It’s the trend for companies nowadays to have slogans, that try and sum up what they stand for. So some of you will remember ‘Your flexible friend’. Those of you with pets might think that ‘Cat’s like Felix, like Felix’. And do remember slogans like ‘Don’t just book it, Thomas Cook it’?, and ‘It’s good to talk’. We remember some slogans that aren’t even in English. You’ve all been taught a little German ‘Vorsprung durch technik’, though I suspect most of us have forgotten what it means! But my favourite slogan, is that of the internet search engine ‘Google’. Coined by the cofounder Sergey Brin, Google’s slogan is simply ‘Don’t be evil’. What a wonderful slogan! The problem Sergey Brin has found, is that Google can’t live up to it. The web is full of websites asserting that Google is in fact the second most evil internet company on the planet (Microsoft always gets number one spot).
But it’s a slogan that many people adopt, isn’t it? They may not say it in those terms, but the vast majority of people in Britain would hate to see themselves described as evil. Evil is a word that is kept for special circumstances. We might think of President Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’, you might think of people like Myra Hindley, but never people in the quiet streets of St Mellons.
But the Bible tells us ‘The heart is deceitful above all things. Who can understand it?’. ‘There is no-one righteous, not even one’.
If there’s anything that this episode in the life of Saul tells us, it tells us that sin is serious. If you like titles for your sermons, that’s a good title for this morning: ‘sin is serious’.
Do you remember that after a promising start, Saul is beginning to look increasingly prone to sin. He seems to have forgotten God, and simply done his own thing. In the episode that we’ve read together, Saul comes to realise that there are consequences for doing what is wrong. But despite that, he still doesn’t really understand that sin is serious. I wonder, do we?
So, I’ve got 3 points for you this morning. My first is very simple. It’s this:
Sin is disobeying God
There, I told you it was simple, didn’t I? Sin is disobeying God. It’s something that a child in Sunday School could have told us, isn’t it? But it’s vital that we remember it, and it’s obviously important to the writer of 1 Samuel, as he repeats it time after time.
In our story, Saul claims he has done a small thing in disobeying the Lord. He didn’t do exactly what the Lord had told him too, but he’d done an awful lot. God had asked him to destroy the Amalakites, and to all intents and purposes, he had. There were just a few leftovers, and it would be perfectly OK for them to be kept alive.
It’s easy to see Saul’s error, but perhaps it’s also easy to feel sympathy for him, too. After all, is not his mistake one which we too have fallen into time after time. Have you ever justified your wrong behaviour to yourself, maybe even to God? Have you ever answered your conscience, and told those who will listen that whilst you didn’t do exactly what God had asked, you did most of what he wants. ‘Isn’t that enough?’, is the unspoken question that is on our minds.
Well, to answer your question, no, it’s not enough. That’s very clear from the passage that we have in front of us. Look at verse 20, where Saul tries to justify himself:
“But I did obey the Lord,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the Lord assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king. The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the Lord your God at Gilgal.” But Samuel replied: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has rejected you as king.
I wonder if those words of Saul sound familiar to you?
- I know God’s Word says I should not lie, but if I told me client I actually forgot to put his urgent letter in the post, I’d lose a lot of business. I only suggested that perhaps the Post Office had lost it.
- I know I made promises to always love my husband, but it’s simply not possible to always put him first.
- I know God’s Word says we should submit to the governing authorities, but I was only doing 35mph.
- I know she’s not a Christian, but there’s no harm in window-shopping, is there?
Just like Saul, we often try and justify ourselves, don’t we. We try and tell ourselves that most of our sin is really not all that important. It’s not ‘that bad’ in the grand scheme of things.
It is that bad, of course.
You know that the Bible teaches that even one sin can keep you out of heaven. Even one sins means that you are excluded from that perfect place. It’s easy to get that right in our theology, isn’t it? But it’s much harder to live as though it was true.
But didn’t Jesus Christ say “anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has committed adultery with her in his heart”? And how many of us really believed that Christ died for the sin of speeding? How many of us believe that Christ died for the sin of not always putting others first? How many of us believe that Christ died for the sin of cheating in a mid-term test?
