Sunday, August 05, 2007

Who is the King? - A Sermon preached in Holy Trinity Church, Dromore (Tyrone) on 5th August 2007. 1 Samuel 12:1-25

If God was in the dock, what would you accuse him of? If you had your day in court, how would things turn out?

In our reading this morning, we find Samuel convening a court case, as it were, between the people of Israel, and God. But as we’ll see, when we have God in the dock, it is actually us who are the accused.

Picture the scene. The Israelites have confirmed Saul as king at Gilgal, and they’re having a party to celebrate. Then Samuel stands up for, what the NIV heading calls ‘Samuel’s farewell speech’ (even though he is far from finished).

Samuel had been the leader of the people of Israel from his youth. He was the boy who had heard God’s voice in the temple at Shiloh, and had grown to be the leader of the people. In many ways, he was God’s representative, God’s spokesman.

So into the middle of the celebrations, he gathers the people together for what goes on in this chapter. The opening verses might seem a bit strange, as he asks if he has taken anyone’s ox or donkey, or if he has cheated or been bribed. But if you look at verse 3, he is establishing his credentials as a witness.

If you’re called to court to give your witness, they will make sure you’re going to tell the truth – by making you swear on the Bible, perhaps. But here, Samuel gives his record as a leader as the basis for the truth of what he is going to say. Because he hasn’t lied or cheated or stolen in the past, then they are going to have to listen to his testimony now!

(But there’s more going on here. Verse 3 tells how he led the people – with justice and fairness. It is in contrast to the warning he gave the people in 1 Samuel 8 about what the future king would be like – ‘he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses… he will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your field and vineyards and olive groves … He will take a tenth of your grain … He will take a tenth of your flocks’ (1 Sam 8:11-18).)

Can you see the language of the court there – testify (3), witness (5), evidence (7). But rather than God being in the dock, accused; it is the people who are the accused. Samuel is going to (verse 7) ‘confront you with evidence … as to all the righteous acts performed by the LORD for you and your fathers.’ Why are they the accused? Well, because of how they have acted under God’s kingship.

Samuel launches into the familiar story of the people of Israel, reminding them (and us) of their past. Of how in Egypt, the people cried out for help to the LORD, and he rescued them by sending Moses and Aaron. The people of Israel were saved from Egypt and brought into the promised land.

Surely now they would obey God? Surely not – verse 9 shows how they forgot God when they were in the promised land. God had warned them before they entered the land of the consequences of forgetting him, yet they turned around and forgot him! So they came under attack from Sisera, and the Philistines, and the Moabites.

These enemies didn’t all attack at once, though. If you’ve read the book of Judges, you’ll know there was a familiar pattern – Israel would forget God, Israel would come under attack, Israel would remember God and cry out for help, God would send a judge (a deliverer / rescuer), there would be a time of peace, and then Israel would forget God and the cycle started again!

Verse 10 shows us part of that pattern. When they were under threat, then the people would cry out to God – ‘we have sinned; we have forsaken the LORD and served the Baals and the Ashtoreths. But now deliver us from the hands of our enemies, and we will serve you.’ (1 Sam 12:10) In response to their cry, God sent the judges – Jerub-baal (whom you might know better as Gideon), Barak, Jephthah and Samuel.

But then there came one threat too many – the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Ammonites were coming to attack, and the people decided they would rather have a king to rule over them. Look at verse 13. ‘You said to me, “No, we want a king to rule over us” – even though the LORD your God was your king.’

Do you see what Samuel is accusing them of here? It wasn’t that they wanted a king – they already had one – God was their king. Rather than trusting in God as their king, they wanted a king with skin – a human leader who they could see and follow.

Are there times when we do the same? We’re more loyal to the people around us than to God. We would rather do what we want than what God wants us to. We reject God and God’s ways in favour of doing our own thing, or following the people around us (1 Sam 8:5 tells us that they wanted a king like the other nations).

