READ : 1 Samuel 20:14
If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord, that I may not die.
1 Samuel 20:14 rsv
Sometimes we’re uncertain about just who we are. The words of a poem by Dietrich Bonhoeffer become ours: “Who am I, Lord?” The poem says something like this: “Am I what my friends see, or what I feel myself to be inside? Am I calm, courageous, walking the earth with a regal tread, speaking as one born to command, or am I sick at heart, restless with yearning, trembling helplessly before what’s ahead? Am I today the one and tomorrow the other? Am I neither completely, but somehow both? Who am I?” There’s an enormous comfort to say, as that martyr for Christ once said, “Whoever I am, thou knowest, Lord, I am thine.”
I find that we don’t always know what we most want, either. What, for example, does a minister, a Christian worker, want? Sometimes a call to a different church, an opportunity to fill a new post, a threshold such as retirement can raise that question acutely. All kinds of thirsts and yearnings clamor for attention and compete for preeminence. What do I want most: that larger sphere of usefulness or the recognition that may go with it? Am I longing for a chance to serve more effectively or to live more comfortably? Do I aspire to be a man of God, a woman of God, or am I content if I could only appear to be so to those around me whom I consider important? What am I really after in my life?
Every now and then a moment of clarity comes. In something we do or some experience we pass through, deep calls to deep. Everything within us somehow feels at home with this task, content with this concern. Our whole being seems to resonate with conviction about it. “This,” we say “is what really matters to me.”
You know, I didn’t use to think I was old until I went to speak some time ago at a church in the southwest. I was to address a banquet on the fascinating theme: “How to Stay in Love, Though Married.” When I arrived, I read an announcement of the event in the church bulletin. It said, “Come hear this older man talk about marriage.” Not old, mind you, but older! I felt I was some kind of oddity. A man this age – still married? Still in love? Come, behold the eighth wonder of the world!
Well, anyway, even at my age, you can have moments of fresh awareness about what you want. Mine came some time ago when I visited a college campus and spent time there with old friends, dear friends. I had several opportunities to preach and I found joy in doing that. The hours with friends, too, were warm and bright: memories that made us laugh, shared concerns about our children, prayers for God’s kingdom, embraces, tears. As I flew back home on the plane, it all seemed so clear. What I really want is to speak the word of the Lord and to be true in my relationships, a loyal friend.
That’s how this message came to be. Since that trip, I’ve been thinking a good deal about fidelity, about covenant faithfulness. I’ve noticed how the Lord speaks about that, almost wistfully, in one of the Proverbs: “Many a man proclaims his own loyalty, but a faithful man, who can find?” (Prov. 20:6). Faithful people, apparently, are sometimes hard to come by. This quality, this style of life, God commends as precious, to be sought-for, held fast, internalized. Listen: “Let not loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them about your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart” (Prov. 3:3).
But the passage of Scripture which has affected me most about this, which has most attracted me, is this word of Jonathan to his friend David: “Show me the loyal love of the Lord” (1 Sam. 20:14).
A REMARKABLE FRIENDSHIP
Do you remember the remarkable friendship of these two men? Jonathan, son of King Saul, heir to Israel’s throne, befriends David, his rival for the kingship. He loves him, Scripture says, “as his own soul” (1 Sam. 18:1). He makes with him a covenant of friendship and seals it by giving David his armor, his sword, his bow, even his princely robe. Jonathan is loyal to David, even when it means the sacrifice of his own ambitions and the loss of his father’s approval. He warns David of danger, intercedes for him with the king, prays for him to God, encourages him when he’s down, even at the risk of his life. He, the heir apparent, only wants to be second in command to David, his friend.
That bond of remarkable friendship, that pledge of loyalty, was renewed on several occasions. Both men from time to time appealed to it, reminded each other of it. David could say, “Deal kindly with your servant, for you have brought your servant into a sacred covenant with you” (1 Sam. 20:8). And Jonathan asks, “If I am still alive, show me the loyal love of the Lord, that I may not die; and do not cut off your loyalty from my house forever” (1 Sam. 20:14-15).
David remembered that word, that promise, even after Jonathan’s death. When the dust of war had settled, he sought far and wide for anyone left of Jonathan’s family, “that I may show him kindness for Jonathan’s sake” (2 Sam. 9:1). Mephibosheth, Jonathan’s crippled son, was to have his father’s land and eat at David’s table always, all because of a sacred covenant of friendship.
That’s moving, isn’t it? Do you have a friend anything like that? Have you been a friend like that? Or perhaps, most importantly, do you want to be? Do you aim to be such a friend?
Most of us don’t make formal pacts with our friends, do we? You probably never gave your buddy your athletic equipment or your new sweater to seal the bond between you. But every friendship is still a kind of covenant. Something passes between us. We’ve sensed a kinship, shared a vision, rejoiced in each other’s companionship, or perhaps stood shoulder to shoulder in a common task. Nothing was ever ratified officially, in so many words, but we know who those persons are whom we consider friends and who would call us so. We count on them for companionship, support, to be there when we need them. We say to them, and they to us, “Show me the loyal love of the Lord.”