But Christ did die for all of those things, and those things do matter. Saul thought he had done a little thing, but what is Samuel’s response to him? It’s recorded in verse 23. Saul’s attitude was that he thought he knew better than God. He thought he could decide what as acceptable, or not. He thought he could reinterpret God’s Word.
It’s no wonder that in verse 23 Samuel describes him as rebellious and arrogant, is it? I wonder if Samuel would describe us like that, too?
But what’s at the root of this sin? If you were to ask an employee of Google, “how do you know what is evil?”, their answer would be, “Evil is what ever Sergey decides it should be”.
But what if you were to ask a Christian? How do we know what is evil? We have our conscience, of course, which is a great guide. The problem with our conscience however, is that often we can silence it if we try hard enough. What Samuel tells us here is that sin is simply disobeying God. All God wanted from Saul was obedience. But Saul did not obey God’s voice, instead he rejected the word of God.
Yesterday, Vinnie Jones was in court charged with threatening behaviour. According to yesterday’s Times, his lawyer told that judge that he was “a loving father and husband, produced a string of character references, and said that he donated £50,000 a year to charity.” The Times decided to add to that list by mentioning that he holds the record for the earliest yellow card in the game, once being booked just three seconds after kick-off.
But isn’t that typical of the world, and probably of us too? When we feel guilty about something, we tend to trot out a list of all the good things that we’ve done, in the forlorn hope that somehow they will cancel out the bad. Of course, we too, forget that there’s plenty of skeletons in our closet.
Saul tried to cover up his disobedience by offering sacrifices. But it didn’t please God. Verse 22: “Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the voice of the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”
It’s a good thing to come to church, but as Andy often says, it won’t save you from the guilt of sin. It’s a good thing to pray, but it won’t stop you from being condemned. It’s a good thing to get baptised, but it won’t rescue you from hell.
More than anything else, what God wants is love, and obedience. To offer Him anything else is to disobey him, it’s rebellious, it’s arrogant.
Sin then, is disobeying God, but it’s more than that, because this episode also tells us that
Sin is deserving of death
Did you notice that Samuel compares Saul’s sin with other sins? Verse 23: “rebellion is like the sin of divination, arrogance like the evil of idolatry.” That’s an incredibly significant statement, you know. The book of Leviticus tells us that those who practice divination, or who worship idols, should be put to death. Saul’s minor sin, Saul’s little misdemeanour is deserving of death, just like the Amalakites big sin.
In the minds of most people, the apostle Paul said in Romans, “the wages of really bad sins, is death”. But he didn’t, of course. He simply said: “The wages of sin is death”.
And that is true today, just as it was then.
But let’s look at the story in more detail, because here Saul does not die, does he? I’ll try to demonstrate in a moment, that that is God’s grace shining through, but I want first to look at those people in this chapter who do die, and there are very many of them.
You’ll remember that at the beginning of the chapter, Samuel has a message from the Lord to Saul. The message is clear and simple, “I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt. Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.”
It’s a stark message, isn’t it? And if we’re properly interacting with what the Word of God says, it’s not an easy message to accept. In our post-Holocaust world, with all our rightful sensitivities to ethnic cleansing, to genocide, how can God demand that the Amalekites be totally destroyed? How can it be right to ‘take no prisoners’, how can it be right to put to death women and children’. How can he claim this passage to be the word of God?
It’s a vital question that I want to take sometime to answer, but let me give you an instant response right at the beginning, which I’ve borrowed from Dale Ralph Davis. First, yes, it is horrific. Second, we do not claim that the Bible is sanitised, only that it is true. This really did happen, and God really did command it. If you’ve read much of Old Testament narrative, you’ll know that there’s plenty of other passages that demand similar things from God’s people.
But the most important response that we can make here, is to say that the Amalakites deserved it. It’s only when we’ve properly understood the seriousness of sin, that we can accept that God’s vengeance in this chapter and the many others like it, is not only acceptable, it’s righteous.
If you were here on Wednesday, you’ll know that we looked at the book of Deuteronomy. We read from chapter nine, a similar passage. Let me read it to you again:
But be assured today that the Lord your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the Lord has promised you.