The people hadn’t rejected Samuel as their ruler (although, of course, this is why it is seen as his farewell speech, as he hands over leadership of the nation to the king). They had done much worse, in rejecting God as their king.

Samuel goes on to show just how foolish they had been in wanting the king with skin, compared with having God as king. Look at verses 16-18. While it might have been good to have a human king to lead them into battle, the king couldn’t do what God now does – in sending thunder and rain (during the dry season). Not only does the sign confirm that Samuel is speaking for God, but it also brings conviction of sin in the hearts of the people. Look at verse 19 – ‘Pray to the LORD your God for your servants so that we will not die, for we have added to all our other sins the evil of asking for a king.’

Samuel confirms that they have sinned – in verse 20 he says ‘You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart.’ You see, the people have been in the dock, and the evidence has been presented. Both they and their fathers have sinned against God by forgetting him, by turning their back on him, and seeking to go their own way – especially in wanting a king to rule over them.

We don’t fare much better. We too have forgotten God, as we live comfortably with all that we have. We have turned our backs on God. And we have sought to go our own way. We might not have wanted to crown someone else as king over us, but we have done something as bad – in wanting to be king or queen of our own lives – seeking to sit on the throne of our hearts – the place of God. And that, my friends, is the oldest sin in the creation – wanting to take the place of God. Satan tried it and was cast down for it. The punishment is still the same.

So is that the end of the matter? Have the people of Israel been convicted, as we are too, by the word of God? Yes and no. Yes, they have been convicted – there’s no doubt about it, they are guilty as charged. But there is hope in the court that day, just as there is yet hope for us. Their sin can be cleared, just as if they had never sinned, through God’s grace and mercy. Standing on this side of Calvary, we know that it is through Jesus that we are made right with God and justified before him.

For the people of Israel, verse 20 was their hope – ‘Do not be afraid’ (isn’t that marvellous – that even when confronted with their sin, and confronted by the thunder and rain as a sign of God’s power, the next words of Samuel are words of grace – do not be afraid – which appears in the Bible 65 times) – You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart.’

Their sin has been cancelled, the past is behind them. The focus is immediately turned to the present and future – don’t turn away, serve the LORD. Even though their request was evil, God has given them a king, and Samuel now lays out the two ways to live from here on. Look at verse 14. ‘If you fear the LORD and serve and obey him and do not rebel against his commands, and if both you and the king who reigns over you follow the LORD your God – good! But if you do not obey the LORD, and if you rebel against his commands, his hand will be against you, as it was against your fathers.’

They can go from here by serving the Lord, and obeying him; or they can make the same mistakes their fathers made before them, by rebelling. In essence, we have the same choice. As we confessed our sins at the beginning of the service, we have the choice now – will we continue to live in sin, making ourselves the rulers of our lives, or will we serve God, recognising the rightful king of our lives?

But we can’t do it on our own. Look at verses 22 and 23. ‘For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own. As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right.’

As we honour God, so he honours us, and will not let go of us – even when we mess things up. That is the covenant love of God, that he will not reject us, because we are his. But more than that, he doesn’t leave us on our own. For the people of Israel, Samuel promised to pray for the people, and also to instruct them. For us, we have a great high priest who prays for us, Jesus Christ, and the teacher who is the Holy Spirit. God has not left us on our own as we seek to please him. God is with us as we recognise his rule in our hearts.

And so, as we come to a close, you are left with two ways to live. Will you ignore the evidence from the court, and maintain your innocence, by claiming that you have the right to go your own way, the right to take charge of your own life? The warning is stark – ‘If you persist in doing evil, both you and your king will be swept away.’ (1 Sam 12:25)

Or will you, convicted by the evidence of God’s righteous acts and your rebellion, confess your sins, turn and serve God? The testimony of God surely commands you to serve God, because of what he has done for you.

‘Be sure to fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you.’ (1 Samuel 12:24)

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