Monday, 18 June 2018

The Lord looks at the heart- David is chosen

We find the prophet Samuel in mourning. Israel’s first king, Saul, is a failure. The one Samuel anointed, the one God chose, has failed. …

But, God speaks up, “it’s time for something new. I know we had high hopes for Saul, but he’s just not working out.”.

Samuel gets his oil and sets out for Bethlehem. He is careful not to raise suspicion, so he takes an animal for sacrifice. He’s just doing his rounds- caring for the people’s souls. If Saul found out what God was planning, he might try to kill Samuel and anyone who looked like they were helping him.

When he arrives in Bethlehem he invites a man named Jesse and his sons to the ceremony. A prophet doesn’t come to town for no reason. They know something is up. The prophet has Jesse present his eldest son to him. He is tall, attractive and strong. Samuel gets out his oil, but God stops him saying,
“Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

I once heard the pastor Eugene Peterson describe how his mother told him this story. She would embellish on the story, so she said the eldest was presented and he was big and strong, just full of muscle. But he wasn’t chosen. … The next oldest was presented. He was very smart. He wore a tweed jacket, dark-rimmed glasses, and had 3 PhD’s. But he wasn’t chosen. … The next was smooth. Just a really cool person. Everyone wanted to be seen with this guy. But he wasn’t chosen. …. The next brother was very charismatic. He could really motivate people. But he wasn’t chosen. … Every brother who was presented had a good reason to be chosen based on their outward appearance, but they were ultimately not the chosen one. … Finally, all of his sons pass before Samuel, and all of them are rejected by God to be king.

Samuel thinks, “There’s something wrong here”. Confused he turns to Jesse, “Are these all your sons?”

Jesse looks confused, “well there’s the youngest- he’s looking after the sheep” there isn’t anything special about him though. If you rejected my other sons, I don’t understand why he would be the one.”

Samuel tells Jesse to bring him.

David finally arrives, he is anointed the next king of Israel, and God’s Spirit comes upon him. The little shepherd boy that Jesse didn’t even think to bring with him to the ceremony.

It is like the story about the sword in the stone. The sword is stuck in a stone, magically imbedded in it. Only the true and future king of England can free the sword. Strong men from all over the country line up for an opportunity to pull on the sword and take their place as the rightful king of England. But, it was a small boy, a nobody, who accidentally draws the sword, making him the future king.

David, this young and relatively unimpressive boy- a nobody, is anointed the new King of Israel. He was chosen for his heart, and not his outward appearance. David will be the King of God’s people- Abraham’s descendents who God would use to bless the whole world. Both books of Samuel are really all about David, he is the central figure. David is the one who establishes Jerusalem (otherwise known as the City of David) as the capital of Israel, and solidifies the country. David is the one who makes plans for the building of the temple that would become the center of Judaism. The songbook of the Bible- the Psalms- are said to have been written by or for David. David is the king against whom all other kings will be judged. … The awaited messiah, called the “Son of David”, is from David’s family. The little shepherd boy changes his people and becomes a pivotal figure in his religion. God uses the humble, unexpectedly.

God has this thing with using the unassuming. Even though Moses had a speech problem God sent him to negotiate with Pharaoh and communicate God’s Law. Jesus, a carpenter’s son, was from Nazareth. A joke about the place made it into our Scriptures- “can anything good come from Nazareth”. … Who thought Abraham and Sara, an elderly couple with no children, could give birth to a nation that would bless the world? Who thought a little nun named Theresa could make a difference in the poverty of Calcutta? Who thought that a tax collector and bunch of fishermen would make good disciples to spread God’s good news to the world?

Wouldn’t it have been better to pick someone who had a university degree? Someone who had experience speaking in public? Someone with administrative ability (well maybe the tax-collector did)? But, no, God chooses the unassuming. Maybe it is because there isn’t as much of an ego to deal with. Maybe it is so that people will know that it is God, because otherwise it wouldn’t make sense. The credit goes to God in all these cases. Who would have believed that fishermen could preach and teach like that?

