1 Samuel 15: 10-23, 34-35
June 3, 2012
Except sometimes, it never happens. Maybe the big-name coach couldn’t recruit in his new surroundings, or the up-and-coming-er took one step up the coaching ladder a little too soon. Maybe the big-name player got his money and lost his desire to win; or never found chemistry with his new teammates. Hundreds of thousands of booster dollars, paid to fire the last coach and bring in the new one –down the drain. Shrinking cap space from an overblown player contract, now strangling the team like a vice.
And so the athletic director or team owner has to face the cameras once again, but this time he is not beaming. Before the sports world and with forlorn face, he makes his mea culpa; and he is forced to say the four words that are as bitter coming out of his mouth as the losses that brought him to this place: “It didn’t work out.” “We made a mistake.”
Every year this sort of thing happens in college and the pros, in football and basketball and other sports. It happens in the business world, too; when you bring in a CEO that doesn’t take the company to the next level. It happens everywhere. And so someone else is hired to take their place, and it starts all over again. You never can tell, really, if a new coach or player or other hire is going to work out like you hope it will. But you can always hope – and that’s the thing. You always have hope.
Hope is what the priest and prophet Samuel had in mind when he left the confines of the tabernacle one day to go out and anoint Israel’s first king. Except it wasn’t an Armani-suited coach or a free agent running back he put his trust in. It was a farmer – a rural farmer he was called to anoint king. Think Jimmy Carter, plucked from the peanut farms of Georgia and plopped in the White House! That’s kind of what it was like when Saul became king.
Now the fact that the Israelites even had a king was worth noting. God’s people had been settled in the Promised Land for a hundred years or so, making it their home and slowly forming the Israelite nation. And at some point the people began to look at the nations around them, and they noticed: everyone else had a king, except them. So they complained to God and to Samuel, and told them they wanted a king, that they needed a king, that they couldn’t be a “real nation” without a king.
To say God was less-than-enthused about the idea would be putting it mildly. Through Samuel, God told the people that it wasn’t all fun and games with a king around. That’s because kings had ultimate power and authority; which meant they could do kingly things like levy taxes whenever they wanted, or institute forced labor, or take livestock from people on a whim. There was a definite downside to having a king, and God tried telling them.
But the people kept insisting: we want a king! And so God finally gave them one; and a rural farmer from the sticks was sent to the throne.
At first there was great hope, as there always is at the start. But soon that hope began to fade. And it wasn’t that Saul was a bad person or abused his power as future kings would. It was just – well, it was just he wasn’t up to the job. That’s pretty much it. And you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy as you watch events unfold. The more Saul tried to do the right thing, the more he messed things up. You know any people like that? You know people who seem to perpetually take one step forward and two steps back? Meet their patron saint, King Saul of Israel!
Like the time he engaged the Philistines in battle without Samuel present. That would be like the Yankees of old beginning a baseball game without a Steinbrenner in the stands. Or the time Saul got angry at his troops after a lost battle and decided to punish them by withholding food for a couple of days. Cause, you know, starving soldiers are going to perform so much better than well-fed ones!
The last straw occurred when Saul took riches from a foreign nation after defeating their army – breaking a strict Hebrew code against collecting spoil. He told Samuel he was taking it to offer as a sacrifice to God – and in all honesty he probably was. That was pretty much the story on Saul – good heart, poor execution.
And that was it – both God and Samuel realized that Saul was unsalvageable. There was no denying it. And so Saul, bless his heart, was let go, without even the dignity of a press conference and thanks from his former employer. And God, we are told, was sorry that he ever made Saul king, and regretted the decision, as did Samuel.
Sometimes in the sporting world, a school or team is able to bounce back from a difficult period fairly quickly. And that certainly was the case for Israel. The very next chapter takes Samuel to a man named Jesse, and a son of his out in the fields named David. We know all how that turned out! So it’s easy to kind of brush over the whole Saul thing, because in the end everything worked out okay.
But you know, I think it may be worth our while to stop for a minute – stop and kind of hover in this state of uncomfortableness. This whole deal with Saul’s failure and God’s regret. I mean, that sounds kind of harsh, doesn’t it – especially coming from an omniscient and omnipotent God. It forces us to face some difficult questions, like: whose failure is this? Is it Saul’s, or is it Samuel’s? Did Samuel get it wrong? Did God?
