Friday, June 30, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-30 [Lessons from Samuel] Conforming


But the people refused to listen to Samuel. "No!" they said. "We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles."
21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the LORD. 22 The LORD answered, "Listen to them and give them a king."      (1Samuel8:19-22)
Romans 12:2 says "...don't conform to the standards of this world..." JB Philips translated it as: "don't let the world squeeze you into its mould." Jesus talked about the wide and the narrow way... The narrow way is hard while the wide is easy and many find it.

Israel wanted the wide way....

They wanted to look like everyone else. They wanted to fit in. They wanted to be accepted.

Peer pressure is a powerful force that works at the level of individuals, but also in groups and here we see a fledgling nation succumb to its pressure.

The bizarre thing is the sacrifices people will make to fit in:

  • People go through a painful process to get a tattoo that in a few years time may be an embarrassment.
  • People wear overly expensive and uncomfortable clothes and shoes just to be seen as cool.
  • People get into debt, just to have a car or house that others will admire.

But the great tragedy in today's passage is that Israel will choose to be subject to the whims, foibles and greed of imperfect human kings rather than be the subjects of a faithful, merciful and loving God whose patience and kindness is revealed in the latitude He allows them, by granting them their wish because, although He knows that their choice will have unpleasant consequences, He will not violate their freedom. (He does repeatedly warn them and urge them to make the better choice...)

We have choices everyday. Peer pressure is present in our social circles and media, in our norms and values and at individual, group and national level. God's Word guides and informs us. The Holy Spirit whispers into our hearts. But the choice remains ours.

How will you choose today?

I'll be taking a break from writing EmmDevs for the school holidays. I will resume on 25th July. I hope these last few weeks from Samuel have been helpful and interesting.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-29 [Lessons from Samuel] Power...


Samuel told all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, "This is what the king who will reign over you will do: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your menservants and maidservants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, and the LORD will not answer you in that day."      (1Samuel8:10-18)
The Israelites wanted an earthly king to reign over them.

Samuel warns them about the dangers of earthly, structural power. He warns them that an earthly king will not only create societal order, organise military power and establish economic structure, but he will do it for himself.

  • Sons and Daughters will run in front of the king's chariot.
  • The Israelites will plow and tend the king's fields
  • They will be heavily taxed and this will all go into the hands of the growing number of the king's attendants
  • They will become the king's slaves

Recently we have seen the "gravy train" that many politicians have climbed on to and even more recently we have learned of corporate CEO's who earn anything from fifty times to five hundred times as much as the lowest paid worker in their companies.

It seems that earthly power comes with the endless need for more...

The Israelites wanted a king.
Samuel warned them that kings are corruptible.

Some people would argue that one needs leaders and that they are worthy of good remuneration and that this creates a pyramid of jobs and services that result in a situation where people are able to "find their niche" and "play their part" in the economy.
What their argument does not consider is that power corrupts.
The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

Samuel warns Israel that this will be the nature of the monarchy.
By the time of Israel's third king, Solomon, taxation was already so high that the advisors advise his successor Rehoboam to reduce the taxes. Rehoboam refuses and the kingdom is torn in two after only 3 kings.

But it's not monarchy that is the problem.
Jeremiah disturbed the power base of the false prophets.
Jesus disturbed the theological power base of the Pharisees.
Luther disturbed the power base of the church hierarchy.
It is power that is problematic... and we should take heed...

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-28 [Lessons from Samuel] Visible


So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, "You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have."
6 But when they said, "Give us a king to lead us," this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. 7 And the LORD told him: "Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. 8 As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. 9 Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will do."      (1Samuel8:4-9)
When Moses stayed too long on Mount Sinai, the Israelites forced Aaron to make them a Golden Calf to worship. When Samuel's frailty became obvious, the Israelites asked him to appoint an earthly king to rule over them.

Trusting in an invisible God is hard...

We tend to be very focused on what we can see, hear, and touch. So the Israelites constantly worshipped idols (even idols that stood in the house and could be bumped over by playing children - see Isaiah's sarcastic description in Isaiah 40:18-20)

The alternative to idols is to put our trust in human leaders. Good leaders remind us that they are not God and point us toward the one true God. Bad leaders tend to eclipse God (like the moon tries to eclipse the sun) but it never lasts long. They also demand luxury and status as a right and privilege of their position.

Israel asked for a king. They wanted an earthly symbol of power, security and prosperity. They wanted to be like other nations. They wanted to be a monarchy (a nation governed by a king) rather than a Theocracy (where God is King). When there were negotiations between nations, they didn't want Samuel, an old dusty prophet to represent them as a nation who were led by an invisible God. They wanted to be sophisticated and organised, led by an impressive monarch who headed up a well-oiled national machine.

