I’m a great Tolkien fan, and have read Lord of the Rings several times, and seen both the films. I loved the second film as I followed the story through all the twists and turns as the various groups wind their way to Mordor, I was with them every step of the way. But a friend of mine who’d never read the books, and hadn’t even seen the first film hated that same film. He didn’t have a clue what was going on! He had a vague idea who Frodo was, but as the story jumped about from character to character, he couldn’t remember who they all were, or what they were supposed to be doing.
Sometimes reading the Bible can be a little bit like that. We can jump straight in to the middle of a book, and by the time we’ve worked out what’s supposed to be happening, the story is at its end, and we’ve missed the whole point.
So all we’re going to do today is to look at an overview of seven chapters of the book of Samuel. To do so, let me take you back 3,000 years to a time when there were no churches, very little of the Bible, and Jesus was just a glimmer of a promise that few people put any hope in at all.
We’re going to the country of Israel. Just like now it was a small nation surrounded by other countries who wanted nothing better than to crush Israel and take it’s land for themselves. But Israel saw itself as being a bit special — I mean, what other countries could claim that almost from the beginning of time the God who made the whole universe had chosen them to be his special people, to care for them, to guide them, and to show them how to live.
The problem was that whilst Israel loved to boast about how special they were compared to the other nations, they actually hated being different. It’s all very well going round telling everyone how special you are because God loves you, it’s quite a different matter living in a special way because you love God.
Perhaps that’s something you can identify with. There’s lots of perks to being a Christian. It’s wonderful, isn’t it, knowing that God is always there for us? He’s always ready to help, always at the end of our prayer hotline whenever we need him. But my first point today is that
God’s people are holy people
Being different is great when it means that God loves us in a special way, but it looses it’s lustre when being different means ‘Be holy, for I am holy’. It’s not quite as appealing when being different means not going to the parties which our friends seem to enjoy so much. Or when it means always putting in our very best work, no matter how we feel. Or when it means explaining to our friends the Bible says we mustn’t join them in so much of their pleasures.
That’s just how the Israelites felt 3,000 years ago. Being different was great — as long as they could decide when they could be different, and when they could be just the same as everyone else. But in our story the Israelites will soon realise that if they want God’s blessing, they must be different in the ways that he intends. It’s a truth that still applies today: if you want to be a Christian, if you want the tremendous privilege of knowing God as your friend, then you cannot be like the world. You must be distinct, you must be separate, you must be different.
When our story starts, Israel is not being very different at all. In fact, if you were suddenly transported back in time, I reckon that you’d have a great deal of difficulty working out which of the nations was God’s special nation. Now that’s not to say that there was no-one who dared to be different. 1 Samuel opens with the story of Hannah, who did live in the way the God intended. She had her problems, but when she started to struggle she turned towards God, and not away from him, as you can see in chapter 1 and verses 10 and 11. Incidentally, we should also notice that in the beginning of chapter 2, when things were good, she praised God, rather than becoming self-confident. That’s part of being different, isn’t it? I wonder whether you are like that. When things get tough, is God your first port of call, or do you try all kinds of other solutions and only turn to him when things get really difficult? And when things are going well, do you stop and give the praise to God? That’s what Hannah did. That’s what people who are different do.
But sadly, Hannah was the exception, and not the rule. You know a country is in trouble when it’s leaders behave worse than the people they are supposed to lead. But that’s what Israel was like. Look at chapter two and verse 12, and we see Hophni and Phinehas, Eli’s sons. They’re priests, God’s representatives, charged with leading the people in their worship of God. If anyone should dare to be different, it should be them. But are they different? Actually, they’re worse than everybody else: verse 17 ‘The sin of these young men was very great in the Lord’s sight, for they treated the Lord’s offering with contempt’.
It was no surprise that the future God had planned for Israel did not include a future for Hophni and Phinehas, as the end of chapter two makes plain. God will not be mocked. He wanted his people to be different, and those who refuse cannot be part of his plans. By the end of chapter four, Hophni, Phinehas and his wife, and their father Eli would all die on the same day.
