Saul is famous for all the wrong reasons, and whenever you read his story you’re never quite sure whether he was a good guy or a bad guy.
I like that, you know. I often get the feeling that if anyone was to bother looking back at my life a hundred years from now, they wouldn’t be able to work out whether I was a good guy, or a bad guy. Perhaps the same is true of you, too. Sometimes, I love to be at church, to worship God, to pray, to talk to my friends about Jesus. At other times, I’d much rather be in bed, play computer games and hide in the corner. If you’re like that too, then we can learn an awful lot from the life of this man.
Now there are two Saul’s in the Bible, and this story is not going to make much sense if we get them mixed up. One Saul lived in the time of Jesus, persecuted the church, was converted on the Damascus road and changed his name to Paul. That is not the Saul we read about today. Our Saul, lived about 1100 years before Jesus, and became the first king of Israel.
As we look at Saul’s story, I want to give you two coins. My first coin is a big coin, and it tells us about God’s people. It’s got two sides, but like all coins you can only look at one side at once. But to know about the coin properly, you have to look at both sides thoroughly. My second coin is a small coin, and it tells us about God Himself. It’s also got two sides, and we’re going to make sure we look at both sides of that coin, too.
Let me show you the first coin, then. Here’s the side with the head on it, and there’s some writing around the side. It says:
God’s people are ordinary people
I want you to imagine a young man named Saul sitting in his kitchen one morning, halfway through eating his cornflakes when suddenly the door opens, and dad comes in. He’s looking rather flustered, and more than a little worried. Why? Well, his donkeys have gone missing.
It’s almost comical, isn’t it? All that fuss over a few donkeys. But donkeys were very valuable in those days, each one worth over a month’s wages. And it’s not as if Kish was concerned only about loosing his no claims bonus on his donkey insurance. If his donkeys could not be found, he would be seriously out of pocket, something that could take many years to put right.
So Saul sets off through the hill country of Ephraim, they pass through the land of Shalisha, but there was no sign of the donkeys. So they crossed through the land of Shaalim, but they were not there either. They try the land of Benjamin, but still have no luck. They eventually end up in Zuph, but, you’ve guessed it, no donkeys there either.
But the man who is wandering around the Judean countryside, in a forlorn search for his father’s missing donkeys, is about to be revealed as God’s chosen king. It’s not a very auspicious start, is it?
Imagine Saul applying for the job of King of Israel. He comes up before the panel for interview, and one of the personnel officers says:
‘Well, Saul, we’ve had lots of applications for this job, and we just want to ask you a few questions before we make any decisions. I wonder perhaps if you can tell us what makes you the right person for the job.
‘Erm... I’m quite resourceful.
What do you mean?
Well, the other day, I didn’t have any money, but I managed to borrow some of a friend... well, my servant actually.
Oh… I see. Was that a large sum of money then? A thousand shekels, perhaps?
Urm, not exactly. It was, urm, a quarter of a shekel.
Oh, that’s very resourceful. Well, we’ve got another application here, from a young man called David. It says here, that he’s killed bears and lions that have been attacking his sheep. Have you ever been able to handle wild animals like that?
Urm, not wild animals, no… But I did look for some donkeys once!
Some donkeys… Oh, really. Did you find them?
Well actually, they just sort of turned up of their own accord.
And David also says here that he once killed an enormous giant with a single shot. Ever done anything like that?
No, I’ve never killed a giant… I am quite tall though!
It’s laughable, isn’t it! I mean this guy is God’s chosen man to be king his chosen people. The only thing going for him is that he’s quite tall! The poor chap can’t even manage to find a few donkeys that have wandered off. He can’t even scrape together a quarter of a shekel to pay a prophet for his advice.
What on earth is God doing with an idiot like that? And what on earth is God doing with an idiot like you?
Perhaps you’ve got nothing to offer. You look back at your life, and it’s full of missed opportunities. You can count on one hand the number of people you’ve really spoken to about Jesus, but you’d need a calculator to work out how many opportunities you’ve let slip by.