Samuel is angry at their request. God makes it clear to him: "Samuel, this is not about them rejecting you, but about them rejecting me."

At the heart of the matter is faith.
Are you willing to keep trusting in a God who keeps Himself invisible - or do you have "idols" and "monarchs" who have taken God's place?

Friday, June 23, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-23 [Lessons from Samuel] PK's


When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as judges for Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. 3 But his sons did not walk in his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, "You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have."      (1Samuel8:1-5)

A "PK" is a Preacher's Kid.
People expect PK's to be holy and righteous, but often they are not. Sometimes they're a bit naughty and sometimes they rebel completely.

Modern day explanations for this are that preachers often neglect their children for the sake of the congregation, that the pressure of living in the pastoral family fishbowl (where there is little privacy) is too much or that the expectations on children of ministers are too high. One of my colleagues cheekily said: "My children are naughty because they play with the children of the congregation."

While one could spend time on the "why's", the sobering truth is that children of pious Christ followers (not only PKs) rebel.

We've seen three priestly families in our journey through the book of Samuel - two have rebellious sons, and one seems to have done well:

  • Eli and his sons, Hophni and Phineas
  • Abinadab and his son Eleazar who look after the ark for 20 years.
  • Samuel and his sons Joel and Abijah

Eli's sons were gluttons, womanisers and disrespectful of God. On the whole, Eli was a good man, but it seems he succumbed to gluttony and lost the respect of his sons. Eli's compromises seem to have multiplied in his sons.

We don't know much about Abinadab and his son Eleazar, but Eleazar becomes the priest and serves without incident for 20 years. We could argue that Eleazar was a priest but not a priest's kid and this was a first generation priestly family while the other two are second generation priests.

Samuel's sons also rebelled, but we find no failures in Samuel. In fact, when we get to the point of anointing Israel's first king, Samuel will challenge the Israelites to show in any way where he had failed in his duty and there are no claims at all.

So, statistically speaking, in three families there is a 66% chance of things going wrong and then it's also not always the parents' fault. This is sobering.

When our kids go off the rails, the consequences are dire. Eli lost credibility in the eyes of Israel. In Samuel's case the priesthood lost credibility and led to the monarchy being introduced in Israel.

Take time to pray for the PK's you know. Pray that their hearts stay close to the Lord.
Pray also for the kids of fellow-believers who the Lord lays on your hearts...

Thursday, June 22, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-22 [Lessons from Samuel] Mementoes


Samuel took a stone and placed it between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer saying, "Up to here the Lord has helped us."      (1Samuel7:12)
mementoes: n. pl. mementos or mementoes. A reminder of the past; a keepsake. (From )

We have photo collages on our walls to remember what God has done for us as a family. I have a rock on my desk that has the words: "Thank you for forgiveness". I have pictures on my wall drawn by young Caleb in church. I have verses from the new year service at my desk. There's a cross on my bookcase and I often have photos from holidays as my computer screen wallpaper. I have a colourful bracelet on my rucksack that reminds me to PUSH (Pray Until Something Happens).

These mementos are signposts and pointers that remind me of God's goodness and His providence.

Because I easily forget or take these things for granted.

After many years of being far from God, the Israelites, under Samuel's leadership, had returned to the Lord. When the Philistines decided to attack the Israelites in the middle of their act of repentance, God thundered out against the Philistines throwing them into disarray and confusion leaving the Israelites to do the "mopping up" of their fleeing enemy.

Along the way Samuel erects a stone, "Ebenezer: Up to here the Lord has helped us."

I imagine families travelling between Mizpah and Shen and pausing at Samuel's stone pillar. "What happened here Dad?" asks one of the children, and the whole story gets told and families are reminded that the God who brought us this far will continue to go with us.

It is worth celebrating milestones, victories and breakthroughs - especially if it allows us the opportunity to acknowledge and praise the God who has brought us "up to here."

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-21 [Lessons from Samuel] Trust


When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. And when the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. 8 They said to Samuel, "Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines." 9 Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. He cried out to the LORD on Israel's behalf, and the LORD answered him.
10 While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites.      (1Samuel7:7-10)
Twenty years after they had superstitiously and disastrously carried the Ark of the Covenant into battle against the Philistines, the Israelites were learning humility and learning to trust God.