My favorite saint is Francis of Assisi. He lived a life of incredible simplicity, but accomplished an amazing amount in his short life. One of Francis’ companions was Masseo. He was a great preacher, and he was a handsome man as well. Perplexed, Masseo once repeatedly asked Francis as they walked along the road, "Why after you?" When Francis asked him what he meant he said, "I mean, why does all the world seem to be running after you and everyone seems to want to see you and hear you and obey you? You are not a handsome man. You do not have great learning or wisdom. You are not a nobleman. So, why is all the world running after you?" Francis thought for a moment, then replied by quoting 1st Corinthians 1:27: "God has chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise."

Jesus preached that a kingdom had arrived- God’s kingdom. In this Kingdom everything was upside down. The first will be last. The fishermen will teach the religious experts. The blind will be the ones that see. The tax collectors and prostitutes will enter the kingdom before the priests and religious. The greatest among them will be a servant. Their king will save them by dying, not killing. And unless you become like little children you will never even enter the kingdom.

I guess the point is that we should be ready to be surprised by what God does, and who God chooses to work through. We should keep ourselves open and beware of our prejudices. We need to be willing to “not consider appearances”, and look as God looks, at the heart. … We also need to be willing to be a little upside down and backwards from the world from time to time. … We should also beware of saying, “God would never use me to do something in the world” because it seems like that is exactly who God does use to make a difference in the world. David, the little shepherd boy, was so unexpected to be in line for the throne they didn’t even bring him to the ceremony. And yet, God works through the unassuming.

Thursday, 14 June 2018

don't change me, change the system- 1 Sam 8- the call for a king

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God is so amazingly gracious that He works for us even when we work against God. In Romans 5:7-8 Paul says, 

“Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”
 We can imagine dying for someone who has been important to us. We would be willing to die to protect our child. Or, we would be willing to die for a parent or a mentor who has loved us and treated us well. … But, would we be willing to die for someone who sued us? Would we be willing to die for the playground bully? Would we die for an enemy? … Paul says that is exactly what God was willing to do. God worked to save us while we were actively working against God and God’s good plans for the world.

We see that same character trait at work in today’s reading from 1 Samuel. The elders of Israel come to Samuel, and they are not impressed with Samuel’s children. They don’t think his children will be good leaders. They wanted a change. They were rejecting the old pattern of priests and judges who were leading the tribes of Israel. And you have to admit that as you read through that time in their life, things weren’t exactly going well. But the problem wasn’t really their political structure. 

At that time they were a alliance of tribal groups who were occasionally led by people called “judges” who God rose up as they were needed. Other than that the elders and the priests seemed to give leadership. The real problem was that they were stuck in a cycle of rebellion against God. This is called the judges cycle. Things would go well and they would ignore God and turn to other gods, then things would go poorly for them as they stepped out from under God’s protection, then they cried out to God and God would raise up a judge who would come and defeat whatever enemy was attacking and peace would be restored, which is when they would turn away from God and God’s ways again. So, the problem wasn’t really the political system, it was the people living within it.

Perhaps the same is true for us. Capitalism can be a great system. It has brought more wealth to more people than any other system we know of. But the greed of human beings can turn that system into an oligarchy, where wealthy corporations run the show for their own advantage. Then if people get crushed under the wheels of that machine… well…. That’s just business. … Capitalism works well as long as generous and caring people participate in it to help those who fall through the cracks (and every system has cracks). There are many people calling for a socialist shift, but perhaps the problem isn’t the system. Perhaps those participating in it has been walking off the path God and his prophets have set. The path that calls for generosity towards the widow and orphan- the path that calls for a consideration of a transcendent reality that will ultimately have to be answered to regarding how people are treated and the integrity of each human being- a path that calls for a Sabbath even for servants and animals once per week. Capitalism can work, if compassionate and generous people are a part of it at every level.

