Sunday, August 10, 2008

A Promising Start! 1 Samuel 11:1-15 Sermon in St Elizabeth's Church, Dundonald on Sunday evening 10th August 2008

He’ll not be any good. What can he do for us? With a new leader, all eyes are on them for the first few weeks. Indeed, a year into Gordon Brown being Prime Minister, people are still trying to get rid of him. Trying to size them up. Trying to work out what they’re really like. If they’ll be up to the job at hand.

Tonight, we’re thinking about Saul’s kingship, and specifically his first battle. Initially, we’ll see that Saul starts well. What a contrast to his downward pattern in the weeks to come. So what was it that makes Saul’s start a promising one? And as we look at the passage, let’s also be looking for the marks of a good leader of God’s people. What should we be looking for in leaders, and what should we be praying for them?

As we approach the passage tonight, it’s good to have the key question before us. In some ways, it is the challenge that this chapter answers. Look with me at chapter 10:27. ‘But some worthless fellows said, “How can this man save us?” And they despised him and brought him no present. But he held his peace.’

Saul had just been crowned as the first king over Israel. Yet some of his new subjects weren’t pleased with him. After all, rather than being bold, he had hidden himself among the baggage. Despite him being head and shoulders bigger than the rest of the men, he didn’t seem much of a leader.

Yet here again, the men are falling into the same sin of rebellion against God – looking to the man, as if he was their hope and their security, while all the time forgetting about God.

Perhaps we do the same, don’t we, when we have new colleagues at work, or a new curate! Indeed, it was the same for some in the early church, when they encountered the Apostle Paul. People thought he wasn’t good for much. His opponents in Corinth – ‘His letters are weighty and strong, but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech is of no account.’ (2 Cor 10:10). Or think of his own testimony in 1 Corinthians 2:3 ‘And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom…’

As we’ll see, though, we continue in sin if we place our trust in our leaders – even God-given leaders. Rather, our trust should be in God.

1. Who can save?

Saul’s first test, therefore, came about when a town in Israel was besieged. Jabesh-Gilead was a town on the east of the Jordan river, separated by the water from the rest of Israel, part of the original conquest before Israel crossed the river into the promised land. In order to help us see what’s going on at Jabesh-Gilead, it’s necessary to understand the recent history.

Saul was the first king of Israel, as I’ve said. Before him, Israel was led by judges, one-off leaders who were appointed by God to lead the nation in a time of difficulty. The pattern seemed to be that Israel would be comfortable, then would slip into sin. God would send an enemy against them to call them back, Israel would repent and call on God to save them, and the judge would be sent to lead and save the people. Then it would start all over again.

During this period, as the writer of Judges says, ‘ In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.’ (Judges 21:25). We can see this in the events unfolded in Judges 19-21. A Levite and his concubine had been travelling from Bethlehem to Ephraim, when they stopped over in Gibeah (the home town of Saul). But then worthless fellows come to the house they are staying in and assault and abuse the woman, so that she dies.

In order to summon Israel to right this injustice, the Levite gruesomely hacks his concubine’s body into twelve pieces and sends them to the tribes of Israel. Israel then goes to war against Benjamin, and defeats it. In sorrow, the other tribes then seek to devise a way of allowing the remaining men of Benjamin to have wives. It turns out that the men of Jabesh-Gilead hadn’t appeared at the assembly, so Israel attacks them, and takes their daughters to provide wives for the men of Benjamin.

In many ways it seems to have been independent, so that in Judges 21 when all Israel was called together to judge the tribe of Benjamin for its shameful treatment of the Levite and his concubine, the men of Jabesh-Gilead hadn’t turned up.

Maybe it was this independent attitude again, or maybe they thought that no one would help them – having previously been attacked by the other tribes. Whatever it was, whenever the Ammonites came and besieged them, they quickly wanted to surrender. They were ready to compromise straight away. No thought of their fellow countrymen, nor of their God.

It’s interesting to note, therefore, that it’s their enemy who reminds them of who they are. Look at verse 2. ‘”On this condition I will make a treaty with you, that I gouge out all your right eyes, and thus bring disgrace on all Israel.”’ The terms of surrender would be their right eyes – a way of disfiguring them, and making them less than whole. To lose an eye would make them useless in battle, with their left eye behind their shield. But more than that, it would cause shame and disgrace on Israel if this were to happen to the people of one of its towns.

Note also, that Nahash reminds them that they are part of the people of Israel. As if the people of Jabesh could have forgotten. It’s only now that they remember their fellow Israelites, and a possible way of rescue. But look even at what they say in verse 3. ‘”Give us seven days respite that we may send messengers through all the territory of Israel. Then, if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you.’”

The people of God are in a terrible situation. Besieged by enemies. Threatened with violence. Yet still they refuse to turn to God. Instead they look for some one else to save them. At least the people of Jabesh knew they needed a saviour, even if they were looking in the wrong places. Many in our own land tonight don’t even realise their need of the Saviour.

2. Saul the saviour?

News spreads throughout Israel, bringing the terror home to the towns and villages, as the messengers travel. In every place, it is met by tears and sorrow. Not much action though. As one commentator notes, Saul has a habit of making a dramatic entrance. Again, he’s missing from the scene – not hiding among the baggage this time, but out ploughing with his oxen. On hearing the news and seeing the sadness, Saul is stirred to action.

