Oct. 27/28 Standing Tall, Falling Hard
Select Readings From 1 Samuel
Welcome once again to the Story. For the past several weeks we’ve been looking at the grand narrative of Scripture (creation, fall, redemption and restoration), and we’ll continue this study well into spring. Over the last two weeks, we’ve found ourselves in the period of the judges. Now, the judges were men and women God appointed for a limited time to shepherd His people through the Promised Land, people like Deborah, Gideon and Samson. But today marks yet another shift in the Story. Today we’re leaving the era of the judges and ushering in the era of the kings.
Saul has the distinction of being anointed as the first King of Israel, but to really understand Saul’s story, we have to first understand the changes that are happening in the people of Israel. And here’s why: these changes can happen in us too, and they don’t just happen overnight. They are changes that happen to people who begin a journey, but struggle to finish it. They are subtle; sometimes we don’t notice them until it’s too late; They are sneaky; sometimes they creep up on us when we’ve let down our guard; and they are dangerous, because they pull us away from the heart of God. In fact, as we explore this story, I’m going to share with you three sneaky, spiritual traps that we need to know and, hopefully, avoid. So let’s get started.
As the era of the judges begins to fade in to the limelight, 1 Samuel introduces us to two characters, Hannah and Samuel. We’re not going spend much time with these two, but they are important to understanding the story. Hannah is a young woman devoted to God but has trouble getting pregnant. In her desperation, and with great faith, she “pours out her soul to the Lord,” and soon gives birth to a young boy named Samuel. As Samuel grows older, he senses God’s call on his life, hears God’s voice as clear as the day, and dedicates his life to serving God as a priest. And under Samuel’s leadership, the last judge of Israel, Israel has sustained success and blessing.
This, I think, is the vision God had when he called the people out of Egypt. Remember what God was trying to do? The exodus wasn’t just an event to change a zip code, but an act to change the heart. God’s plan was to form a people that he could call his own, a people set a part from the ways of the world, and sort of reshape them so that they would reflect his ways. That vision goes all the way back to Abraham, to whom God said, “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you. I will make your name great and you will be a blessing.” That’s what God is trying to do, to form a nation so that through that nation he can bless the world and counteract the curse of sin. But that nation and those people first have to be devoted and committed to God’s ways. And that’s always a major stumbling block. While Samuel is in charge, life is good. But as Samuel grows older, the people under his leadership grow anxious. Samuel’s sons are wild and prone to acts of injustice, so the elders know they can’t count on his sons to carry on Samuel’s wise leadership. And so the leaders of the community gather together, knock on Samuel’s door and say, “Do you have a minute? We think we would like a king.”
Let me just read to you Samuel’s response, because on the surface, this doesn’t sound like a request that’s out of bounds. Yet listen to these words, “This displeased Samuel, so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him, ‘Listen to all that that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you…” They have rejected me as king. You see God was forming a people own his terms. God was making and shaping a new people, so that he and he alone could be their God and their king, but they had wandering eyes and couldn’t help but notice what was happening all around them. “We want a king over us,” they said, “Then we will be like all the other nations.” And that’s the first spiritual trap we must name and avoid: the trap of conformity over commitment. God didn’t want them to be like all the other nations; God wanted them to be reflecting God’s way of doing life. And that’s what God wants for us. God wants us to reflect his life and his ways, because they are good, and holy, and blessed. So we need to name and avoid the first spiritual trap and daily choose commitment over conformity.
Well as the story continues, it’s clear that God’s people won’t settle for anything less than a human king, so God relents. He’s really good at redeeming our broken choices and fixing our haphazard messes, and centuries down the road God will provide a king named Jesus who will truly empower us to be “born from above,” but before Jesus there was a man named Saul. Saul is God’s first choice to become king over Israel. When we’re first introduced to Saul, there’s little doubt that he’s the right man for the job. Scripture describes Saul as “an impressive young man, without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others.” As far as outward appearances go, he nails it (and that outward appearance will come into play for the next king we’ll talk about next week). He looks like royal material. And as far as his heart goes, Saul seems to have the right inward makeup. He doesn’t think too highly of himself. In fact, his biggest problem is probably too much humility; he doesn’t have a whole lot of self-confidence. He’s small in his own eyes. But God can work with that. That type of heart is malleable. And when Saul is anointed the first king, Scripture tells us that God changed his heart and God’s Spirit came upon him.