Those who call for a change of the system don’t realize the same is true of their system. Those who call for a communist shift look around at the experiments in China, North Korea, and Soviet Russia, and they see how it has failed. They think something was wrong with the structure- in some way it wasn’t “done right”. I suspect they same will be true o this system as of others. It depends if you have people of integrity working at every level of that system. Without people of integrity the system quickly degenerates. Even worse, when sinful, greedy, prideful people get in power they can turn any system into a hellish reality.

On the other hand, if you have people of truly godly integrity in the positions of power, any system can likely work well. I’m sure there were times in human history when a monarchy worked well as long as good people were involved. If there was a queen or king who understood themselves as a servant of God and understood that they would at some point stand accountable before God regarding the widow and orphan in their kingdom, I can imagine that system working well.

But back to our story. The assumption of the elders who came to Samuel seemed to be that the system was the problem (rather than the people in it). They were calling for a new system. They wanted to take a lesson from the other nations and use a new model of governance by appointing a king.

Samuel is upset by this. It seems like he sees it as a rejection of his leadership, but God says that it isn’t a rejection of Samuel, it is the people’s rejection of God. God doesn’t seem to be surprised. God says to Samuel, “…they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods…”. God is not surprised.

Since the people were rescued from Egypt there has been a tendency to turn away from God and towards the ways of the nations around them especially their worship of various gods. When Moses was receiving the commandments he came down the mountain to see the people worshipping a golden calf. Over and over again they were tempted to turn away from God and to turn towards some other nations’ gods. … The whole Bible has been described by some in two parts- God’s rescue of the people from slavery in Egypt, and the second and longer rescue, which is rescuing the people’s hearts that are constantly being drawn back to slavery in Egypt.

In their latest call for a king, we might as well say they were calling for a pharaoh. We might rightfully ask if they have every really left Egypt. The God we have though, is the God who pursues us anyway.

I once heard a (true) story about a pastor whose son rejected everything his father stood for. His son ended up in a bad crowd and became addicted to powerful narcotics. His father tried to get him to come home, but he was an adult and didn’t want to have anything to do with his dad. The man got used to the idea that his son was lost to a world of drugs.

One day he got a call in the middle of the night that his son was in jail. He got up and put on his coat and made his way down to the police station. When he got there the person working the counter said that there was no one there with his son’s name. He told her that he would not be there in the middle of the night if he didn’t get a call. Could she please check again, could she please check other police stations. She did and there was no sign of his son in their system.

Perplexed, the father decided he would try to track down his son. He knew he sometimes stayed at a crack house in a certain part of town. He drove up to the house that had more dandelions than grass. He walked up to the door and it found it open. He walked in and his eyes scanned the bodies strewn about all over until his eyes caught his son sleeping on the couch. He quietly walked over, thankful that his son was okay, and kissed him on the forehead. Then he left and went back home without waking his boy up.

6 month later his son called him. He told him that he was clean, and that he was holding down a job, and that he was even going to church again. The son wanted to have lunch with his dad, so they met. At some point during lunch the son asked his father, “aren’t you going to ask what brought about the change in me?” The father, so grateful for the transformation he sees in his son hardly cares, but he asks anyway, “what happened?”. His son looks him in the eyes and says, “I wasn’t asleep when you kissed me on the forehead”.

It was the realization of his father’s love for him that, even in the middle of the night, he was willing to drive to a sketchy part of town and walk into the sketchiest house on that block to find his son and kiss his forehead.

I think that is the kind of God we have we make all kinds of wrong turns and like a GPS God recalculates a course correction for us to get us back on track. ….

And so for the people calling for a king. God tells Samuel to listen to the people, but God will continue to chase them. He will continue to work with them, even in their rejection. God will continue to find a way to save his children. Even when they reject him by killing him on a cross, he will even use that to save them.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Hearing God's Voice- 1 Sam 3

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We meet Samuel in our reading as the nation is on the doorstep of a major transition. The nation was made of a number of tribal groups, who were sometimes led by judges (something like a mixture of warrior and a prophet). The book of Judges is a book about the deterioration of God’s people. By the end of the book they are in a deep dark hole. During Samuel’s time the people will transition to being a kingdom under the rule of a king.