Unfortunately for the Philistines, twenty years had caused them to forget the chaos which the Ark, which represented Almighty God's presence, had wrought in their midst. They thought they could attack Israel and Israel's God again.

When they heard of the Israelites gathering at Mizpah for worship, they decided to take advantage of the situation as the men would have been far from their homes and would only be lightly armed. It was a cowardly and evil act.

The Israelites are afraid. But this time they don't take the ark into battle - they don't resort to manipulation - but instead, they ask Samuel to cry out to God for them. They put their trust in God.

And God answers them! He goes out against the Philistines and utterly defeats them.

There is a subtle but important shift here.
Twenty years previously the Israelites had presumed that God must rescue them and they used the Ark as a remote control or even a hostage to "coerce" God to save them. But their hearts were far from God and God allowed the Ark to be captured to teach them not to presume or manipulate.

Now, they ask Samuel to ask God to rescue them. They are not demanding or coercing, they're simply trusting in God. And God reveals His great glory and power!

We can learn a lot from this...

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-20 [Lessons from Samuel] Humility


So the men of Kiriath Jearim came and took up the ark of the LORD. They took it to Abinadab's house on the hill and consecrated Eleazar his son to guard the ark of the LORD.
2 It was a long time, twenty years in all, that the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim, and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the LORD. 3 And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, "If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines." 4 So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only.      (1Samuel7:1-4)
Last week we looked at the extremes of fundamentalism (the Israelites using the Ark as a good luck charm - thus trying to manipulate God) and liberalism (the Philistines treating the ark as a trophy - thereby ignoring God's power and glory. The Israelites also treated the ark as a curiosity, sacrificing Philistine cows burnt on Philistine wood and opening up the ark like a tourist attraction).

The death of the 70 men who had opened the ark shook the Israelites badly and they make appropriate arrangements for the ark to be looked after respectfully - consecrating Eleazar to look after it.

It takes 20 years (!) for the Israelites to digest the recent events...
This seems like a long time, but here are some factors to consider...

  • The word of the Lord had been rare.
  • The failure of Eli's sons had been great and their influence far-reaching - this is demonstrated in the disrespect shown by the men who opened up the ark to look-see.
  • Samuel was still growing up and his influence and teaching would have needed time to gain traction

But when the time is right, Israel is suitably repentant and ready to listen and learn. They are ready for a big step...

And so Samuel calls them to a sacred assembly and urges them to put their fake gods behind them so that they can serve only God. And this is what they do.

Sometimes time and quiet is what we need to yearn after God and begin to seek Him again. This will mean humbling ourselves and realising our need of Him.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-15 [Lessons from Samuel] Pendulum


But God struck down some of the men of Beth Shemesh, putting seventy of them to death because they had looked into the ark of the LORD. The people mourned because of the heavy blow the LORD had dealt them, 20 and the men of Beth Shemesh asked, "Who can stand in the presence of the LORD, this holy God? To whom will the ark go up from here?"      (1Samuel6:19 -20)

When the ark was returned to Israel by driverless cart, it arrived at the border-town of Beth Shemesh. The Israelites rejoiced at the return of the Ark and offered up a sacrifice. But the sacrifice cost them nothing, because they sacrificed the two Philistine cows and used the Philistine cart for firewood.

Then curiosity got the better of them and they opened up the ark to see what was inside.

This illustrates the pendulum swing that we often go through when it comes to the things of God:

On the right-hand side of the pendulum swing, the Israelites started with seeing the Ark as more than a symbol of God's presence, but as something that bound Him to act to defend His symbol. It was with this idea that they took the ark into battle as a "remote control" to "force" God to fight for them.

Then, after the ark was captured and then returned, the Israelites swung to the far left, to a place where the ark was treated as even less than a symbol of God's presence and could be opened up for curiosity.

These two sides of the pendulum could be described as fundamentalism on the right and liberalism on the left. Fundamentalists focus so much on symbols that they forget about the God the symbols point to. While they appear to be deeply religious and respectful, fundamentalists are guilty of obsessing on symbols to the extent that their picture of God shrinks and they attempt to control God by their devotion to the symbols.

Liberalism emphasises the human mind and its "right" to have curiosity satisfied and mysteries explained. There is little room for the miraculous and forces greater than rationalism. While they appear to be open-minded and free-thinking, liberals are self-referencing and self-justified and they disrespect forces and mysteries greater than themselves with great arrogance.

Both ends of the pendulum can have tragic results.

Between the extremes of liberalism and fundamentalism we must find middle ground - I believe this middle ground is humility.
We'll look at this more next week...