Worse than the death of these leaders’ of Israel was the loss of the ark of God. This ark was not a boat full of thousands of animals, but a small intricately carved box, that had been with Israel since the days of Moses. God had asked for it to be made, and the presence of the ark was supposed to show God’s presence with his people. The capture of the ark by the Philistines, and the death of God’s appointed judge was a sure sign that God was no longer with his people Israel. No other nation had an ark. No other nation had God’s presence with them. Israel had wanted to live in just the same way as everyone else, and now their wish was granted. God had left them. Just as they wanted, they were now just the same as everybody else.
But, even before this happened, there was a silver lining to this very dark cloud. The silver lining came in the form of a young boy, probably not much older than most of you. His name was Samuel, he was Hannah’s son, and God had called him to be a prophet; as chapter 4 and verse 1 says, ‘Samuel revealed the word of the Lord to all Israel’.
To cut a long story a little bit shorter, when the ark was with the Philistines, God was there too. You can read the story in chapters six and seven. The problem for them was that his presence didn’t bring blessing, but punishment. The Philistines thought that God would treat them just like he treated the Israelites, but they had forgotten that God’s people were different. They thought they had defeated Israel’s God, but seven months of bubonic plague showed them that God was still in control. The ark was returned to Israel, and God showed the nations that Israel was different, even if Israel didn’t seem to recognise that itself.
But as well as being holy people,
God’s people are satisfied people
The way that this is explained in 1 Samuel is to show that those who were not God’s people were dissatisfied. You see, it was twenty years later, when Samuel was middle-aged, that Israel finally sat up and took notice that things were not as they ought to be. It wasn’t what you might call a Damascus road conversion, but if you look at chapter seven, you’ll see that ‘All of Israel longed for the Lord. Samuel said to the house of Israel, “If you are really turning to the Lord with all your hearts, remove from among you the foreign gods and the images of Ashtoreth. Give your hearts to the Lord and serve only him. Then he will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel removed the Baals and images of Ashtoreth. They served only the Lord.’
The Israelites had learnt some vital lessons. They learnt that they couldn’t be happy without God. They’d experimented with all the different religions round about them. They’d worshipped the foreign gods, and Baal and Ashtoreth. These gods didn’t demand very much: the odd sacrifice here and there, and plenty of pleasures along the way. If you wanted to be a good Baal worshipper, it was important that you slept with as many people as possible. Everyone was told that that would please the gods and to be honest, they didn’t require much convincing. They ignored God’s commands that sex is reserved for marriage between one man and one woman. They lusted after one another, and instead of looking to God for comfort, the men of Israel sought pleasure in the arms of their women.
It’s an easy trap to fall into, and I’d be shocked if many of you here are not currently making exactly the same mistake that the Israelites made three thousand years ago. I’m sure that there are people here today, who are more interested in their relationships with other people, than their relationship with God. I’m not necessarily thinking of sexual relationships here, though that may be true for some. But my point is more that if this church is anything like a typical evangelical church, then some of you are more interested in what your friends think of you, than what God thinks of you. I know this sounds incredibly rude, but I cannot begin to tell you how stupid that is. I know, because sometimes I am that stupid too. We only need to ask the question: what matters more? God’s opinion, or the opinion of your friends?
Now this problem effects different people in different ways. Perhaps I can speak, just for a moment, particularly to those you are younger. Perhaps there are some young people here who are more interested in one particular relationship than with God. There’s one boy, or one girl, and all your time is taken up with them. It doesn’t seem to matter anymore that there’s no time for church, there’s no time for prayer. It doesn’t seem to matter to you that you are no longer different from the world. Just like the Israelites in their pagan religions, love from a boy, or love from a girl is the most important thing to you right now. It’s what you value most.
You know the strangest thing in all of this? Those of you who crave the approval of your friends, and those of you who long for a ‘proper’ relationship with a boyfriend or girlfriend are not happy. You might be the centre of attention in your little group of friends, you might mean more than all the world to that special person in your life, but you know, and I know, that you will never find fulfilment in human relationships.
This brings a massive danger. We think that popularity will bring us happiness, but when it fails, our only solution is to make ourselves ever more popular. You might try kindness, giving people what they want in order to be their friends. You’re the one who gives everything to your colleagues, or who puts up with being the butt of everyone’s cruel jokes. However, you try, you’ll end in disappointment. Popularity will not bring you happiness.
