Not Finished Yet 19th March 2017 at Tainan International Community Church
1 Samuel 16:1-13
“Because God is still speaking, we have to keep listening. “
Jewish believers around the world celebrated “Purim” last week. It’s a festival when they read and remember the stories of Queen Esther, whose story is told in the Bible book that carries her name. Little girls are taught to admire Esther and to take her as a hero and model for life. Feminists prefer Vashti, the queen whom Esther replaced, because Vashti stood up to her husband. Boys and men are told to model themselves on the character Mordechai, and everyone hates Haman, the terrible villain in the story.
We find our heroes in many places. For many people, it’s in the world of entertainment or professional sports. When I was a young kid, the home-run king of American baseball was a guy named Mickey Mantle, who played for the New York Yankees. I wasn’t much of a sports fan, but everyone knew Mickey’s name and he was widely admired. But apart from hitting a lot of home runs, I later learned, Mickey wasn’t really a great hero. He was a drunk whose alcoholism often resulted in cruelty to family, friends, and fans. In 1994 he entered an Alcoholic Rehabilitation program, partly because his doctor told him that the damage to his liver was already so severe that “your next drink could be your last.” He finished rehab, but only months afterward he required a liver transplant. Because he was rich and famous, he was allowed to “jump to the head of the line for an available transplant after only one day on the waiting list. He had surgery on June 8th 1995. At a press conference later that month, he said, “This is a role model: Don’t be like me.” He died with his new liver 2 months later.
Because I was one of those kids who grew up in Sunday School, I was encouraged to find heroes and role models in the Bible. When as a little kid I found my name, David, in the Bible, he became my hero. The boy who killed a lion, a bear, and a giant! What more could a kid ask for?
Now that I’m older and because as a guy my age David wasn’t very heroic, I relate more to Samuel, the old man we read about today. I find much to be admired in Samuel, but he had his “Mickey Mantle” side, too.
I God commands and opens a way (vv. 1-5)
When I began to learn Taiwanese 35 years ago, I had to differentiate between the verbs that indicate “I have learned how to do that”, “I am able to do that”, “I am permitted to do that” and “I am willing to do that”. My mother tongue is not that exact. The words indicating “I have learned how” and “I am able” are the same.
In the first few verses of the story we read from I Samuel today, God told him to go do something that he had learned to do and was able to do, but he was “unwilling”. He had anointed one king, so we know that he “knew how”. There was nothing wrong with his hands and legs, so we know that “he was able”. His problem was that he was unwilling. Even though he was unhappy with the king, he was scared to do anything that would make the king unhappy. God commanded, Samuel refused, but God was not finished yet.
A few weeks ago in Taiwan we marked peace and reconciliation day, otherwise known as 2-2-8. I heard a lot about the events that happened 70 years ago, and some about what happened for 40 years after that. What lingers on, even in recent 30 years, is a reluctance on the part of many people here in Taiwan to touch political issues. In part, that is because there are so many more interesting things to do in life and on the internet. But in part it is because of what happened to those who “got involved in politics” in the decade following the second world war, and what happened to them.
Like Samuel, who didn’t want to go to Jesse’s house and anoint a new king, like Nicodemus, (whose story we considered last week), a man who told Jesus it was impossible to “go back into his mother’s womb and be born again”, we find reasons why we don’t need to do the things that God tells us to do. Consider how in the Lord’s Prayer we ask God to forgive our sins “as we forgive those who sin against us”, and yet we sometimes hold onto the sins of people who have sinned against us for years, if not until we die!
But as God opened a way for Samuel to go peacefully to Jesse’s house and do what he was told, even though Samuel would not be living when David actually became king, we have a way open today for our doing what God wants each of us to do. I don’t know what that is in YOUR case, it’s between you and God. If you want to involve me in the conversation you’re having with God about it, I’ll get involved. Otherwise, I’ll stay out of it.
Who knows the roads in the city better than anyone else? Who can get you anywhere without a GPS in the car? Of course, a taxi driver. But have you ever known a taxi driver to get lost? Rarely, but it happens. In the story we read today, the prophet got lost.