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-14 [Lessons from Samuel] Presumption


After the Philistines had captured the ark of God, they took it from Ebenezer to Ashdod. 2 Then they carried the ark into Dagon's temple and set it beside Dagon. 3 When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! They took Dagon and put him back in his place. 4 But the following morning when they rose, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD! His head and hands had been broken off and were lying on the threshold; only his body remained.      (1Samuel5:1-4)

In the previous chapter after Eli dies, there is the sad account of his daughter-in-law, the wife of Phineas, giving birth to a son and, just before she dies in labour, she calls her son "Ichabod" which means "the glory of the Lord has departed." (This was because the Philistines had captured the Ark of the Covenant.)

On the flip side, the Philistines put the Ark of the Covenant (A gold covered box containing the tablets of the Ten Commandments and Aaron's rod which had budded) inside the temple of their god Dagon as a trophy of battle.

Both the Israelites and the Philistines were guilty of gross presumption:

  • The Israelites presumed that God's presence was tied up in the box and that whoever had the box "had" God. They treated the Ark like a remote control. They also presumed that losing the box meant that all was lost.
  • The Philistines presumed too. They presumed that their victory and capturing of the box meant that Israel's God was "done and dusted". They put the box at the feet of a statue of Dagon their god as a symbol of his victory.

But everyone is in for a rude awakening...!

The statue of Dagon collapses before the ark and, when they put it back on its stand, it collapses again, with the head and hands broken off. Dagon is basically rendered powerless before God.

In the rest of the chapter we see the Philistines passing the Ark like a hot-potato from one city to another until it has been to all five Philistine strongholds and has caused illness and pandemonium wherever it goes. After seven desperate months the Philistines place the ark and gifts of gold tribute on a cart and yoke two new calved cows who have never been yoked and these cows leave their calves behind and dociley pull the cart all the way to the nearest Israelite town.

The lesson is clear:
The Ark is not a remote control for God, but it is a powerful symbol of His independent presence. It is a reminder of His majesty and power and a reminder that He is king above all. The fact that things happen around the ark, without anyone "wielding" it reminds us that God can work independently of human intervention. A remote needs a human hand to "wield" it, but the Ark doesn't - The Lion of Judah is not a tame lion.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

EmmDev 2017-06-13 [Lessons from Samuel] Compromise


That same day a Benjamite ran from the battle line and went to Shiloh, his clothes torn and dust on his head. 13 When he arrived, there was Eli sitting on his chair by the side of the road, watching, because his heart feared for the ark of God. When the man entered the town and told what had happened, the whole town sent up a cry.
14 Eli heard the outcry and asked, "What is the meaning of this uproar?"
The man hurried over to Eli, 15 who was ninety-eight years old and whose eyes were set so that he could not see. 16 He told Eli, "I have just come from the battle line; I fled from it this very day."
Eli asked, "What happened, my son?"
17 The man who brought the news replied, "Israel fled before the Philistines, and the army has suffered heavy losses. Also your two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, are dead, and the ark of God has been captured."
18 When he mentioned the ark of God, Eli fell backward off his chair by the side of the gate. His neck was broken and he died, for he was an old man and heavy. He had led Israel forty years.      (1Samuel4:12-18)

Did you get it?

He fell of his chair and broke his neck because he was an old man and heavy.

This is the sad conclusion of the life of Eli who had been the high priest and judge of Israel for forty years.

Eli is a tragic mixture of devotion and complacency.
At times he could get it so right and at times he could get it so wrong.

He got it right when he realised that God wanted to bless Hannah,
he got it right when he realised that God was speaking to Samuel and
he got it right when he mentored Samuel in the ways of the Lord.

But he got it so wrong with his sons...
He didn't stop his sons from taking the ark into battle.
He didn't stop his sons' immoral behaviour.
He didn't heed the multiple warnings God sent him.
He didn't act against his sons' gluttony.

In fact, it would seem that he participated in their gluttony...
As the boys forcibly took the choice fatty cuts from the temple offerings, it would seem that Eli partook and benefited from their gluttony, for he was an old man and heavy.

This is the tragic price of compromise.
The small "exceptions" become regular habits which add up and accumulate and before we know it we've justified them and they are part of our lives.

I imagine Eli being offered some of the choice meat his sons had "grabbed" and saying to himself: "I work hard and this is a thankless task, this is just a little treat." But the treat became a habit and the habit became an entitlement and the entitlement became the lard of years of compromise.

Our compromises may look different, but the dangers are the same.
Let us learn the significant lessons Eli has to teach us.