But it’s not just missed opportunities. It’s also all those times when you feel you’ve completely failed as a Christian. There’s just been too many times when you haven’t been different. Too many times when nobody would have been able to tell that you were a Christian. Perhaps even now you can remember specific instances. That relationship with a non-Christian, which you knew was wrong, but did it anyway. That time when you completely lost your rag with your partner, and said horrible things deliberately to try and make them upset. That weekend when your normal day at work, became a terrible witness. That day in when you were so spiteful to your neighbour.
There’s not a lot to put on your job application form, really is there?
You see, most of us are just like Saul. We’re ordinary people. People without that many talents. People without much success. Jesus wants us to become fishers of men, but we’re not even very good at finding donkeys. But listen to what the apostle Paul says:
Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were influential, not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of this world to shame the wise, God chose the weak things to shame the strong.
So, those of you who think that you are just weak fools, with nothing much to offer, I agree with you! You are! You are just weak fools. So’s Neil. So’s Lanny. So are your officers, and so am I.
But the wonderful thing about God is that weak fools are exactly what he wants. So if you’re an ordinary person: nothing much to look at, no special gifts, nothing really to make you stand out from the crowd. Be encouraged, because God’s people are ordinary people.
Now, do you remember our silver coin. It had writing on one side: God’s people are ordinary people. But if we turn the coin over, what is written on the back? Look, here it is:
God’s people are special people
What? Doesn’t that contradict everything that you’ve just said? No, not at all. Let me show you exactly what I mean from the life of Saul.
We’ve seen that Saul was just an ordinary person. But ordinary people can’t rule countries, can they? Ordinary people can’t lead thousands into battle, and win victories against the enemy?
Ordinary people can’t become disciples of Jesus Christ. Ordinary people can’t control their temper, and say sorry to those they hurt. Ordinary people can’t live Christian lives in front of their non-Christian friends. Ordinary people can’t be kind, good and loving at all times. Quite simply, ordinary people can’t be a people who are different. Ordinary people can’t be holy people. Ordinary people can’t be satisfied people. Ordinary people can’t be repentant people.
Maybe that’s what you felt after the last message. Perhaps you felt guilty that you hadn’t really been living your life as you ought to have done. Perhaps you felt you’ve failed too many times. Perhaps you felt that you really weren’t up to the job of living a Christian life. Whatever the qualifications were, you just wouldn’t make the grade. You’re just too ordinary to do all that God requires of Christians.
What you need to know, is that God calls ordinary people into his service, then he does extraordinary things with them. Paul had it right when he said, ‘we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.’ Paul is say that meeting a Christian ought to be like finding a solid gold bar is a tin of Tesco value beans. It looks as though you’ve got nothing to offer, but then you find out that God has done something extraordinary.
Our passage tells us exactly how ordinary people can become extraordinary people. Look at chapter ten and verse 6. Samuel tells Saul what will happen to him. ‘The Spirit of the Lord will come upon you in power, and you will prophesy with them; and you will be changed into a different person.’ Then in verse 9, we see something else that happens to Saul: ‘As Saul turned to leave Samuel, God changed Saul’s heart…’. And then in verse ten we see Samuel’s prediction fulfilled: ‘When they arrived at Gibeah, a procession of prophets met him; the Spirit of God came upon him in power, and he joined in their prophesying’.
You see Saul is now a changed man! I don’t think the writer is trying to tell us that Saul became a follower of God at this point. Rather, here was God equipping Saul for the task that he had been given. When God calls, he always equips. He never leaves one of his people without everything that they need in order to fulfil their calling.
Do you feel called to speak to your friends about Jesus? Then God will give you everything you need to be able to do that. You will have the courage, you’ll have the wisdom, you’ll have the words that you need.
Do you feel it necessary to curb your temper and live in a more gentle way? Then God will give you the calmness, he’ll give you the self-control, he’ll give you the ability to walk away.
Do you need to leave friends that are stopping you walking with God? Then He will give you the confidence to trust him, he’ll give you the ability to explain to them why you need to do it, and if necessary he’ll give you the strength to deal with the loneliness that may come as a result.
You see God took Saul, and ordinary man, and did extraordinary things with him. And God wants to take you, ordinary people, and do extraordinary things with you, too.
So here’s my challenge to you. Are you willing to become an extraordinary person? I’m not asking whether you feel able to become an extraordinary person, but simply whether you are willing.
