Samuel: A Study In Character - Week 3 "Wrong Choice/Right Moment"

This week I am continuing the sermon series that we started a few weeks ago entitled, "Samuel: A Study in Character," which will take us through the some of the most fascinating stories from the life of the great prophet and judge, Samuel.

Samuel's birth narratives and the story of his prophetic calling have definitely set the stage for what comes next.  It's evident that when it comes to Samuel, we are not dealing with just your every day run of the mill prophet.  Samuel was  on a whole other level, but even this great man of God had some low moments.  We'll be skipping a couple of chapters in the book of 1 Samuel, but I want to highlight two things that stand out to me in the passages we are leapfrogging to get where we are going today:

First, there is this moment when the people of Israel are freaking out because the Philistines are about to descend on them and give them an old fashioned Ancient Near Eastern butt whooping.  They come to Samuel because they know that he is a man of God, and they say to him "do not stop praying for us..."

I love that.  It tells you so much about who Samuel was, and who he served.

But then there is this other moment at the end of those passages where we find an aging Samuel, who is serving as a just judge and a great prophet, but who seems to have some issues as a father.  The passage reads, "...but his sons did not walk in his ways..."  They were, in fact, serving as "junior" judges, but were perverting justice and acting out.

So the elders of the people of Israel come to Samuel and they demand that, given the circumstances with his sons and the uncertainty in the world around them, he appoint them a king in the name of the Lord.   They tell Samuel repeatedly that they want "to be like all the other nations..."  Now for those of us following along with the story, we know that this is exactly what God did not want for the Hebrew people---to be like all of the other nations.  But they were driven by powerful fear and a hunger for security.  They were afraid that there would be no clear leadership for the future, and they were petrified of the Philistines who were breathing down their necks.

I find it interesting that the elders who came to Samuel thought their problem was political, rather than spiritual.  Samuel tries to tell them this, but they don't listen.  They don't see their demand as a separation from God, a lack of trust in the One who had seen their people through worse situations and then some.

They were more concerned with the function of monarchy---what having a king would do for them (give them security, make them like everyone else, unite their people to do battle as one, etc.). But Samuel keeps bringing them back to the nature of monarchy---what having a king would do to them.

I should say something hear about the nature of monarchy in the Near East so that when we read Samuel's plea to the elders we know a little more of what he's trying to tell them.

To begin with, in the Ancient Near East, kingship was believed to be conferred from heaven, which translated into kings having almost limitless power.  In fact, the king of a tribal people might be held as the vice-regent of the gods, speaking for them, acting on their behalf, etc.  They often held religious offices as well, functioning as priests and being depicted as shepherds of their people.  So as you might imagine there is the potential for all manner of badness in the wrong kind of leader.  Which is what Samuel points out:

7 And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 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. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle[a] and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
After hearing all of this the elders still want to be like everyone else...
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” 21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.” Then Samuel said to the Israelites, “Everyone go back to your own town.”
It's at this point in the story that we get introduced to Saul, the man who would be king---to use a purloined phrase.  If you know the story of Saul, you know that he is inextricably linked both to Samuel and to the great King David, who succeeded him.  You also know that he turns out to be a pretty nasty guy and a fairly terrible king.  But when we meet him here in chapter 9, we see someone handsome, capable, humble and poised to be all that everyone hopes that he would be.

This reminds me of Star Wars.  Well, most things do, but this more than most.  It reminds me more specifically of the development of one of the great villains in cultural history:  Darth Vader.

I am going to show you a series of photos:

This is Anakin Skywalker from Star Wars Episode 1.  He can race speeders better than any other life form on his planet of Tatooine.

The Force is strong in him.

And he's just so darned cute.

When you see Anakin Skywalker here in this photo, it's hard to imagine him turning to the dark side of the Force and doing really bad things.

It's hard to imagine that this reptilian-eyed, hooded figure to the left is Anakin Skywalker, but it is.

This is what happens to you when you turn to the dark side of the Force, man. You get all sweaty and weird, and you lose your mind, and think your invincible, but soon find out that you're not and you end up like this:

Yup.  Anakin Skywalker (for those of you who have been hiding under a rock for the past thirty-plus years) is Darth Vader.

I know what you are thinking: "You just had to find a way to work Star Wars into your sermon, didn't you?"

Yes... but it works.

Because when we meet Saul in 1 Samuel chapter 9 we have no inkling whatsoever of the darkness that is lurking around him in the shadows, threatening to take over his mind and  his very soul.

