, Samuel criticized Saul. Samuel said to him, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?” Saul had doubts about himself. Saul had doubts about his ability. Saul had a low opinion of himself. They went on and argued a little bit and then Samuel said to Saul, “The Lord is sorry that he ever made you king and the Lord is going to select someone else.” Saul cried out and as Samuel turned to walk away, Saul reached out in desperation, grabbed Samuel’s robe and ripped it. It tore. Samuel turned and said, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you, and has given it to a neighbor of yours who is better than you.” Like a knife, those words must have pierced Saul’s heart—hard words for anyone to hear, and especially hard words for a man who had a low opinion of himself and his ability.

Saul soon came to know who that neighbor was who was better than he, and how Saul hated him. Saul felt alienated from his past, personified in Samuel, and now Saul was  alienated from the future, from the new, personified in David. In the window, the artist does something very subtle. The window pictures Samuel anointing Saul as King and in the background of the window is a young man walking away with his back turned to Saul, subtlety symbolizing the alienation between Saul and David.

David was a dashing, handsome young man, charismatic, a first class military hero, an able administrator, a person who elicited strong emotions from people, usually love and admiration. One day when David returned with his army from a very successful battle, and the town went out to greet them, Saul watched and heard the young girls sing, “Saul has slain his thousands and David his ten thousands.” Saul could not handle that. He couldn't take that. He was too jealous. He was too threatened. From then on, his behavior became more and more childish. He threw temper tantrums on two different occasions. Once he picked up a spear, threw it at David and just missed him by inches. On another occasion, he would have killed David had not a strong friendship developed between Jonathan, Saul's son, and David. Jonathan warned David what his father was going to do and David escaped. David became a fugitive and he had no choice but to gather an army around himself to protect him. He became a recluse until he became king.

What do you do when you're when your job, your security, your future, maybe even your home is threatened, is jeopardized by some young bright star, someone who maybe has some talents you don't have, someone who's popular, someone to whom the boss looks increasingly to and you feel yourself being shoved aside. What do you do when somebody talented comes along? What do you do when a charming, talented, winsome Mark Wharff comes on the scene and you're the minister? What do you do with these bright young shots? Do you get jealous? Threatened, act childish, throw spears at them? Or are you able to reach out and accept them, unite and make a team? Why compete with someone who has ability? Why compete with someone who’s maybe threatening you? Why compete? With confidence, trust, and respect, compensate for your weaknesses by uniting with someone who has them as strengths.

What would the history of Israel have been if Saul had been capable of teaming up with David, had been capable of encouraging and utilizing David's strength in the building of the nation? But Saul could not do it. Saul spent more time agonizing over David than he agonized over the Philistines. He spent more time fighting with David and plotting against David than he did against their common enemies. And the nation suffered. Saul could not handle his inferiority feelings, his feelings of doubt. Saul felt his whole life slipping out of his control. And he couldn't take it. He couldn't handle it. His end came, his final collapse came at the Battle of Mount Gilboa with the Philistines. Israel was defeated that day. Saul witnessed, watched three of his sons slaughtered, killed, including Jonathan. He himself was wounded. He was not strong enough to bear the humiliation of defeat and capture so he begged his armor bearer to take his sword and thrust it through him. The armor bearer refused, he wouldn't touch it. And so King Saul took his sword, set it on the ground, and fell on it. The great King Saul committed suicide—a leadership casualty, a tragic figure in our history.

Saul was unable to understand and to accept the uncertainty of living in a time like Advent. Advent is the time of preparation for and anticipation of the new order. Advent is an interim period, a period between the collapse of something on one hand and the birth of something new on the other. It is a time of uncertainty, risks and tensions. We are living in Advent. We are always living in Advent. All life is an Advent where things are constantly changing. The new is constantly coming. “Behold, the new has come. The kingdom of God is at hand.” He will come like a refiner’s fire to purge, to clean.

Our nation is living in a time of Advent. All around we see our traditions, our customs dying, changing. We see upheaval on every hand, and it's not yet apparent what the new is going to be in our country. It's not apparent and we're not sure whether it's going to be better or worse than what we've had. So we live in tension, unrest,  insecurity and uncertainty, but all life is an adventure. The promise of Christmas is that the new is coming. The new is always coming. But we're not always sure that we want to welcome the new, but it’s coming. Christ is coming. God is working out his will.

May you come to realize as King Saul did not, that in Advent Christ is both coming and is already here. Saul could not seem to sense that God was already with him, that God had called him to be king, that God had seen good in his life. God had a higher opinion of Saul than Saul had. The Lord usually has a higher opinion of us than we do of ourselves. The Lord had a high opinion of Saul. He saw a good life which Saul couldn't accept.

May the words of Jesus, “Lo I'm with you always, even to the close of the age,” characterize Advent for us. Trust in the Lord. While we wait with a little fear, insecurity and uncertainty as to what new is coming into our lives, what tomorrow is going to bring us, remember, Christ waits with you.

© 1974 Douglas I. Norris