(1 Samuel 15: 10-23, 34-35)
Every year it happens, in some form or fashion, in both the collegiate and professional sporting world. A coach is hired, or a player given a fat new contract. The coach is either a big-name or an up-and-coming-er on the fast track. The player is an all-star, set rushing records, batted over .300 the past five seasons. There is a big press conference held in their honor; a table with two microphones and two bottles of Dasani water; a back drop emblazoned with the team logo. The college athletic director or professional sports team owner steps to the mic; and before clicking cameras proudly introduces their prized acquisition – a new coach slicked up in an Armani suit; a player holding the team’s jersey. Both beam with pride at the promise and success that awaits.
Except sometimes, that success never happens. There are any number of reasons why. Maybe the big-name coach couldn’t recruit in his new surroundings, or the up-and-coming-er took one step up the coaching ladder a little too soon. Maybe the big-name player got his money and lost his desire to win; or never found chemistry with his new teammates. Hundreds of thousands of booster dollars, paid to fire the last coach and bring in the new one – down the drain. Shrinking cap space from an overblown player contract, now strangling the team like a vice.
And so the athletic director or team owner has to face the cameras once again, but this time he is not beaming. Before the sporting world and with forlorn face, he makes his mea culpa; and he is forced to say four words that are as bitter coming out of his mouth as the losses that brought him to that place: “It didn’t work out.” “We made a mistake.”
Every year this sort of thing happens in college and the pros, in football and basketball and other sports. It happens in the business world, too; when you bring in a CEO that doesn’t take the company to the next level. It happens everywhere. And so someone else is hired to take their place, and it starts all over again. And the thing is, you never can tell, really, if a new coach or player or other hire is going to work out like you hope it will. But you can always hope – and that’s the thing. You always have hope.
Hope is what the priest and prophet Samuel had in mind when he left the confines of the tabernacle one day to go out and anoint Israel’s first king. Except it wasn’t an Armani-suited coach or a free agent running back he put his trust in. It was a farmer – a rural farmer he was called to anoint king. Think Jimmy Carter, plucked from the peanut farms of Georgia and plopped in the White House. That’s kind of what it was like when Saul became king.
Now the fact that the Israelites even had a king was noteworthy. God’s people had been settled in the Promised Land for a hundred years or so, making it their home and slowly forming the Israelite nation. And at some point the people began to look at the nations around them, and they noticed: everyone else had a king, except them. So they complained to God and to Samuel and told them they wanted a king, that they needed a king, that they couldn’t be a “real nation” without a king.
To say God was less-than-enthused about the request would be putting it mildly. God warned the people that it wasn’t all fun and games with a king around. That’s because kings had ultimate power and authority; which meant they could do kingly things like levy taxes whenever they wanted, or institute forced labor, or take livestock from people on a whim. There was a definite downside to having a king, and God tried to warn them.
But the people persisted: we want a king! We want a king! And so God finally gave them one; and a rural farmer from the sticks was sent to the throne.
At first there was great hope, as there always is at the beginning. But soon that hope began to dissipate. And it wasn’t that Saul was a bad person or abused his power as future kings would. It was just – well, to be frank, it was just that Saul wasn’t up to the job. That’s pretty much it. And you can’t help but feel sorry for the guy as you watch things unfold. The more Saul tries to do the right thing, the more he messes things up. You know any people like that? You know anyone who seems to perpetually take one step forward and two steps back? Meet their patron saint, King Saul of Israel!
Like the time he engaged the Philistines in battle without Samuel there with him. That would be like the Yankees of old launching into the first inning of a baseball game without a Steinbrenner in the stands. Or the time Saul got angry at his troops after a lost battle and decided to punish them by denying them food for a couple of days. Cause, you know, starving soldiers are going to be so much more effective on the battlefield than well-fed ones!
The last straw occurred when Saul took riches from a foreign nation after defeating their army – breaking a strict Hebrew code against collecting spoil. He told Samuel he was taking it to offer to God as a sacrifice – and in all honesty he probably was. But Saul, you can’t do that! That was pretty much the story on Saul – good heart, poor execution.
It was after that last faux-pas that both God and Samuel realized that something had to change. There was no denying it. And so Saul, bless his heart, was let go, without even the dignity of a press conference and thanks from his former employer. And God, we are told, was sorry that God ever made Saul king, and regretted the decision, as did Samuel.
You know, sometimes in the sporting world, a school or team is able to bounce back from a difficult period fairly quickly. And that certainly was the case for Israel. The very next chapter takes Samuel to a man named Jesse, and a son of his out in the fields named David. We know how that one turned out!
So I guess it’s easy for us to kind of brush right over this whole Saul thing, because in the end everything worked out okay, and that’s all it’s really about, right?
But you know, I think it may be worth our while to just stop for a minute – stop and kind of hover over the uncomfortable conclusion of chapter 15. I think we’d be doing ourselves a disservice if we just rushed right into the hard stuff to the happier ending. This whole deal with Saul’s failure and God’s regret – I mean, that’s kind of heavy, is it not? It forces us to ask some difficult questions, like: whose failure is this? Is it Saul’s, or is it Samuel’s? Did Samuel get it wrong? Did God?
