Monday, August 3, 2009

God-Impacted Life: Fruitfulness

Scripture Readings: 1 Samuel 18:1-30 (Eugene Peterson’s “The Message”); John 15:9-17

Scripture tells us this about David: “In everything he did he had great success, because the Lord was with him.” (1 Samuel 18:14) “Everything David did turned out well. Yes, God was with him.” (Peterson)

Sometimes I think I would like to be like that, wouldn’t you?

Except that, in David’s case, at the very time when things were supposedly going so well, someone was trying to kill him. His boss was trying to kill him. His king was trying to kill him. His father-in-law was trying to kill him. It’s true that these were all the same person (Saul); but that just made it all the more likely to happen. And the very reason David was about to lose everything and nearly be destroyed was this: that he did all the right things; and everything he did, he did well.

David could do all kinds of things, and do them well. He was a good shepherd. He was a good soldier and warrior. He was good looking. He had a fine voice. He could play and sing well, and he could compose his own songs, and perform them. He had a winning personality. When he was the leader, other people followed, and David led from the front. He had a lot going for him.

I don’t know exactly what to call it, when a person is successful at everything that he or she does.

I have known people like that. My cousin Don is a lot like that (though he swears that he has to work hard and systematically to achieve some of the things he wants to do).

I had a friend in seminary named Les who was like that. But Les didn’t have to work at things the way other people did. He was athletic. And he was handsome. He had been a high school band teacher for a few years, and so he played several instruments. He had a great singing voice. He didn’t seem to have to study like the rest of us in order to get good grades. He seemed to be able to preach at the drop of a hat. Some of the other students hated him because of this.

I am sorry to say that I didn’t keep in touch with Les, but (during those years) he was a very good friend. He and a couple other guys and I did a lot of things together and we had a lot of fun. And all those good times had nothing to do with all Les’ skills, or talents, or with anything you could see. Les, for all his good fortune, also knew how to be a good friend; and he took the effort to do it well.

I think that the art of friendship is a trait that David had. His readiness to be a friend is the fact underlying what the Bible calls his success.

Deeper than that; David’s experience of God as his friend gave him the freedom to be a friend to others. This was David’s greatest success because God has a different standard of success than we do, and this strength was God’s gift to him.

Jesus talks about bearing fruit: fruit that will last. (John 15:16) Fruit means more than productivity and results. It means more than what the world teaches us about success. The fruit Jesus talks about is the fruit of friendship.

Jesus says, “Remain in me,” (NIV) or, “abide in me” (RSV). “Remain in my love.” “Abide in my love.” (John 15:4&9)

Remain and abide are words of intimacy; words of friendship. The fruit that Jesus looks for is a life within us that works out from us. This fruit brings Christ into the world, so that his life can be seen in us; so that others can see that we are his disciples because our actions resemble his. (15:8)

David had the freedom to face the toughest things before him because he had experienced the Lord’s friendship. When David was just a kid, in his first meeting with King Saul, when he was about to go out and kill the Philistine giant Goliath with a stone from his slingshot, David was able to say, “The Lord who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.” (1 Samuel 17:37) David was able to say this, and act on it, because he knew what it meant to remain and abide in God’s love.

Saul’s son Jonathan felt drawn to David just from listening to David talk to his father, because he heard the freedom of David’s friendship with God. And Jonathan became David’s best friend.

King Saul’s daughter Michal fell in love with David because the Lord was with him. He had the Lord’s friendship empowering him, living inside him. But we should not think, from this, that there is a magical connection between the Lord being with you and you becoming attractive to the opposite sex.

We should stop right here, and realize what this means, and realize what is going on in David’s life and Michal’s family. Saul had already tried to kill David by pinning him to the wall with a spear. Did Michal feel sorry for David, and so love him? Did Michal feel rebellious toward her father, and express her rebellion by loving the man her father feared most?

We have to realize that Saul, in his prime, had been a popular man; in fact, a lovable man. I think that we can learn about what attracted the sister, to David, by looking at her brother: look at Jonathan. Jonathan never gave up on his father. He never left his father; because Saul was a great, great man; even in his decline.

