Religious Rituals and Real Relationships

1 Samuel 21:1-7 New International Version (NIV)

1 David went to Nob, to Ahimelek the priest. Ahimelek trembled when he met him, and asked, “Why are you alone? Why is no one with you?”

2 David answered Ahimelek the priest, “The king sent me on a mission and said to me, ‘No one is to know anything about the mission I am sending you on.’ As for my men, I have told them to meet me at a certain place. 3 Now then, what do you have on hand? Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever you can find.”

4 But the priest answered David, “I don’t have any ordinary bread on hand; however, there is some consecrated bread here—provided the men have kept themselves from women.”

5 David replied, “Indeed women have been kept from us, as usual whenever I set out. The men’s bodies are holy even on missions that are not holy. How much more so today!” 6 So the priest gave him the consecrated bread, since there was no bread there except the bread of the Presence that had been removed from before the Lord and replaced by hot bread on the day it was taken away.

7 Now one of Saul’s servants was there that day, detained before the Lord; he was Doeg the Edomite, Saul’s chief shepherd.

This week we are beginning a sermon series on the life of David. I taught a class at a local church on this subject where we looked at various characteristics of David and how he personified certain aspects of God. I am planning to adapt these lessons into sermons, but just as a bit of a warning, they still fall into the genre of teaching and not preaching. Get caffeinated if you have to.

For the next six weeks we are going to take a look at how David is “A man after God’s own heart.” I’m going to try to avoid some of the better-known stories about David. We are going to skip his anointing and his defeat of Goliath. We will probably look at one of the better-known stories — David and Bathsheba — because that is a very powerful story. Today, however, we are going to study the story of David and the priests of Nob. That’s right, please stay calm and try to control your enthusiasm. We are talking about Ahimelek today.

This is a rather obscure story that most of us probably only know because Jesus references this in the New Testament, and we will get to that soon enough. But the story of Ahimelek and David teaches us an important aspect of who God is and what God expects of us, so we do not want to skip over it too quickly.

Let’s begin by looking at my hermeneutical approach and read Colossians 1:19: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.”

Is this a reference to David? Did God’s fullness dwell in David? No, David was not God incarnate. This is a reference to Jesus. Jesus lived a perfect life and lived according to God’s will. David made mistakes. He sinned. The Bible does not say that God’s fullness dwelled in David, but it gives a different phrase that we often associate with this leader.

1 Samuel 13:14 is a part of a larger narrative of the prophet Samuel telling Saul why he will not be the king of the united kingdom of Israel forever. “But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”

We know that the person who succeeded Saul was David. He wasn’t actually anointed as the next king until chapter 16. But it is clear to us reading this text after the fact that when David says that the Lord has chosen a man after his own heart, he is talking about David. This is confirmed by the good Dr. Luke in Acts 13:22, which says, “After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’”

God says that David will do everything God wants him to do. I would add that David also did a few things that God didn’t want him to do.

David is not perfect; he is not Jesus. The fullness of God does not dwell within him. But there is something about him that makes God call him a man after God’s own heart. So to better understand how David is a man after God’s own heart, I want to compare some aspects of David’s life to the life of the one in whom the fullness of God did dwell.

Interestingly enough, we find in our text for today that the first time David opens his mouth, out comes a lie. Ahimelek is a little uncomfortable having David show up out of the blue, and asks why he is there and not with the rest of the king’s army. So David tells Ahimelek that the king sent him on a special mission; nobody else knows about it. And that special mission is to find and bring back bread for his soldiers.

I don’t know why David thought that he had to lie. Perhaps he figured that if he was on a mission from the king that Ahimelek would be more inclined to give him what he was looking for. But David wasn’t on a special mission from the king. David was fleeing for his life from the king. Regardless, Ahimelek didn’t have any regular bread. All he had was the showbread, or the consecrated bread. And that bread wasn’t just for anyone to eat.

We find the story of the showbread in Leviticus 24:5-9: “Take the finest flour and bake twelve loaves of bread, using two-tenths of an ephah for each loaf. Arrange them in two stacks, six in each stack, on the table of pure gold before the Lord. By each stack put some pure incense as a memorial portion to represent the bread and to be a food offering presented to the Lord. This bread is to be set out before the Lord regularly, Sabbath after Sabbath, on behalf of the Israelites, as a lasting covenant. It belongs to Aaron and his sons, who are to eat it in the sanctuary area, because it is a most holy part of their perpetual share of the food offerings presented to the Lord.”

Two stacks, each six loaves high. That right there tells me that this bread was not like the bread that we have in our home. To stack bread six loaves high it would have to be thin and flat; likely made without yeast. It would be more of a cake, and a large cake at that. Two-tenths of an ephah is about four quarts of flour, which comes out to about seven pounds. These were big, flat, dense loaves of bread.

We need to remember that everything is symbolic. Everything is meant to remind the people of God and what God has done for them. These big, flat loaves of bread may have been meant to represent the bread that the Hebrew people made during the Passover, when they had to pick up all of their possessions and get out of Egypt so quickly that they didn’t have time to let yeast rise.

Even the number of loaves of bread seems symbolic. Two stacks of six requires a little bit of math. But with the help of a calculator we find that two times six is twelve, and twelve seems to me to represent the twelve tribes of Israel.