After the Lord your God has driven them out before you, do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
Do you see? The nations who get driven out, who are destroyed, are destroyed because of their wickedness. It’s exactly the same in 1 Samuel. The Amalekites are to be punished for what they did to Israel. Three hundred years ago God promised to destroy them, and now that promise is to be fulfilled. They are finally to be punished for ambushing and trying to destroy God’s people.
But doesn’t that 300 years cause a problem? How is it that this generation is to be destroyed when a previous generation sinned? Well, simply that this generation is no different, they’re no better. Verse 18 makes it clear that they are still a wicked people. Verse 33 shows that Agag, their king, is just as much of a war criminal as his ancestors.
Those 300 years show one thing, and one thing only. They show grace! God gave this nation three hundred years to repent! Three hundred years of seeing God in action in the nation of Israel. Three hundred years to come to their senses. Three hundred years to humble themselves and ask for forgiveness. Finally, their time has come, and it is too late. They will be completely destroyed.
You see, sin is deserving of death. If you’re not a Christian, then this should fill you with awe, and with terror. Let me ask you perhaps the most vital question you could ever be asked: ‘How does God see you this morning?’ Does he see you as a wicked sinner, deserving of death?
If so, then you’re already experience his grace. Like every other sinner, you deserve to be destroyed, but God has kept you so far. Maybe he’s given you three years to repent, maybe thirty years, maybe 80 years. I’ll tell you this for certain, you’ll not get three hundred years.
Because like every other person who remains in their sin, there’ll become a time when both body and soul will be destroyed in hell. They’ll become a time when it’s too late.
But if you are a Christian, then you should gain great comfort from this section. God does not forget how his enemies have treated his people. Isaiah 35 tells us:
Say to those with fearful hearts, “Be strong, do not fear; your God will come, he will come with vengeance; with divine retribution he will come to save you.”
God’s vengeance is a message of hope for the Christian, because without God’s vengeance there can be no salvation. Unless God deals with his enemies, there can be no rest, there can be no deliverance for his people. Our salvation is intimately bound up with the punishment of God’s enemies.
And, just as it should for the non-Christian, this passage should shout out ‘Grace!’, to us as Christians, too. Because we should remember those words of Deuteronomy chapter 9
do not say to yourself, “The Lord has brought me here to take possession of this land because of my righteousness.” No, it is on account of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is going to drive them out before you. It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations,
It’s “Amazing grace that saved a wretch like me.” Amazing grace that meant God chose us to be his people. Amazing grace that we were not destroyed as we deserved to be. Amazing grace that means despite our lack of righteousness we have received the righteousness of Christ. Amazing grace that we are still alive to tell the tale.
And all that leads us on to our final point, and one that we need to jump forward into the New Testament to discover fully. But I can’t finish my sermon with just two points. It’s right that I tell you that “Sin is disobeying God”. It’s right that we know “Sin is deserving of death”. But thirdly, and most importantly of all, we need to know that
Sin is destroyed in Jesus Christ
I want to show you what I mean by answering a question that maybe some of you are asking in your minds right now. In the story that we’ve read together, Saul was asked by God to go and destroy the Amalekites, to go on a Holy War. Is that something that should still happen today? Should we join crusades to Jerusalem or Mecca, and destroy the infidels?
In our hearts, all of us will say that ‘No’, that is not the way God wants us to behave. It’s good that we know that, but better still if we know why. Why is it that retributive violence is found throughout the Old Testament, but in the New Testament Jesus Christ teaches us to love our enemies?
It’s not simply that we live in an age of political correctness, of international law, of the Hague Convention and the United Nations declaration of human rights.
What’s far more important than any of those things is that we live in a world that can look back to Jesus Christ. Let me quote from Karen Jobes:
The death of Jesus Christ... Provides the only basis for the cessation of Holy War, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit provides the only power by which one may love one’s enemies as oneself. All of the vengeance God’s people would like to wreak on those who practice evil has now been satisfied in the suffering and death of Jesus. He has taken the wages of sin, he has suffered the vengeance of evil. The vengeance due to us for our sins against others has been satisfied in Jesus’ body on the cross. It is only on the basis of recognising that the penalty has been paid by Jesus what we can forgive others as we have been forgiven. True Holy War in human history has ceased because Jesus fought it’s final battle on the cross.
