A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 10, 2014
1 Samuel 4:1-5 NLT
Perhaps you noticed all the red, white, and blue signs dotting the landscape the past several weeks. I am being a bit tongue-in-cheek. How could you have missed them? If you drove past the old Wildcat Den, which now houses the Oak Ridge Visitor’s Center, you know what I am talking about—hundreds of political signs, signs piled on top of signs! As I drove past those signs coming to church and returning home, I had two thoughts about them. The first thought was how tacky they looked. But then, after I got past the tackiness, I had a second thought. And that thought was How many of those whose names are printed on those signs will suffer defeat! And it made me feel a bit sorry for them.
The truth is when all is said and done when the final November election comes and goes, at least half, and probably much more than half, of the candidates who paid for and placed their signs all over town will in the end be losers–defeated. And for awhile, I let myself think about all those idealistic candidates who won’t be hosting victory parties, who won’t be going home elated and celebrating, and who may go home not feeling very good about themselves at all. What about all of those candidates who go home suffering defeat? But one need not be a political candidate to experience the agony of defeat. The agony of defeat comes in many forms and fashions.
Defeat often causes us to question. We may question why such a thing was allowed to happen to us. We may question our relationship with a benevolent God or the karma of the universe. We may question ourselves—our abilities, our perception in the eyes of others, perhaps even question our dignity and self-worth.
I have read a snippet of a story involving a defeat suffered early on by the Israelites. The Israelites were attacked by the Philistines, one of the Canaanite tribes that at times proved to be a formable foe of the Israelites. Goliath the giant, you may remember, was a Philistine warrior. When the Philistines defeated the Israelites, killing four thousand of them, as the teller of the story relates it, the Israelites started questioning. Why this defeat? Why did the Lord allow us to be defeated like this? Maybe the Lord is not with us. What can we do to make sure that God is with us in battle? Well, the Israelites decided they had been defeated because they had not carried the Covenant Box—traditionally called the Ark of the Covenant that they believed enshrined the Lord’s presence—with them in battle. So they sent messengers to go fetch the Ark of the Covenant. When the Ark of the Covenant arrived, all the Israelites shouted so loudly the Philistines heard them and grew afraid. When the Philistines heard that the Ark of the Covenant was to accompany the Israelites in battle, they really became afraid. So the Philistines girded up their bravery and courage and shouted to their soldiers, “Be brave, Philistines! Fight like men. . .” (GNT) And so, the Philistines engaged in battle again with the Israelites. They fought hard and defeated the Israelites yet again, who went running to their homes. “There was a great slaughter,” the storyteller relates it. This time “thirty thousand Israelites were killed.” And not only that, but the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant and carried it off to the temple of their god Dagon. If the Israelites had questioned the reasons for their defeat before, don’t you know they questioned even more after a second, even greater defeat? Yes, defeat often leads us to question.
But sometimes the right kind of questioning following defeat can be good for us. It can lead to greater self-knowledge—help us to better see what our strengths and weaknesses are, help us clarify what it really is that we want to be and do, and lead us to work on our approach so that we minimize or improve our weaknesses and maximize or greater utilize our strengths. Football coach Tom Landry said, “I’ve learned that something constructive comes from every defeat.”
All of us, at different points in our lives, know the agony of defeat. Suffering the breakup of a relationship. Failing to get into that school or graduate school that you had your heart set on. The loss of a job, maybe due to company downsizing. Or not getting that perfect job that you had your heart set on and you just knew that you were going to get. Did you get every job or position you applied for and may have had your heart set on? If you did, consider yourself lucky. Few of us do.
I will let you in on a little secret. In the past, there were churches I applied to but didn’t work out, pulpits that I had my heart set on but I didn’t get. More than once I thought I had found the perfect congregation—the perfect fit for us. So I sent my resume, and in one case, I even had a telephone interview with the Search Committee and an in-person interview with the Senior Pastor and Associate Pastor. It was a large, multi-staff congregation. I was given the impression that I had a good shot at being selected for the position I had applied for. So you can imagine the great disappointment I suffered when I got that “Dear John” letter thanking me for my time and interest, but informing me that they had chosen another candidate (from the other several dozen applicants who had applied for the position).
But in applying to this United Church, I feel that I ended up exactly where I was supposed to be and where I am the happiest. Everything turned out for the best. So, the point being here, sometimes we suffer defeat only to realize a greater good elsewhere that we might not have known otherwise. Too often we are inclined to think of a defeat as the end of the road, when in reality defeat may just be a 90-degree bend in the road that keeps us from seeing a greater success that lies just around the corner. Robert Ingersoll encouraged, “The greatest test of courage on earth is to bear defeat without losing heart.”
An American poet, described by some as being the father of American poetry and the greatest poet America has thus far produced, believed his life’s work to be a failure. Curiously, the work that he gave his entire life to is now considered an American classic. The poet said of his work, “from a worldly and business point of view Leaves of Grass has been worse than a failure.” The poet was Walt Whitman, of course, known to virtually every high school and liberal arts college student in America. If Whitman could have only seen around the bend and known what a literary success Leaves of Grass would become.
It may be a cliché, but defeat can also serve to make us stronger. You may have heard about the young man who suffered one defeat after another. He ran for state legislature, but lost. He was in love with a young woman who died, leaving him forlorn. Twice he was a candidate for the position of speaker of the state House of Representatives, but was both times unsuccessful. He sought his party’s nomination for Congress, but failed. He sought an open U.S. Senate seat, but didn’t get enough votes. His name was placed in nomination as a vice-presidential candidate, but again failed to get enough votes. So it would seem that he suffered one defeat after another. That young man’s name was Abraham Lincoln.
But what we don’t hear about were Lincoln’s many successes that offset his defeats. Such successes included being elected company captain of the Illinois militia; being appointed postmaster of New Salem, Illinois; he was elected and re-elected to the Illinois state legislature; he received license to practice law in Illinois state courts, elected to Congress; and finally was elected President of the United States. Lincoln’s defeats strengthened him for other successes.
Defeat can be somewhat like the blacksmith’s fire that strengthens us for future challenges. Or to put it another way, defeat can be a training ground for future, greater success! Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (who wrote the bestseller On Death and Dying) wrote, “The most beautiful people we have know are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths.”
We are made to wonder how many of the defeated political candidates of Anderson and Roane Counties will try to turn their defeat into something positive: Asking questions that will lead them to better self-understanding, and how they can better utilize their strengths and overcome their weaknesses, and letting their defeat make them stronger for future challenges. But the real question this morning is when we suffer defeat in our lives, can we do likewise? Amen.