Everything is symbolic. Nothing is done without a reason. If we back up to Leviticus 23, we find Moses receiving instruction on how to observe several holy days and festivals. There are instructions on observing the Sabbath, the Passover, the Offering of the First Fruits, the Festival of Weeks, the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Booths. All of these holy days, festivals, and observances had a purpose. And most of them focus on remembering what God had done for the Israelites.

The showbread was no different. It was there as a reminder of what God had done for his people. And the law specifically said how it was to be handled and that only Aaron and his sons could eat this bread.

Notice that there is no hesitation from Ahimelek in giving this bread to David. Okay, maybe just a slight hesitation. He says that they can have the bread as long as they have kept away from women. I don’t wish to comment on that today.

The interaction between David and Ahimelek shows the importance of caring for one another. I think we can even say that this story prioritizes relationships over religious rituals.

When I say “religious rituals” I am not saying that we are called to prioritize our relationships with one another over our relationship with God or our devotion to God. The Bible gives a name to elevating something, anything, above God: it is called idolatry. That’s a pretty big no-no in the Bible. I am also not saying that this is a call to elevate relationships above religious convictions. What I mean here by religious rituals are the routines that are often a part of our worship practices.

David prioritized real relationships and real needs over religious rituals. Is this a way that David is a man after God’s own heart? Let’s consider the person in whom God fully dwelled.

Mark chapter 2 and Matthew chapter 12 both tell a story of Jesus and his disciples walking along a field of grain with their stomachs growling. So the disciples reach out and pluck a few heads of grain, probably roll them around in their hands, and eat the grain.

I would probably be a little upset if I saw the disciples doing this today because it would seem to me that they are stealing grain. But this is actually a lawful act. The problem isn’t that they were “stealing” anything. The problem, at least in the eyes of the Pharisees, is that they were doing this on the Sabbath. They were “harvesting” grain on the day of rest.

The Sabbath was and is still a very important part of many religious traditions. It is a day set aside to focus on worshipping God and to avoid the idolatry of worshipping the almighty dollar. And by Hebrew tradition, the disciples were breaking the law.

So what did Jesus, in the fullness of God, have to say to the Pharisees and their critique of this Sabbath work? “He answered, ‘Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent.’” (Matthew 12:3-7)

Jesus doesn’t make any effort to suggest that they were doing anything but breaking the Sabbath law; he actually highlights the fact that David and his men were breaking the law when they ate the showbread. But the Law is intended to bring someone into a closer relationship with God and if those people die of hunger, they aren’t really going to be able to grow any closer.

In Romans 13:10, Paul even goes as far as to say “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

Love is what God was going for all along with the law.

The challenge for us all today is to ask ourselves if we put as much effort into building real relationships as Jesus and David did. Are we focusing on the needs of our friends and neighbors or are we neglecting those around us. And even worse, are we using God as an excuse to neglect the very people that we have been called to love?

This story of putting others before our religious rituals reminded me of a story that had not crossed my mind in some time. I was living in Harrisonburg, about a 35 minute drive away from Staunton, and it was either my first or second year at this church. Sonya and I would rush out the door every Sunday at about 8:45 so that we could get to church in time for Sunday School and the normal socialization.

Sunday mornings are intense for a pastor. I am up early, looking through my notes and making final adjustments and preparations for the worship service well before the sun comes up. Back in those days Sonya always drove to church so I could read through my sermon one more time. My mantra was: practice, read, refine. Practice, read, refine.

One Sunday just as I was walking out the door, the phone rang. I debated even answering it, but I did anyway. It was someone that new I would be traveling from Harrisonburg to Staunton that day and they were wondering if I could provide a ride for a friend of theirs to the train station. They wanted me to go to her house, pick her up, and drive her here. All before church, all while trying to practice, read, and refine.

I really wasn’t interested in giving a ride to someone I didn’t know who happened to be a friend of a person that I barely knew. I had to get to church on time and I had to make my final preparations.

I am pretty sure that I made the wrong choice that Sunday. So what if I had been a little late for Sunday School that week? I don’t think I would have been fired for that. So what if my sermon was not as refined as I would have liked for it to have been? I’ve probably given worse!

One of the ways that David was a man after God’s own heart was that he put real relationships before religious rituals. He knew that it was more important to feed the hungry than to follow all of the religious expectations to the letter. And these relationship-building efforts worked for David.

If we look quickly at 1 Samuel 22:2 we read: “All those who were in distress or in debt or discontented gathered around him, and he became their commander. About four hundred men were with him.”

I’m pretty sure that Jesus built some relationships with those in distress, in debt, and discontented in his day as well. Relationships matter.

I’m giving you all a pass today. If you ever find yourself in a situation where helping someone might make you late or cause you to miss church all together, please help that person. If you have a chance to help someone I don’t want you here! I want you there!

David and Jesus after him never imply that religious rituals, like attending church or observing religious holidays, are a bad thing. No, they both participated in things like the Sabbath and various holy days. But when we put these reoccurring religious rituals before real relationship, when people go hungry or without help because we think we need to do something to better connect with God, we are missing the point. God puts people in our paths to help us connect better with both God and humanity. Relationships come before rituals.

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About Kevin Gasser

I envision this site to be a place where I can post my weekly sermon text and invite feedback from anyone who is interested in the church, theology, or life in general. Please note that these sermons are rough drafts of what I plan to say from the pulpit, so typos are common.
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