Or you may think that love from a girl or boy is what you need. Listen to Charlie’s Angel’s star Drew Barrymore, “Love is the hardest habit to break, and the most difficult to satisfy.” You’ll find that she’s absolutely right. Can you all remember back to when you were very young, and just starting to get interested in the opposite sex. Then, you think that just having a boyfriend or girlfriend will be enough. You’ve got absolutely no idea what you’d do with one, but it would be cool to be say you have a girlfriend. But it doesn’t satisfy, does it? So you hope that holding hands, and a few trips to the cinema will be just what you need. It’s great, but it’s not enough. As you get older, you dream of better things: a snog behind the bike-sheds — it can’t get any better than that. And when you find that those pleasures quickly fade, you’re left with deepening your relationship physically to try and satisfy your desire. You go further than you ever intended, and often you end up washed-out, used, and empty. It’s one of the devil’s best tricks, and there’s millions of people around the world who’ve been sucked in and are now living a life full of regrets.
Isn’t it ironic that we long for life to be better, we want things to be different, and what is our solution? To try and be the same as everyone else. To follow the same path that the Israelites trod three thousands years ago. To be just the same as those around us. And to fail in the same way that they do.
But the Bible tells us that there is another way. We need to heed the advice of the apostle Paul: “Do not be conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may test and approve what is the will of God — what is good and well-pleasing and perfect.”
It took the Israelites twenty years to realise that they couldn’t be satisfied without their God. They were twenty unhappy years. Twenty dead years. Twenty wasted years. If you’re in that position now, don’t wait twenty years to sort things out. Learn from the Israelite’s mistakes, and do it now.
So how do we do it? What is required if we are to find satisfaction in God? The text tells us very clearly, so look at chapter seven and verse 3:
It was quite a long time — some twenty years in all — that the ark stayed at Kiriath Jearim. All the house of Israel longed for the Lord. Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are really turning to the Lord with all your hearts, remove from among you the foreign gods and the images of Ashtoreth. Give your hearts to the Lord and serve only him. Then he will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.”
That means my third point this morning is that
God’s people are repentant people
There’s three stages here in the Israelites restoration with God:
- The Israelites’ unhappiness forced them to cry out after God. They longed for him, and as so often in the Bible, when people call out to God he hears their cry and responds to them from heaven.
- The Israelites needed to remove the sin from their lives. They had to be different, they had to be holy. There was no way that they could have a restored relationship with God and carry on in their own ways. They had to make a choice.
- They had to give their hearts to the Lord and serve him. They gave up what they once valued, and gave themselves to God. That’s at the heart of what it means to be a follower of God.
You see, what was required from the Israelites was not simply a longing for something better. God wanted more than just remorse for past mistakes. He wanted more even than sobs and tears. Guilt and sorrow was all very well, but that was the start of Israel’s road to recovery, it was not the end.
Before I became a Christian there were many occasions when I would be upset and feel guilty about the way I was living. Sometimes I would be filled with a desire to do better, to ‘be good’. But that never made me a Christian, it never restored my relationship with God. For years, I never went beyond remorse, and I never saw the light at the end of the tunnel.
But Samuel made sure that the Israelites would not fall into that trap. By demanding that they gave up their old ways, and give themselves completely to God, he was insisting that their repentance was genuine.
Maybe you are one of those people who has tried many times to become a Christian. You believe what the Bible says, you want to be forgiven, you want to be different, and you’ve tried to repent. You’ve listened to the sermons, and you’ve tried to do what they say. You’ve prayed that God would forgive you, but nothing happened, and you felt just the same. You’ve prayed harder, and maybe there’s even been tears. But there’s still been no change. You’ve still not felt the power of God in your life.
If that’s the case, you need to learn the lessons that the Israelites learned. This was no turning over a new leaf, no New Year’s resolution. He wasn’t asking them to try harder, nor to do better. His demand wasn’t for more sincerity, or more tears, or better prayers. He didn’t insist that they said the right words, spoke to the pastor, came to the front, put up their hand, or got baptised. He insisted only that they relied completely on God.
