In this final Sunday of the year, we reach the final chapters of 1 Samuel, and the final days of King Saul's life. Everything is changing.
Who has seen Return of the King? In some ways, the end of 1 Samuel is very similar to the film. You have outstanding acts of courage and wisdom, exciting events happening left, right and centre. But underneath the events lies something of real significance: one age is drawing to a close, and a new age is about to dawn.
The date is almost exactly one thousand years B.C. All these strange stories build up a picture of a world that is changing, turning, and waiting for a new reality to be revealed.
David and his followers hope and believe that one day, David will be King over all Israel. That day is dawning. But what they could not know is that three thousand years later, the people of Israel would still be looking back at David's Kingdom as the greatest moment of their history. Everything is about to come together for the first and only time in the history of that nation.
After David spares Saul's life in chapter 24 and again in chapter 26, David has had enough of running and hiding. Constantly being chased by Saul is not much fun, so he decides to escape completely. He takes his 600 men, with all their wives and children, and travels to Gath, where he finds Achish, the King of the Philistines, and offers to serve him.
David and his men first settle in Gath, but then Achish gives them the town of Ziklag. Ziklag had belonged to the Israelites: it was part of the land of the Simeonites, but presumably the Philistines had captured it from them at some point.
While they are living in Ziklag, David and his men raid the Geshurites, the Girzites and the Amalekites, but tell Achish they are raiding Southern Israel. Achish thinks David is ruining his reputation in Israel, but really David is using the time to weaken Israel's enemies in the South.
Perhaps because David is no longer in Israel, fighting for Israel, Achish decides to fight Israel one more time. David and his men join the Philistine army at Shunem, on the Eastern edge of the plain that one thousand years later will be known as Armageddon. But Saul chickens out.
Saul brings his army up to the Southern edge of the plain, and he is terrified by the sight of the Philistine army. Samuel is dead, so he visits the witch of Endor, and tries to get advice from the spirit of Samuel. Don't try this at home.
Saul gets no joy from the attempt - which is an important lesson for anyone who is thinking about consulting a spiritist, medium or any other psychic messenger: don't do it. It is not only wrong, it is also pointless. You can't learn anything useful that way. Saul is left in a worse state than when he began, and fails to attack the Philistines.
The Philistines march practically under the noses of the Israelites, and head South, closer to Saul's territory, with David and his men bringing up the rear. The Philistine commanders don't like having all these Israelites in their own camp, and suspect they may change sides when it comes to the battle. If you read David's ambiguous promises, that may well have been the case. The commanders persuade Achish to send David and his men away, and they reluctantly set off back to Ziklag.
We are now at the beginning of chapter 30. At this point, the action splits in two. The Philistines head North again, to attack Saul and his army, while David and his men go home.
Saul's battle with the Philistines is described in chapter 31. It is a total disaster. Jonathon is killed, the Israelite army runs away, Saul is wounded and commits suicide. The long conflict between Saul and David is finally over, but at a great cost.
David, however, is unaware of this. He reaches Ziklag, and discovers that while they have been away, an Amalekite raiding party has captured the women and children they left behind, taken all they owned and burned the town.
This is the lowest point of David's life so far. He has lost his two wives, and his men are talking about stoning him: "each one was bitter in spirit because of his sons and daughters."
It is said there are two hard lessons we need to learn in life: one is how to handle success, and the other is how to handle failure.
Saul could handle neither success nor failure. David, on the other hand, could do both. In the middle of his misery, what did he do? Verse 6: "David found strength in the Lord his God."
I would like to preach a whole sermon on that verse: David found strength in the Lord his God. You need to learn how to turn to God in all circumstances, so that when you hit rock bottom, you know what to do.
Read the Psalms. At many points, the Psalmist is rejoicing in God's goodness, praising Him with everything he has, and at other points, the Psalmist is in the depths of despair, asking God what has gone wrong, and where has He gone. This is honesty. If you serve God, you will know both the heights and the depths, both the joys and the sorrows. In every story we read in the Bible, this truth is repeated.
One of the greatest tragedies of superficial Christianity is that people never learn how to find strength in the Lord because they never really face up to the doubt, fear and despair that comes with defeat.
You occasionally find people who have been living as good and faithful Christians, sometimes for many years, who have been unfailingly positive, and seen by everyone as a wonderful example, but then something goes seriously wrong, they get badly sick or lose their job or their partner dies, and they can't handle it. They say things like: God doesn't really care for me, or He wouldn't have allowed this to happen.
It is not wrong to ask God what He is doing, or to tell Him how we feel, or to complain that it's not fair. But sometimes our questions and complaints demonstrate that we have missed some basic truths along the way.
We don't have time to go into them in any detail, but here are some of the basic truths we can see in this passage.
David and his men had been sent home from the battle, but that doesn't mean anything. The war still continued.
We are in the middle of a war. If you have never really considered that point before, think about it and believe it. You can't win a war by pretending it's not happening or hoping it won't affect you too much.
There are many books you can read and conferences and seminars you can attend, and probably there is a lot we could all learn about 'Spiritual Warfare'. But one of the really dangerous assumptions in many of the books and conferences and seminars is this: they suggest that spiritual warfare is for the spiritually mature.