This first trial run as king is off to a good start. With a changed heart and the Spirit of God leading him, Saul takes the reigns of the Kingdom and immediately picks up where the old priest Samuel left off. His first military battle is a scorching victory over the Ammonites, and after the victory, Saul gathers the people for worship and celebration and proclaims, “This day the Lord has rescued Israel!” Saul is quick to point to God’s role in his story, and quick to give God the credit. But the man who stood head and shoulders above everyone else soon comes crashing down.
The next time we see Saul, something has shifted in his demeanor. While he’s awaiting word for Samuel’s direction, another enemy, the Philistines, is drawing near. Now you need to something about the Philistines. They were ruthless pagans. Goliath is one of them. They would kill you and your family in a heartbeat and wouldn’t think twice about. So Saul sees this approaching enemy, starts sweating bullets, and looks off in the distance to see if there’s any sign of Samuel. Now, the usual routine is to check with God first, to present offerings as an act of worship- but that’s Samuel’s job. Saul didn’t have access to God like Samuel did, a divine form of checks and balances you might say. Saul needed Samuel, because God spoke to Samuel in ways he didn’t speak to Saul. But in a rush to make a decision, and not wanting to wait any longer, Saul moves on with his plans. Listen to Samuel’s reaction: You acted foolishly…and now your kingdom will not endure. It takes a little bit of detective work to see what exactly Saul does wrong, but here it is: He’s too busy to worship and to wait for God’s leading.
That’s trap number 2, the trap of being too busy to worship and wait for God. And it doesn’t take much to see how this happens. You don’t need me to list the ways we become too busy. Chances are you’re already thinking about them. So instead I’ll ask the question: Are you too busy? You see how this afflicts Saul? Little by little the busyness, the stress, the anxiety creeps up on him…and then worship becomes an afterthought, or better yet, one of those things he’ll get to if he has time. Are you too busy to worship God? Are you too distracted to wait for God’s leading and timing? It’s a real trap on the spiritual journey and sometimes we just need to name it.
Well, I wish Saul’s story would end there, because his is a difficult story, and it’s not fun. But it doesn’t end there. You see, when you’re too busy to worship and wait for God, your spiritual foundations begin to crack. That’s why what we do every week is so important. This act of worship reminds “whose” we are and who we are. Every time we get together, we’re remembering the God who has called us and redeemed us. And we’re remembering what life with God should look like. And Saul begins to loosen his grip on his spiritual moorings, ever so slightly. He begins to cut corners and gives about 90%, which is certainly an above-average passing grade for school, but leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to the spiritual life.
The last straw happens after a victory God grants Saul over a group of people known as the Amalekites. The Amalekites were not your ordinary enemy. They had a history with God, descendants of Esau. You might even say they were the archenemy of the Jewish people, the very presence of evil in God’s good world. So God’s directives are pretty clear: Saul, when I give you them into your hands, totally destroy them. Do not spare anything- human or animal. It was, in a sense, a strategy to purge the world of heinous evil. Yet somewhere along the line, Saul got the crazy notion that his ideas were better than God’s…and he spared the Amalekite king and the best of the sheep, the lamb and the cows. To make a long story short, Samuel calls him out, and in the midst of Saul rambling about his reasons, excuses and thought process, Samuel puts up the proverbial finger to shoosh him and gets right to the heart of the matter: “Saul, you were once small in your own eyes, but God anointed you as king…To obey is better than sacrifice and to heed is better than the fat of the rams…Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.” What happened to Saul? The man who was once “small in his own eyes” became too big to obey God. That’s the third trap we must avoid.
That brings us to the end of the king who once stood tall but fell so very hard. Saul’s story really is a sad story. It’s not the feel good story we’re used to hearing, but it is one we need to know. And if we receive Saul’s story as God’s word for us today, I think we’ll find ourselves following Jesus with a deeper passion. Because to follow Jesus is to live a different kind of life: It’s a life of commitment over conformity; a life of devotion where worship is central to our routines; and a life of humility that leads to obedience, even if that obedience doesn’t always make sense in our eyes. So let us fix our eyes on Jesus today and keep on following. Amen.