The last time I preached on this passage, years ago, I remember a church member of mine coming to me the week before and point-blank asking me, “There are thousands and thousands of verses in the Bible – why in the world would you pick this one to preach on?” She had a point, you know. The ending of the 15th chapter of 1 Samuel is not exactly a feel-good, everything-wrapping-up-all-nice-and-neat scripture. And we tend to gravitate toward those nice ones because – well, because everything wraps up all nice and neat, and we like that! But being a people of faith means having the faith to dig in and ask the hard questions, address the hard scriptures.
Because maybe that’s the whole point. Maybe the reason the story of Saul’s failed kingship is in here is to acknowledge the fact that sometimes, probably more times than we’d like to admit, life doesn’t work out as planned. The proverbial curve ball, if you will. The slinky stuck on the steps. It’s more than just an unexpected turn of events, it’s something that looks and feels a whole lot like flat-out failure. Where is God in that?
I used to have a sweet little old lady who lived in the condo next door to me, the year or two after I graduated from college. Miss Ruby and I would always have these wonderful exchanges when our paths crossed during the day – about the weather, or the election, or the goings-on in our town. Miss Ruby was also a master theologian, and her sadness at seeing me leave a few years later was brightened by the fact that I was going off to seminary. Her theological arsenal consisted of a dozen or so sayings that voiced a supreme and unwavering faith in God – one of those being, “God don’t make no mistakes.” You’ve heard that one before? Every time I hear someone say that, I think of dear Miss Ruby.
And so I wonder what she would make of our passage today? How would she interpret this – did God make a mistake in picking Saul? And if not, then what exactly happened? The hard questions that we enter into in faith……
You know, it’s interesting, don’t you think, how our society tends to respond when something doesn’t work out as planned; when things don’t go right. We look to blame someone – do we not? There has to be a scapegoat, and the collective mass can’t let it go until there is. When the coach or star player doesn’t pan out, when the business tanks, when the election is lost, when footballs are deflated….. We HAVE to know who is at fault, and we won’t let it rest until we do.
The thing is, there are times, many times, when there is someone to blame – when it’s clear who is at fault. That makes it easy. But there are other times when there’s no clear-cut reason why; when as the saying goes, life just happens. And that makes things a little trickier. Because it can’t be about assigning blame, can it? Instead, it’s more about circumstances and choices and what you and I do with those. Sometimes it really is as simple as that. And the fact is that Saul made some pretty bad choices in certain situations. It wasn’t that Saul wasn’t trying; nor was it that Samuel or God had made a bad selection.
The basic and hard truth of it all is this, my friends: people mess up. It is the one reality that every single person on this planet – past, present, and future – shares in common with everyone else. It doesn’t matter if you’re a legendary coach or a janitor; a star basketball player or a CEO, an anointed king or the guy that’s’ standing in this pulpit. It doesn’t matter how many digits make up your annual salary or whether you even have a salary. Everyone makes mistakes. And when we put our trust and confidence in someone, if we expect them to be something they are not and can never be, it is inevitable that they will disappoint us. They will never live up to our expectations as long as we expect more out of them than we should.
So does this mean we should stop trusting people or expecting good things out of them? I sure hope not! No, I wonder if what it means is that we don’t make people out to be more important or more significant than they actually are. When that new coach is brought on board, or when that star player is signed, we have to be reasonable with what to expect from them. Because in the end, we all are called to see everyone around us in the same way that God sees us – as equal children of God.
It also means that we need to get in the habit of placing our ultimate hope and trust in the only One deserving of it. It is God who is the true recipient of our grandest hope; a hope that came to full fruition when God walked this earth with us, lived among us, taught and healed us, died for us, rose to new life for us.
So if we want a king, like those Israelites; a king that won’t abuse his power and will rule us with justice and compassion, we need to king Jesus.
If we want a political leader who is above reproach and who takes everyone’s interest at heart, we need to elect Jesus.
If we want a coach for our favorite sports team who makes every right call, runs a perfectly clean program and keeps all footballs inflated at the proper PSI, we need to go out and get Jesus.
If we want a CEO or business owner who manages assets wisely and always keeps the best interests of the investors in mind, we need to hire Jesus.
If we want a minister who will consistently preach the best sermons and never make mistakes or disappoint us, sorry to say this folks, but you’ve got the wrong guy! You need to call Jesus.
If we want a parent who never loses their temper, always fixes the best meals and makes every soccer game and dance recital, we need Jesus.
We could go on and on with that, but you get the point. It’s the same point God was trying to tell the people when they were begging for a king, said they couldn’t live without a king. Kings will disappoint you, he told them – but I never will. Kings will let you down – I’ll always be there for you. Kings are human, just like you – which means they’ll make mistakes, just like you. Let me be your king. Let me be the one in whom you place your ultimate trust and hope.
I am grateful, so very grateful, for a God who hears the cries of God’s people and responds every time with faithfulness and compassion and grace. I am grateful for a God who already knows we will make mistakes, and even then, still manages to work through us for good, sometimes in spite of ourselves. And I am grateful for a God who is constantly in the habit of showing us, through our weakness, that Jesus is our true king – yesterday, today, tomorrow.
We will never live up to our own expectations. God always has. God always will. And for that, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God, and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
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