Do you want to be able to live a life which is wholehearted in your pursuit of God? Do you want to be able to speak to your friends about Jesus? Do you want to control your temper, say ‘no’ to temptation? Do you want to be a godly person? Do you want to be someone who loves Jesus Christ more than any other? And most importantly, are you willing for God to change you in order for all this to happen?
Saul worshipped the same God that we do, and God can change you, just as he changed Saul. God wants to change you just as he changed Saul.
But do you want God to change you? If you do, then tell him so, tell him now. Tell him that you know you are not the extraordinary person you would like to be, ask for forgiveness and tell him that you want him to change you. If that’s how you feel, then even now as you are sitting here, pray to him that he would change you.
At the beginning to the message I told you that I had two coins. We’ve looked at both sides of the large coin, but we’ve got a smaller coin to look at now. Don’t worry, this coin is smaller than the first coin, so it won’t take us long, but this coin tells us about God.
Let’s look at the first side of the coin. The writing on this side says:
God knows his plans for his people
It’s very frustrating when you lose something, isn’t it? Perhaps you’ve lost your keys. ‘Well, they were here yesterday! Somebody must have moved them’. It’s very frustrating looking for something that is lost.
What I’m trying to say is that Saul was having a bad day. He’d been hunting round and round for these wretched donkeys, with absolutely no success at all. What a wasted day!
Except, it wasn’t a wasted day was it? This was the day when Saul was made king! And for him to be king, he needed to meet the king-maker, he needed to meet Samuel.
When Saul was eating his cornflakes that morning, he had no idea what the day had in store. When he was wandering round trying to find his donkeys, he had no clue just how important that journey would become. He didn’t know that the whole time he was getting more and more frustrated with these wretched donkeys, the closer and closer he was getting to an appointment that God had planned from before the beginning of time.
How do I know that this is something that God had planned? Well, because the writer of the story makes it perfectly clear. Let me read chapter 10 and verses 14 and 18 to you. ‘They went up to the town, and as they were entering it, there was Samuel, coming towards them on his way up to the high place… Saul approached Samuel in the gateway and asked, ‘Would you please tell me where the seer’s house is?’
That makes perfect sense, doesn’t it? There doesn’t appear to be any gap in the story. But actually, I missed out three verses sentences. The whole story is interrupted to tell for the sake of these three verses.
Last year I was watching TV one Saturday night, when suddenly an announcement came on. ‘We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin.’ It was Michael Burke, about to tell us that the Queen Mother had died.
This passage is a little bit like that. It’s almost as if at the end of verse 14 a little announcer pops up: ‘We interrupt this Bible story to bring you a special announcement. It’s God who has made all this happen!’.
Can you see that from the text? Look at verses 15-17. The Lord revealed to Samuel that the man he had chosen as king would come. And he had done this the day before! The donkeys hadn’t even disappeared then, but God had planned that they would, and that Saul would make his way down to Samuel.
It was no coincidence. Look at verse 16: Saul’s been sent from the Lord! And just in case you still haven’t seen the point, verse 17 tells us how God confirmed to Samuel that Saul was the man.
Isn’t it amazing that everything that we do is planned by God? You should remind yourself of that whenever things seem to be getting really frustrating. You know, those days when everything seems to be going wrong - just remind yourself: God planned this day for me.
I like playing games on the Playstation. I especially like adventure games, when you have to solve puzzles, find secret levels, and get to the treasure at the end. But I also find those games very frustrating. You can play them for hours, and just go round and round in circles. You can’t find that last bit of treasure you need to finish the level, or can’t work out how to kill that boss. It seems that there’s no way out.
I’ve often thought that what I need in those situations is to have game designer with me. If only the person who designed the level was here, he could show me how to defeat the enemies, he could show me where I needed to go. If anyone should know, it will be the guy who planned everything.
The same is true in life. Too often, just like Saul I go round and round in circles. I forget that someone has planned what is happening to me. I forget that this is all part of God’s design. I forget that he knows the way out, and I forget that very often he is there waiting for me to call to him, and ask him to help me.
It never occurred to Saul to ask God about his donkeys. And often it never occurs to me. What if Saul had decided at the outset to ask Samuel to pray to him? What if I asked God to help me as soon as I was unsure? Saul eventually did find Samuel, and his donkeys, because God is gracious. But how much easier it would have been if God had been at the front of Saul’s mind, rather than at the back.