When we meet Saul in 1 Samuel 9, he's unsuccessfully trying to find some lost donkeys and failing miserably at it.

But we find out pretty quickly that he was tall, and good looking---two things that were pretty dang important in the Ancient Near East.  I know that we've moved beyond those kinds of petty assessments when it comes to the people we idolize, but these poor Ancient Near Easterners were a shallow bunch who were obsessed with appearance and physical prowess.  Good thing we've changed.

But here's the really curious part about this whole thing with Saul.  He comes seeking donkeys, and decides to consult a "seer" or a prophet to help him locate the donkeys, and the "seer" in question turns out to be Samuel, who was already told by God that Saul would be coming.  So Samuel latches on to Saul and eventually anoints him as king then gives him some signs to look for to confirm that he has been chosen.  Saul sees the signs, of course (one of which is he actually joins a band of prophesying musicians and starts dancing, singing and prophesying with them uncontrollably----awesome), but is scared to death.  When the leaders of Israel gather together to affirm his leadership they have to drag him out of hiding among the luggage from their travel.

As it turns out, God transforms Saul's heart and gives him abilities and blessings.  God also gives him victory in battle over a rival tribe that solidifies his leadership.  And all through this the reader sees that God is still working in the middle of this story despite the willfulness of Israel's actions.

Because even though the Hebrew people wanted things their own way in their terms, God had a plan beyond the mistakes they would make---a plan that was centered around the greatest king of Israel: David.

Here's what I think we learn from this story: When we finally learn to seek God's will and not our own we get the chance to experience the redemption of even our most selfish decisions. 

This is an important point that needs to be made...  It's easy to get lost in this story and lose sight of who it's really about:  God and His people.  Samuel, Saul and even David to some extent have bit parts in this play.  There is a greater story here---a story of a God who does whatever it takes to redeem His often rebellious children.

And this is where I bring the Star Wars illustration back in again to justify it's existence...  The same holds true for the character of Anakin (Darth Vader) Skywalker in Star Wars.  The narrative of the whole story in Star Wars is one of sacrifice and redemption, of good overcoming evil.

The people of Israel are the true main characters in this vignette and while they may not have intended to turn away from God with their demands for safety and security through a king, they definitely failed to see who God was, and forgot all of the ways that God had sustained them in the past.  And finally, God gave them what they wanted---even though it broke God's heart to do it.

I've learned a very hard lesson over the years, and one that bears repeating here:

When you seek your will more strongly than the will of God, don't be surprised if God says, "Thy will be done."  

There are moments in our lives where our stubbornness and our pride inhibit us from seeing anything else than what we want to see, and desiring anything else but what we want.  And I think that more often than not God simply allows us to have what we want, if only to show us in the end how desperately we need Him.

Some of you might be saying at this point, "Where's the Good News in all of this?"  You're right.  It does seem like a pretty bleak story, doesn't?  Saul has this shadow over him as a result of the stubbornness of Israel,  Samuel, too.

It's like this great rendering of Anakin as a little boy with the shadow of Darth Vader above him.

Hey, I am committed to this Star Wars illustration people.

But even Anakin got the chance for redemption in the end---when he saved his son Luke and destroyed the evil Emperor, sacrificing himself in the process.  Go watch the movies if you don't believe me.  

But listen---here's the awesomeness embedded in this whole story from the life of Samuel.

Are you ready?

You see, even in the midst of their mistakes and faithlessness, God was preparing Israel for David.  There was resurrection on the other side of the darkness.  The "dark side" didn't get to win.  Despite the mistakes that Israel was making, God wasn't finished.  And one day, the people of Israel would realize just how desperately they needed God, and God would be there to open a new chapter.

So... What are you seeking, really?

Your will, or God's?

I want to give you something to ponder.  When we truly seek something with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, we will find it... one way or another.

Jesus gave us a hint on how we can stay straight when it comes to this very thing.  He told his disciples:  "But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things shall be added to you." (Matthew 6:33)  What Jesus meant by "these things" was: safety, security, career stability, basic needs, wants and even things you might desire.  In other words, if your will is lined up with God's will---you won't ever have to worry about any of the things that you seem to be worried about all of the time.

You might be thinking, "But you don't know the mistakes I've made.  You don't know what I've done.  I haven't sought after the kingdom of God in so long---maybe never.  I have fallen so far away from God..."

It doesn't matter.  God isn't finished with your story.  Resurrection is around the corner.  Keep turning the page.

When we finally learn to seek God's will and not our own we get the chance to experience the redemption of even our most selfish decisions. 
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