So what was needed was an abandoning of the old ways, and a clinging to God himself. No more treasuring of past sins, no ifs, no buts, but unmistakable unshakeable allegiance to the God of Heaven and earth.
And that’s just what God demands today of those who would follow him. Didn’t Jesus say, ‘Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.’
Genuine repentance will always move beyond wet eyes and moved feelings and stirred emotions; it will cast down idols and cling to the only God who is there. How does this repentance come? Paul tells us that
Now I rejoice, not because you were made sad, but because you were made sad to the point of repentance. For you were made sad as God intended, so that you were not harmed in any way by us. For sadness as intended by God produces a repentance that leads to salvation, leaving no regret, but worldly sadness brings about death.
Notice that repentance follows sadness, and precedes salvation, and notice too that all these things come from God. Repentance will not earn you salvation, but when God wants to save you he will always bring repentance first. If you want to repent, draw close to God, call out to him, and keep calling until he answers. If you feel like you’ve been calling for weeks and days, then do not give up! If you really believe that you need him more than anything else, then act as though that is true. Until it’s sorted, forget your friends, forget your afternoon walk in the countryside, forget your Sunday lunch, and get alone with God, and stay there until he answers your prayer. And I promise you, if you call on him with all your heart, he will answer, he will hear your cry, and he will produce a repentance that leads to salvation.
But perhaps as you listen to this message you know that you already are a Christian. You know that once you walked closely with God, and it is only recently that you have started to worship those other idols.
Where is the blessedness I knew
When first I saw the Lord?
Where is that soul-refreshing view
Of Jesus and His word?
What peaceful hours I once enjoyed!
How sweet their memory still!
But they have left an aching void
The world can never fill.
In many ways my message to you is just the same — look at the Israelites response, and particularly verses seven and eight.
Here are the Israelites, they realise what a terrible situation they are in. They realise that they only have themselves to blame, and they no that there is nothing they could do to aid them in the situation they are in. In their desperation, and they are absolutely desperate by the time they get to verse 7, the only thing that they can do is to cry out to their God. Maybe you’re not as desperate as they are — but you should be! Too often we Christians have solved our problems with new ideas for prayer, new books, new meetings at church, new camps, new resolutions, new strategies, new gimmicks. God wants to solve our problems by giving us a new heart. Prayer, when it is a cry to the Lord, is never a pious cop-out, but rather the only solution to the myriad problems we face.
Return, O holy Dove! Return,
Sweet messenger of rest!
I hate the sins that made Thee mourn,
And drove Thee from my breast.
The dearest idol I have known,
Whate’er that idol be,
Help me to tear it from Thy throne,
And worship only Thee.
At the beginning of September, thousands of children all around the country will be looking for a new start in school or college. For many of them, dissatisfied with their last school year, they’re hoping that this week will offer them a fresh start.
There’ll be a new uniform, new pencil case, new excercise books, new teachers, maybe even a new school. Kids will be looking at SATS results, GCSE’s, A-levels, and full of regret will say to themselves: ‘this year, it’s going to be different’.
But what about you? Do you have that same determination? I’m not talking now about performance in school, but your relationship with God. There are people in this church, and in many other churches who are determined that they are going to be different from the world. They’re determined to put God first.
It’s those people who will be at the prayer meetings each week. It’s those people who’ll love to come to services like this. It’s those people who never miss a service because they love to be with God’s people. It’s those people who’ll make sure they have their own times alone with God each day. It’s those people who’ll want to pray with others in their family every day.
I’ve only been here once before, but know you well enough to know that most of you would say that you are Christians. But I have to say, it does look from here that some of you have not come to church this morning determined to meet with God. Determined to be different. I know I’m not the greatest preacher in the world, but I am telling you about the greatest God in the world. Isn’t that something that every Christian should want to hear? Doesn’t it thrill you to hear about all what God has done?
The world is not thrilled by God. But God’s people are thrilled by him. It’s him that makes the difference.
So, I wonder, what about you? Are you one of those people who are different? Are you determined to show that you are different? Determined to be holy? Determined to be satisfied only with God? Determined to be repentant? Determined to pray that above all things, that from now on, things will be just that little bit different.