Well, time is slipping by, and we still haven’t looked at the back of our second coin. The first side said: God knows his plans for his people, but the second side says
God’s people often don’t know his plans at all
Can you see that in the story? There’s so much that so many people in the story don’t know. Saul doesn’t know where his donkeys were. He doesn’t know where Samuel is. For most of the story he doesn’t know why he’s been brought down to Samuel. The servant girls don’t know either, not does Saul’s servant, who was sent on ahead. Even Saul’s uncle, is none the wiser about God’s intention to make Saul king of Israel.
And so it is with us. Most of the time we have absolutely no idea what God is doing with us. No idea why he has put us in the church that he has. No idea why we have the friends that we do. No idea why our parents are the way they are. There is so much that we just don’t know.
But one thing we do know, that this one thing should be enough. We know that God knows.
There’s a Christian man in Australia called Peter O’Brien. He’s a preacher, a lecturer, and an author of several books. All over the world there are hundreds, no thousands of people who have been blessed as a result of Peter O’Brien’s ministry.
Humanly speaking, Peter O’Brien was converted through an old lady who lived a few doors down from him in Australia. He used to visit her when he was a young boy, and she was the sort of lady that would always give you some sweets, and show an interest in how you were getting on. As Peter grew older, so did this lady. And as she grew older, her arthritis got worse, and often she was literally doubled up in pain. Yet she never stopped inviting Peter around, never stopped being kind to him, never stopped telling him about the love of Jesus.
Her testimony, her suffering and the way she lived her life made a huge impact on Peter O’Brien, and eventually led to his conversion.
So imagine that you had gone to speak to this lady when she was perhaps 50 years old. Imagine you had told her there would be a young boy called Peter in her street, that she would witness to him over many years, and that he would grow up to be a great Christian leader, a man who reached thousands of people. Imagine if you have told the lady all that, but then said to her: ‘What’s going to make the difference in Peter’s life is your suffering. You’re going to be in pain, for many years, but it’s that suffering that will lead to his conversion, it’s that suffering that will lead to all these thousands of people being blessed through him’. Imagine you’d go on to ask her, ‘Are you willing to suffer in this way so that thousands can be blessed?’
If this lady had understood anything about the Christian message, then she’d have said ‘yes’. Maybe with a heavy heart, but if she knew that God would use her suffering to achieve so much, she’d have readily agreed to suffer.
But, and this is the point, isn’t it? She didn’t know. She suffered silently for years, and she didn’t know what impact her faith was having. She simply trusted in the strength of Jesus Christ, to take her from being an ordinary woman to being an extraordinary woman. She trusted Him that he had planned all things, and therefore what was happening to her must be what was best. She never knew why, but she trusted nonetheless.
So what about you? I know many people find it difficult to speak to friends and neighbours about the gospel, and to live your lives in the way you know you should.
What if I was to tell you that if you were to go home, and tell your friends that you were a Christian, that if you were to pray for them and witness to them, that one by one each one of them would be saved. What if I was to tell you that although they would make fun of you, although some of your friends may even disown you, in the years to come they would be converted, and one of them would even become a famous preacher who God used to speak to thousands of people. What if I was to tell you that humanly speaking, all that depended on you taking a stand when you got back to your home? If you’ve understood anything about the grace of God, and the love he has for us, you’d agree to do it, no matter what the cost.
But the point is, I cannot tell you that. I cannot guarantee that this is what God will do with you.
But does that really matter? It doesn’t matter, because I can tell you that the God you serve is the same God that that old lady served. I can tell you that God is good and gracious and merciful and powerful. I can tell you that God honours those who honour him. I can tell you that the God we serve is a God who saves. I can tell you that everything works to the good of those who love God. I can tell you that God can do extraordinary things with you, his ordinary people.
The only question is: are we going to trust him at his word? Trust him that whatever he causes us to suffer, then it will be worth it. Trust him that whenever we follow in his footsteps, he will bless us. Trust him that no matter what happens, he is still the God that is in control, and all we need to do is to follow where he leads.
What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-- how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died-- more than that, who was raised to life-- is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?… No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.