I’ve had some friends like that. One was not a Jonathan, but a Jack. In my first pastorate, he had a way of coming to see me when I was down, pointing out the ways in which he could see God working in our midst, encouraging my heart. I had a friend, Steve, who came to pray with me at 6:00 in the mornings, who kept on interceding for me and my family through his sleepless nights amid great pain. Men like that make you see that it’s possible to be a faithful friend. More, they make you want to be one.
COVENANT IN MARRIAGE
Then there’s marriage. That is a formal covenant, isn’t it? We make our vows. We often exchange rings. What is it to be faithful as a spouse? It’s first of all faithfulness to a vow, forsaking all others, to cleave to this one. We say, “You’ll be the one to whom I uniquely give myself. There won’t be another man, there won’t be another woman, as far as I’m concerned.” But faithfulness is more than that, more than keeping ourselves from adulterous relationships. Covenant faithfulness is a positive commitment to a person, to do her good, to do him good, all the days of our lives. It’s a pledge to prize another person’s happiness, security and fulfillment, at least as much as our own. My mom and dad showed me that. The only arguments I can remember them having were disputes in which each was trying to defend the other’s interests.
Marriage means being faithful also to a relationship. It’s not just a promise that there will be no one else and that we’ll do what we can for each other, but a pledge that what’s at the heart of the marriage, an intimate relationship between two human beings, is something we’ll keep working at, keep enriching and deepening as long as God gives us life together. It means a willingness to talk things out together far into the night, a stubborn refusal to let anything create distance, a commitment to make the love between us grow.
That’s a large order. Commitment to a real friendship, and especially to a marriage, is a great adventure, and also a considerable risk. The bond makes possible all kinds of new joys and new sorrows. The one with whom we covenant has a special power now, either to bless or wound us. Both spouses take on tremendous responsibility for each other’s lives and happiness.
Maybe that’s why we sometimes shrink back from commitment. It seems like too much. Maybe we’ve been badly hurt before and don’t feel we can take the risk of opening ourselves again. Or maybe we feel that we don’t have what it takes to follow through. Our former relationships and experiences haven’t given us the resources for long-term faithfulness, we fear. We think we’ll fail.
GOD’S COVENANT FRIENDSHIP
Then we need to remember what lies at the foundation of it all: the loyal love of the Lord. Covenant is His idea. The greatest of covenants is that of the Lord with His own. He is the true Friend of whom Jonathan and David give us beautiful glimpses. He’s the Husband, the Bridegroom of His people. We catch a hint of His faithfulness in a Hosea or in St. Augustine’s mother Monica, or maybe in my mom and dad, or yours.
Jesus gave His friends something to seal the covenant, didn’t He: broken bread and poured-out wine. He made a promise to them of loyal love and said He would always keep it. He would be committed to them, to do them good, whatever it cost Him. Even when they failed Him, grieved Him, forsook Him, He’d be there forgiving, restoring, giving them new hearts. His was a new covenant for people who fail. He was committed to His relationship with them, to treasure it, make it grow, and through it to bless the families of the earth. And when there was no other way to do all that, He gave Himself up to die. That’s the loyal love of the Lord. “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
Dr. Lewis Smedes, professor at Fuller Seminary, in talking about divorce, says that the final question is: What kind of persons are we? He points to a conflict within us all, two voices, two motifs, two angels, as it were, struggling for supremacy. On the one hand, there’s the self-maximizer in us: “I want to find personal fulfillment, to make the most of my life. I insist on my right to reach my potential and realize happiness.” And then there’s the covenant-keeper in us that wants to accept our role in life as bearers of a trust, as those called to be faithful.
How much there is in our culture today that panders to the craving in us to gratify self, to save our own lives, to look out for Number One! That, many would have us believe, is the good life. You’re a fool, in their eyes, if you don’t go for it. But who speaks for the covenant-keepers?
Here’s one. Gabriel Marcel, a French philosopher, has written a good deal about fidelity. For him, man is essentially a being who pledges himself and exhibits his unique glory and dignity in faithfulness to promises. I believe that. That’s how we show ourselves genuinely human. Because that’s how we show our family likeness to the faithful God who always keeps covenant. That’s how we bear witness here in this world to the loyal love of the Lord.
When Helen and I got married some 43 years ago, we had inscribed inside our wedding rings: Ephesians 1:12, “that we should be to the praise of his glory.” And how could that possibly be – except in keeping our pledges?
Jesus speaks for the covenant-keepers too. He’s for them. And He cares about the self-maximizers too. He wants them to know that they’ve got things in the wrong order and they’re looking in the wrong place. That hard, costly, sometimes long and painful road of covenant-keeping turns out to be the way to fullness of life. “For whoever would save his life will lose it,” Jesus said, “and whoever will lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:35). And at the end of the road, there’s that word more cheering, more gratifying and wonderful than all others: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
All that your friends could ask of you, all that your spouse could cry out for, what a confused, heartsick generation mutely appeals to you for, what the Lord Himself wants of you above all, can be said just like that: “Show me, show me, the loyal love of the Lord.”
I don’t know about you, but I want to say today to the Father who delights to give His children good gifts: “O God, teach me the way of fidelity. Let me be a loyal friend, a covenant-keeper, a servant of the Lord who is faithful unto death. Lord, show me, Lord, give me, Your loyal love. Amen.”