David himself never lost his love for the king who tried, over and over again, to destroy him and kill him. This was a part of David’s deep friendship with Jonathan, and a part of what drew Michal’s heart.

Jesus defined friendship in a radical way, yet it is a definition that is rooted in the Old Testament. Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this; that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

When the Old Testament law says, “You shall love your neighbor as your self,” (Leviticus 19:18) it means that this love may come down to your very life. It was hard for David to leave the King he loved, even though the cost of staying was at the repeated risk of his own life.

Friends don’t like to impose on their friends, but friends will gladly do great and difficult things for their friends. David and his friends were like this with each other.

But David never had the chance to do great and difficult things for Jonathan, and Jonathan never benefited from his friendship with David in any tangible way, except in the intangible riches of simply having a friend. In fact, his own father tried to kill him once for being David’s friend. Jonathan saved David’s life, more than once, and died with his father in battle. And so he paved the way for David to become king in his place.

No, David was the only one to benefit from Jonathan’s friendship and Michal’s love. Part of the art of friendship is the graciousness of accepting help when it is offered. This is the hardest part of the art of friendship.

Since David would never have survived without his friends’ help, this is one of the rules of a successful, fruitful life; to let others help you when need it.
This is not the success of being productive. This is the success of survival as a sheer, unmerited gift.

A lot of experts advise against being locked in what they call a survival mode. But survival can be a good thing, if you are able to thrive again when the door to freedom opens, or you learn to pick the lock.

You see, even when David lost everything at the hands of Saul he was still a success, because he had the freedom of God’s friendship; which is everything, and has nothing to do with having anything else. And David was a success because he had human friends.

Saul and David are a perfect lesson of God’s version of success; which is not productivity, or results, but fruitfulness. Saul had everything. He had the kingship. And he was a failure; but not because he was unproductive. In fact Saul was a successful king, a productive king, in many ways. He lost a big battle at the end, but he did good things for his people.

David thought that Saul had done great things. When David got the news of the death of Saul and Jonathan, he composed a song in honor of them, and one of the verses says, “O daughters of Israel weep for Saul, who clothed you with scarlet and finery, who adorned your garments with ornaments of gold.” (2 Samuel 1:24) In other words, Saul had brought prosperity to an impoverished and plundered people.

Saul was a failure because he couldn’t receive gifts from others (not from God, and not from other human beings), and so he couldn’t be a friend. He lived in fear of those who, like David, could freely give great gifts to him. He had to be the king, and run the show, in such a way that drove him insane with fear and envy and jealousy of the abilities and gifts of others.

He had great love focused upon him, but he was alone because he had no freedom to enjoy that love. And so he was unfruitful. Only if you know you have had a friend can you be a true success.

There is a beauty in God’s brand of fruitfulness, and there is an ugliness in its loss. Everything that Saul does to protect himself, and to keep his dignity and his productivity, makes him weaker, and makes him look worse and more pathetic than before. Everything that is done to David, and every loss that he suffers, makes him stronger, and makes him look more like a king; and more and more like God’s friend.

God is king, and he expanded his kingdom by suffering loss and defeat. This is what God did by being born as a human baby resting in a manger in Bethlehem. We see God’s kingship in Jesus’ carpenter shop, and in Jesus finding his followers among a few fishers and farmers and tax collectors. We see God’s kingship in Jesus crowned with thorns and executed on a cross for our sins.

Saul tried to kill David by piercing him with a spear, and a Roman soldier pierced the body of Jesus on the cross with a spear as a sign of what the world thinks of God’s brand of success and fruitfulness. But there is nothing as fruitful in the kingdom of God as the cross.

The cross is the sign of God’s friendship for us. The cross brings life-changing help to those who cannot give anything comparable in return. The gift of God’s friendship, if we can accept it, gives us the gift of bearing the fruit of his friendship in the world. We can look at Jesus and see that we have a friend. We can live as the Lord’s friends and act out his friendship for others, and bear fruit that will last. This is the fruitfulness of a life that has been impacted by God.

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