At the Bob Chilton Bible study this past Wednesday, where we look at the scripture I’m preaching on that Sunday, one of our members point-blank asked me, “There are hundreds of thousands of verses in the Bible – why in the world did you pick these?” And it’s true, the 15th chapter of 1 Samuel is not exactly a feel-good, everything-wrapping-up-all-nice-and-neat passage! I’ve been kicking this one around for months. It’s one of those weird preacher things where a scripture gets stuck in your head and, try as you might to let it go, it won’t let you go. Which is unfortunate, since this whole notion of something God ordained not working out doesn’t exactly leave you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside.
I used to have a little old lady who lived next door to me in my condo outside Winston-Salem, right after I got out of college. Ruby and I would always have these wonderful little conversations when our paths crossed during the day – about the weather, or the latest election, or the goings-on in our town. Ruby was also a master theologian, and her sadness at seeing me leave a few years later was brightened only by the fact that I was going to seminary. Her theological arsenal consisted of a dozen or so sayings that voice her supreme and utter faith in God – one of those being, “God don’t make no mistakes.” Every time I hear that, I think of Ruby.
I wonder what Ruby would think about this story in the 15th chapter of 1 Samuel. Did God make a mistake in picking Saul? Or, even worse, was God trying to prove a point with him? After all, remember, God didn’t want the people to have a king anyway – what better way to “show them” than give them a lemon from the start. Is it true that Saul should’ve never been king in the first place?
You know, it’s funny how we always look for blame when things don’t go right – you notice that? When the coach or star player doesn’t pan out, there has to be a reason; the coach wasn’t ready for the big job or the player was simply past his prime. When the business tanks, what errors did the CEO make? When the election is lost, who’s responsible for the failed strategy?
Sometimes there is blame to go around. But you know, sometimes, when life doesn’t go according to plan, it’s not about blame as much as it’s about circumstances and choices – and what we do with those. Sometimes it really is as simple as that. And the fact is that Saul made some pretty bad choices in certain circumstances. It wasn’t that Saul wasn’t trying; and it wasn’t that Samuel or God had made a bad decision.
No, what it boils down to is this: people make mistakes. People mess up. It is the one thing that every single person on this planet – past, present, and future – has in common with everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re a legendary coach or a janitor; a star basketball player or a CEO, an anointed king or the guy serving your hamburger at the drive-thru. It doesn’t matter if your salary is in the millions, or you have no salary. Everyone makes mistakes. And when we put our full trust and confidence in someone else, if we expect them to be someone they are not, they will disappoint us. They will never live up to our expectations as long as we expect more out of them than we should.
So does this mean we should stop trusting people or expecting good things out of them? Of course it doesn’t! All it means is that we don’t make people out to be bigger or more important or more valuable than they are. When that new coach is brought on board, or when that star player is signed, we have to be reasonable with what to expect from them. Because in the end, we are called to see everyone around us in the same way that God sees them – as equal children of God.
It also means that we place our ultimate hope and trust in the only source deserving of it. Because in the end, God is the true source of our grandest hope; a hope that came to full fruition when God walked this earth with us, lived among us, taught and healed us, died for us, and rose to new life for us.
So if we want a king, like those Israelites did; a king that won’t abuse his power and will rule us with justice and compassion, we need to king Jesus.
If we want a political leader who is above reproach and who takes everyone’s interest at heart, we need to elect Jesus.
If we want a CEO or local business owner who manages our assets wisely and always keeps the best interests of the investors in mind, we need to hire Jesus.
If we want a minister who will preach the best sermons and never makes mistakes or lets us down, sorry to say it folks, you got the wrong guy – you need to call Jesus.
If we want a parent who never loses their temper, always fixes the best meals and never misses a soccer game or dance recital, we need Jesus.
You can go on and on! And see, that’s exactly what God was trying to tell the people all those years before, when they were begging for a king, said they couldn’t live without a king. It’s what God tried telling them: Kings will disappoint you – but I never will. Kings will let you down – I won’t. Kings are human, just like you. Let me be your king. Let me be the one you place your ultimate trust and hope in.
It was a hard lesson God’s people had to learn all those years ago. And like I said, you can’t help but feel a little sorry for Saul; for displaying the very essence of his humanity at the worst possible times.
But if Saul’s saga tells us anything, it’s that it’s not about fault or blame. It’s not even about who is wrong or who made a mistake. It’s about the fact that God works through all of us, sometimes even in spite of ourselves, showing us through our weakness that Jesus is – should be – our king; yesterday, today, tomorrow. We will never live up to our own expectations. God always will. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God. AMEN.