It’s no accident that the two religions that are most likely to become involved in Holy War are those who accept parts of the Old Testament, but reject Jesus Christ. There will never be peace in the middle-east until both Jews and Muslims have accepted that Jesus Christ is the saviour of the world.
It’s no surprise that at the time when Christian leaders thought that Holy War was a good thing (the time of the crusades) the gospel of Jesus Christ was almost hidden from the church.
From the beginning of time God’s war has been against sin and evil. It’s easy to think wrongly of sin and evil as being abstractions apart from people. That’s what happens in Star Wars, isn’t it? Good and evil are reduced merely to a force. But Lord of the Rings is much more accurate. I was listening to a review of The Return of the King a few months ago, and the reviewers didn’t like the film. They said it was boring! Well maybe you’ve sat through the three and a half hours and felt the same, but let me tell you why these reviewers thought it was boring.
It was for two reasons — they knew what was going to happen at the end. They knew that good was going to win. Life’s not like that, they said. And the second reason was because there was such a distinction between the good characters and the evil characters. You only had to look at them to know which was which. And life’s not like that either, they said.
But from a heavenly persepctive, life is exactly like that! God is going to win, and there is such a distinction between those who have righteousness in Christ, and those who reject Him and bear their own sin.
Too often we seem to want God to destroy sin and evil, but leave people alone. But sin and evil for not exist apart from beings who sin, and beings who do evil, whether angelic or human. Sin entered the world when Adam and Eve rebelled against God, and he pronounced his unalterable decree of death against them all and their descendants. And because we too are sinners and evildoers, we all have God’s unalterable decree of death against us. God could have justly destroyed the earth and everyone on it, for none of us is righteous according to His standards. Instead he chose to redeem us from sin and evil and take us into righteousness.
And all that means that the church of Jesus Christ replaces the army of Israel as the agency of God that now wars against sin and evil. The theatre of battle has moved from those countries that surround Israel and come to all human hearts around the world where sin and evil live.
When the apostle Paul instructs Christians to put on the full armour of God in our fight against sin, we do not hold up our literal spears, our literal helmets, and our literal body armour. That armour is defined by spiritual qualities, of faith, of righteousness, of truth. Each Christian faces and individual battle against sin and evil in yours and mine own heart.
And ultimater victory in this battle is guaranteed for the Christian. Ultimate victory is guaranteed! Why? Because of Jesus’ victory over sin and death when He rose from the grave and sent the Holy Spirit to empower those who are to live righteously. The marching orders of this army of Jesus Christ are found in Matthew 28. “Therefore go, and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely”, Jesus says”, “I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
It’s through the conversion of people, from the realm of sin and death, to the kingdom of goodness and righteousness that Jesus’ Christ’s victory is now to be won. Literal, physical, holy war was necessary for the punishment of those who opposed Him, and for the survival of Messiah’s nation until God’s redemptive purposes where seen in human history on the cross at Calvary.
Jesus Christ is the only Israelite who is righteous and powerful and just enough to declare holy war. They only one righteous enough to wage war with clean hands and a pure heart. And His cross is the only true theatre of war.
The cross of Christ sanctifies all previous episodes of Holy War in Israel’s history, but it also makes any subsequent attempt at Holy War carnal and fleshly. After the cross, the practice of Holy War is anything but holy.
You see, this passage teaches us that once more that in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, everything is different. Nothing is the same.
But the spiritual war still continues. My question to you and to me is this: which side are you on? You cannot be a neutral. You’re either on the side of good, or of evil. You’re either on the side of God, or you’re opposed to Him. And the only way to move from being opposed to God to being on God’s side, is through the cross of Jesus Christ, where all this is done away with.
What a terrible thing it will be to be on the last day, to have run out of time, and to be completely destroyed, both body and soul in hell. It’s a very solemn thing - talking about sin is a very solemn thing.
But whenever we talk about it, we must also shout out ‘Grace!’. Grace has brought you here. But will grace take you home?