They will tell you that if you want to battle Satan, you have to learn how to pray, how to fast, how to use the Bible effectively, how to cast out demons, how to map the spiritual territory around us. And those are all good, helpful things to learn.
But if you think that Satan won't attack you because you have never been to a seminar on spiritual warfare, you are living in cloud-cuckoo land. Our enemy is not a gentleman. If he can destroy or disable your faith before you know what is going on, he will do it.
Fortunately, it is generally not hard to see what the enemy is trying to do, and there are only two things you really need to know about the subject - everything else is just detail.
David had left one battle behind him, and found another battle in front of him.
We sometimes get so concerned about fighting one battle, we don't spot the enemy coming in from the opposite direction. We get so concerned about upholding the truth that we forget to love the people we disagree with. We can rely so much on the Spirit to interpret the Bible to us that we forget to study. We can work so hard to help other people that we forget to pray for them. Or, in each of these cases, it could be the other way round.
David recognised his enemy, and despite what his followers repeatedly told him, it wasn't Saul, no matter what Saul did to him. Our enemy is not - ever! - our fellow Christians, or the non-Christians we find ourselves in conflict with: our battle is not against flesh and blood, but against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
The truth is that the enemy can sometimes hurt you through your friends and family and fellow Christians. But that doesn't mean that they are your enemy - the people who have harmed you have been used by the enemy, and harmed by him, maybe even more than you have. That is why we are called to pray for these people, even while we fight the one who is using them.
Bad things happen, and in time of war, bad things happen deliberately and repeatedly. The enemy rejoices in causing pain and suffering and disease, in frustrating good plans and spoiling good times.
Bad things happen even to good people - even to good people who are serving God. To say "It's not fair" is missing the point - it would not be evil if it was fair.
When we choose to follow Jesus, we follow the One who promised suffering and persecution to all who came with Him. We signed up to fight in God's army, not to pass through this world unscathed.
When we read the Bible, these things are perfectly clear. Sadly, we don't always emphasise these bits of the Bible as much as the bits that talk about answered prayer and victories. We forget that Jesus' ultimate victory came about through suffering on the cross. If such things happened to the One Who deserved no pain, why should we be surprised when we too suffer?
In 1 Samuel 30, immediately after David found strength in the Lord his God, David asks God what he should do. He is told to pursue the raiding party.
When things are going badly, it feels like God has let us down and abandoned us. It feels that way, but this is not the truth. David knew, however bad he felt, that God was still with him, still cared for him, still wanted to guide him.
I don't know what this means for you. I don't know what you struggle with. But I do know that sometimes we are defeated because, the middle of our darkness and despair, we don't ask for God's help.
David and his 600 men set off after the raiding party. But they came to a ravine, and 200 men were too exhausted to cross.
David did not ask men who were too exhausted to continue the pursuit. We don't all have to fight every battle. Sometimes the enemy attacks, and you simply have to fight. But sometimes God tells us to rest, take it easy, and prepare for the next fight.
But this is another of those places where we can worry so much about one mistake that we fall into the opposite one.
The danger for some of us is that we try to fight every battle going. We need to hear this message: you don't have to fight every battle.
On the other hand, some people decide every time that this isn't a battle for me to fight. Some people are always waiting to get started. God is going to use them in a wonderful way - one day.
Just about the first thing that came to me when I was preparing for this morning were the words of the song by Pink Floyd, 'Time', from the album Dark Side of the Moon.
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
You fritter and waste the hours in an offhand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death
Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I'd something more to say
This should not be the experience of a single one of God's children. We may not all have big role to play and major battles to fight, but we all called to give everything we have in the service of our Lord.
If you don't know where to begin, perhaps it does not matter. Perhaps what matters is that you do something, and if it is not precisely the best thing to do, you can be corrected and learn and grow. We learn, not by reading books but by doing things; we grow, not by listening to sermons, but by responding to them and living and acting and doing things.
Don't worry too much about getting it right: you are not perfect, so you're not likely to get things completely right very often. What matters is that your heart is in the right place, and you are seeking to obey the One Who calls you to love God, love the people around you, and follow Him.
David and the remaining 400 men caught the Amalekites, fought them and recovered all the families and all the plunder that had been taken - taken from them, and taken from other places. They brought it all home, rejoicing in the victory.
But the evil men and troublemakers who fought did not want to share the spoils of victory with the 200 men who were too exhausted to cross the ravine. We fought for it, we keep it.
But David was wiser than this. The victory came from the Lord: we have it by grace, not works. And because it is by grace, the share of the one who stayed with the supplies is to be the same as that of him who went down to the battle. All shall share alike.
It doesn't matter who stays with the stuff. We are all on the same team: we all win, or all lose together. It doesn't matter who kicks the winning goal, we all share the victory. We are all part of one body.
I cannot be spiritually healthy if you are sick, because we are joined to each other. If we as a congregation want to be effective in this area, we need to support and pray for Sea Mills Methodist and St Edyths, because we are joined to each other.
Paul says in Ephesians chapter four that the whole body can only reach maturity if every member of the body plays its part, and the whole body works together the way God intended it to.
We need each other. We are all fighting the same enemy. We are all working to see the same Kingdom established. We are one body, so let us live and work and pray as one.