The spiritual state of the people probably has something to do with why it says, 
“The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.”
 It could be that God wasn’t active in communicating, but I suspect it is more likely that the people had entered into a space where they were unwilling to hear and live according to the word they might hear. In the book of Judges the people were stuck in a pattern or turning away from God, which led to things going badly for them, then they would turn to God for help; God helped them, but when things went well they once again turned their back on God.

There are things we can do that will make it hard for us to hear God’s word to us. One definition of sin is that it is separation from God. Sin will make it hard to hear God’s word to us. If we are unwilling to follow what God will say (if we were to hear God speak), that indicates a heart that is not trusting of God's direction. A heart like that will not hear God easily. We might also lead a life of distracted hurry where we rarely take time to be quiet- that too will make it difficult to hear God. Whatever the reason, it seems like the people rarely heard communication from God.

It is during this dark time in the history of Israel that we meet little Samuel, who was placed into the care of the priest Eli by his parents. We don’t know how old he is at this point, but let’s imagine maybe he is a 10 year old boy. He has grown up serving in the temple and being trained under the old priest Eli. Serving God was that boy’s whole life.

One night (well it was actually very early in the morning) as the two of them were sleeping- the priest Eli was sleeping in his room near the sanctuary and Samuel was sleeping in the sanctuary near the Ark of the Covenant- Samuel hears a voice calling him.

We have a God who communicates. Our Bible describes God speaking with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God speaks to the family of Abraham. God speaks to Moses, using a burning bush to get his attention. God sends angels, who are messengers. God sends dreams and visions. Sometimes God communicates dramatically, and sometimes- like Elijah standing at the entrance to the cave- God speaks with a still, small, voice. One translation says it was the sound of sheer silence by which God communicated. ... Our God wants to communicate, but it’s more than that, God wants to have a relationship with His people. In our reading today God seems to be speaking with an audible voice- though perhaps it was a voice only Samuel could hear.

I think it is not insignificant that at this moment of darkness and transition that God chooses a young boy to be his prophet. God values the humility Samuel represents. Humility and obedience to God’s will seem to be important elements for hearing God. These are elements we see in those called to be prophets- often they refuse God’s call believing they aren’t special enough to be a part of God’s plan. I suspect that is why Jesus chose fishermen rather than religion scholars when he was starting his movement.

So little Samuel is sleeping when he hears a voice calling to him. Twice he thinks the old priest Eli is calling to him. I think this tells us a few interesting things about God’s voice that are worth reflecting on. 

The first thing that stands out to me is that to Samuel the voice seemed familiar. It didn’t sound like a foreign voice. It was so familiar to him that he thought it was the voice of the man who was a father to him, so he ran to Eli. This man took care of him. He taught him to serve God. He fed him. He made sure he was safe. This man seems to have been a caring father to Samuel. 

God’s voice also called him by name. God didn’t say, “you boy”. God said, “Samuel”. God is personal. God knows us intimately. As the Psalmist says, “it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb” (139:13). And in Jeremiah 1 God says, "before I formed you in the womb I knew you".  God speak as someone who knows you, not as a stranger.

You can also learn something about your view of God by how you imagine God’s voice in this passage. Is it a booming and demanding “SAMUEL!” or is it a loving father waking his child up, “Samuel, it's time to get up”. In my mind there is a gentleness to God’s voice. If Samuel mistook the voice for Eli's voice then we have reason to believe it was a gentle voice. The second time Samuel wakes Eli up he says, "
I did not call, my son; lie down again." I hear all kinds of gentleness in that "my son".          