We’re told in verse 6 that ‘the Spirit of God rushed upon Saul when he heard these words, and his anger was greatly kindled.’ There’s the repeat of his previous experience – the Spirit of God rushing upon him (c.f. 10:10). Let us never forget that God is passionate, firstly for his own glory, but also for his people. We’re reminded so often about God’s love, but it’s also important to recall God’s anger and hatred of sin and injustice, which is just as much a part of the Gospel as God’s love.

Notice also that the Spirit of God moves Saul into action. Far too many Christians imagine that God gives us his Holy Spirit to give us a warm fuzzy feeling in our hearts. But the Spirit is given to move us to action, to mission, to service in the world.

As we read of Saul’s actions today, they may seem a bit gruesome. See how he takes the oxen he had been ploughing with, and hacks them into pieces, and sends off his amateur butchery to the tribes of Israel. (Here again we have echoes of the episode in Judges – only this time it’s the oxen that are butchered). This was a costly action for Saul, investing his own possessions in the struggle. But it was also the summons for Israel to come and follow him to war. If anyone didn’t come along, then their livelihood would similarly suffer.

The recruiting campaign seems to have been successful, with three hundred thousand from Israel, and another thirty thousand from Judah. Could Saul be the saviour after all? Things are looking up for Israel, and they’re also looking up for Jabesh-Gilead, with the message that they will have deliverance by the time the sun is hot tomorrow.

In order to throw the besiegers off course, and to relax them, the men of Jabesh-Gilead tell their attackers that they will surrender tomorrow. Obviously the Ammonites weren’t expecting a battle, and were unprepared when Saul and his three companies come to attack. The result? Complete success. The Ammonites are defeated, and either slaughtered or scattered, and Jabesh-Gilead has been saved.

3. God the Saviour

For most Israelites that day, it seemed that Saul had vindicated himself. Obviously Saul was able to reign, given that he was the one who had saved Jabesh-Gilead from the Ammonites. After all, he was able to answer the challenge of Jabesh – if there is no one to save us, we will give ourselves up to you. More than that, he was able to answer the challenge we thought of at the very start – ‘How can this man save us?’

In verse twelve, then, in the aftermath of the battle, as the dust settles, we see Israel embracing Saul as its saviour, its hope. So much so that it now seeks to defend his honour by putting to death the men who opposed his kingship.

But look at what Saul says in verse 13. He steps into the debate and reminds the people of where their true focus should be. Rather than focusing on Saul as their rescuer and deliverer, he points them back to the LORD, the true saviour.

When the men of Jabesh-Gilead had been in trouble, they looked for some one to rescue them. When Saul’s opponents had sized him up, they thought he would be unable to save them. They were quite right, from the human perspective.

But the secret of Saul’s promising start was that he was God’s man, doing the work of the Lord, in full trust of him. After all, wasn’t it the Spirit of God who had come upon Saul, inspiring him and calling him to action? Wasn’t it God who had brought out the huge army after Saul, when the dread of the LORD fell upon the people? Wasn’t it God who had guided the battle, and won the victory?

As Saul states clearly in verse 13: ‘Not a man shall be put to death this day, for today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel.’ Today the LORD has worked salvation in Israel. In recognition of this, the people of Israel return to Gilgal and renew the kingdom, making Saul king again, and sacrificing to the LORD in that place.

Once again, geography has something important to share here. Sometimes when we’re reading through the Bible, we just read the place names and maybe vaguely recognise them, but they don’t mean very much to us. Earlier, I said that Jabesh-Gilead was on the east of the Jordan. This was the land that had been conquered before the people passed over the river into the Promised Land. So most of Israel had to cross the Jordan to go and fight for Jabesh. When Samuel calls the people to go to Gilgal to renew the kingdom, it’s back across on the other side (western shore). In fact, Gilgal was the place where Joshua had built the twelve memorial stones from the river bed as a reminder of crossing the Jordan on dry land. It was also the place where the first Passover in the land was celebrated. Can you see how significant for Israel Gilgal was? It’s back where they first set foot in the land, and again, they renew the kingdom here. It’s as if they are starting afresh under God, back in the promised land.

Saul had a promising start in leadership because he obeyed the command of God, through the Spirit’s prompting, and because he gave all the glory to God, in pointing to the God who saves. We see his humility, his willingness to serve and his commitment.

These are the qualities, the characteristics that we should be looking for in our leadership. Will you join with me in praying for these very things? Oh how we need them. But more than that – in the passage we also see the benefits to God’s people when the leaders are obeying God’s command and pointing to the God who saves.

First, we see a unity among the people – ‘they came out as one man’. We also see gladness, joy – ‘Saul and all the men of Israel rejoiced greatly.’ We have already thought of how the people return to the LORD through this period as well. Aren’t these the things we want to see in our church family as well?

I have to admit that this was a daunting passage to preach for my first sermon here, and yet, it stands as a good pointer for us all of good leadership. Like Saul, some of you may say of me, well, what can he do? How can he save us?

The answer, my friends, is that I cannot. You will quickly spot my weaknesses and failings. But just like Saul, I will always be pointing you to God, the Saviour, the one who can save, the Lord Jesus.

So long as we seek to put our trust in our leaders, we will be frustrated. Instead, my focus, and I pray your focus, will always and only be on the Lord Jesus, the Saviour, because he has done all that is needed for our salvation. We just need to call out to him.

Earlier I read from what the apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthians, and I want to expand the quotation to ask you again to look to the Saviour.

‘And I, when I came to you brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.’ (1 Cor 2:1-5).

May we all have a promising start, and also a faithful ending!

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