II The prophet loses his way (vv.6 & 7-11)
When God has cleared a way for something, has shown us that we know how, and that we are able, and that we may go, any claim we might make of “I’m not willing” is pretty weak. Everything was clear for Samuel, so he went to do what God told him. But, like a taxi driver who should know the way, but sometimes gets lost, Samuel started off in the wrong direction.
The culture of his place and time, like many cultures of our OWN place and time, respected the elder over the younger. (If you remember how, in Genesis, Jacob got two wives, it’s the same story. It’s not proper to prefer the younger one.) When he came to anoint a king, Samuel was pre-disposed to look at the eldest son of Jesse as the most suitable. Where did he get THAT idea? It was already in his heart. Jesse was of the same mind. He had 8 sons, but hadn’t bothered to call the youngest in from where he was looking after the sheep. He “looked down on youth.”
I worked in Shou Shan Presbytery’s Campus ministry center from 1984 through 1995. During those years, Taiwan became a country of freedom and fair elections. I recall once how a pastor on the university ministry committee said to me, when talking of an election going on in Kaohsiung at the time, that one candidate was obviously unsuitable because she had no experience. She was running on her father’s famous name. I politely reminded that pastor that my work was with young people. He had forgotten.
Upon whom do we look down in our social, political and church lives? Though I’m no longer in the campus ministries center, I still interact a lot with young people at the theological college (and with some older students as well). Like Samuel who initially got lost, we can, also like Samuel, be guided back to the way we should go. Even when we’re lost, God is not finished yet.
We are not Samuel. We are neither Barclay (who founded the college) nor Shoki Coe (who helped re-open it after it had closed). We won’t make those mistakes. But, maybe we will. Verse 12 shows how someone else with whom God was “not finished yet” got lost.
III: The prophets’ heirs lose their way (v 12)
More than once in life, even after we’ve been given clear directions, we get lost, don’t we? In verse 7 Samuel was told, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature….” That’s pretty clear. But Samuel isn’t the one who wrote this stuff down. It was years, decades, even centuries later that, after this story had been told over and over, someone put it down for us today. Probably the same person who wrote verse 7 also wrote verse 12, and in that short space in between, he also lost his way. Look at what it says there in verse 12: “David was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” These are exactly the things that God apparently told Samuel not to look at in verse 7.
In a class that I teach at the theological college we are learning with “platform skills”, the kinds of things one does using one’s body, face, eyes, hands and other things to make sermons come across better. As we’ve looked at techniques of public speaking, some students say that these are inappropriate in church. When I ask them why, they can’t exactly say. They believe that church is supposed to be serious, and even boring. It should not be like a television program. I’m not yet finished with them.
We who have followed the prophets and the apostles have sometimes reduced them from the human beings they WERE to the white paper black words in which we read about them. The less familiar we are with the content of the scripture, the more likely we are to depend on only what is written there as we live our lives of faith. We need to read our bibles together, discuss what we read, and come to understand what we are reading, both as it was put down long ago and as we take it up today. We need to be able to think if we are going to be able to interpret scripture, culture, current events and human life to be spiritually healthy. We can’t “outsource” this kind of thinking to the pastor or church leaders.
If even prophets like Samuel, and holy people like those who wrote the stories into what we now hold as the bible, can lose their way, what hope is there for us?
Conclusion (v 13) God does what God intends
One of the joys of Bible reading is staying with the story to its very end. And in this one, a story people losing their ways, the conclusion is what saves us. In verse 13, we learn that God did what God intended. “The Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.
May that same Lord who came mightily on David, do the same for each of us, that we might serve each other and God all the days of our lives.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, AMEN
Let us Pray
Lord God, writer of your own, of this world’s, of the nations’, of the families’ and of of individuals like ourselves, we offer ourselves to be edited and corrected by you. Seek us in our lostness, correct us in our wrongness, bring us home from our wanderings, and use us in the eternal story that you are writing eternally. In Jesus’ name. AMEN