There is also a persistence to God’s voice. God doesn’t just call out once and then give up. God gave Samuel time to figure out what was going on, so he kept calling. … But notice how important Eli’s guidance is here. What if Eli told the boy that he was just dreaming and to God back to bed? Or what if he told him he was just hearing things, or said that he was crazy? That would have had a huge effect on the nation because they would have lacked Samuel's leadership. The guidance of Eli is crucial for Samuel to hear God. 

That makes me think about our role with the children around us. Do we help them hear and understand God's call to them, or do we too easily encourage them to pass by God’s call? Do we teach them to hear God’s call, or do we teach them that it is just their imagination playing tricks on them? … This isn’t easy. Sometimes it IS their imagination. But we are called to discernment and wisdom as we guide the young. I wonder what leaders the world as been denied because there was no one willing to be an Eli in a young person's life.   

 Thankfully, Eli was wise and discerning and by the third time Samuel came to him he realized what was going on. He gave him the direction, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, 'Speak, LORD, for your servant is listening.'”

Samuel follows Eli’s direction and hears a message from God. But it isn’t a pleasant message. Part of hearing God is being willing to do the difficult thing God is asking. God gave a message that Eli’s irreverent and hypocritical sons would be removed from their service as priests. Understandably, Samuel doesn’t want to share what God Spoke to him, but Eli insists.

I think this is another aspect of the story we don’t want to miss. A prophet who has to share difficult news finds it painful to do so. Samuel was full of fear, not “righteous indignation” and judgement. The prophet Jeremiah was known as the weeping prophet. He loved his people, but he saw the terrible things that were going to happen to them. I once heard someone say you should not talk about hell unless you have tears in your eyes. … The false prophets told people what they wanted to hear and so people loved being around them, but the true prophets were willing to speak the hard words of necessary correction- and they were hard words to speak as well as hard words to hear.

Samuel began a long relationship with God through his willingness to hear and act on what God said to him. Samuel is considered by some to be the most important prophet next to Moses. It is through Samuel that the people went from being a group of tribes to being organized under a king. This wasn’t necessarily a good transition, but it was one that God used.

I think that Samuel was called to a very specific ministry and so he heard God in a very specific way. … I also believe that God speaks to people now. I know of one person who heard an audible voice from God coming from the backseat while he was driving. It was only once and he was not someone inclined to the charismatic side of the church. We was a humble and quiet banker. … Hearing a voice like that is unusual, but I think there are ways that we can all hear from God.

Generally, God probably won’t make a point of communicating something to us that is plainly a part of the overall message of Scripture. I suspect God isn’t going to wake us up in the middle of the night to tell us not to murder (unless, maybe, we are in the midst of planning a murder, but I suspect we aren’t very open to hearing God’s voice at that point). When we take Scripture as a whole and we consider the general principles we can derive from it, reading it through the person of Jesus, we have a pretty good general sense of what God is wanting to say to us. And anything God is going to say to us is not going to be in contradiction to the person of Jesus.

The main way we hear God personally is through an impression on our spirit, or as an experience in our thoughts. An impression on our spirit is something like the feeling of conscience. When you are about to do something you know is wrong and something in you doesn’t feel right, that’s conscience. The regret you feel after doing something you shouldn't have is also your conscience. When you know you should do something to help someone, the pressure inside you is your conscience. Similarly, you will sometimes have thoughts enter your mind. And I have to admit that it isn’t always easy to discern between my thoughts and God’s voice. Sometimes it is only after the fact that you have a hint as to which one it was.

We should not be surprised that God communicates with us. If God is real, and the God Jesus reveals to us is who God actually is, then we should expect that we will hear from God. And we should also beware of saying things like, “who am I that God would speak to me?” because that seems to be the exact prerequisite in the Bible for someone God speaks to. God spoke to a shepherd with poor public speaking skills named Moses. God spoke to a little boy, not the priest. I suspect God is speaking to more of us that we realize, but perhaps we need the voice of Eli to tell us to listen and to identify that voice. AMEN
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