Sunday, June 24, 2012

Aim High (First Samuel 17:32-49)

God's ultimate call on David's life was for him to be the king of Israel. But in the meantime there were still one or two little things he could do.

We meet up with him living life pretty much as he did before Samuel anointed him king. He's still the youngest and he's at home watching the sheep when his brothers are called to help fight the Philistines. And he's still the one who dad tells to run out to the battlefront and see what's going on. The bible doesn't say this, but I'm pretty sure that after Jesse said, "Check up on your brothers," he said it was because "We haven't heard from them and your mother is worried."

When visiting, David sees the daily ritual of Goliath of Gath coming out to challenge the Israelite armies to a steel cage death match -- no, wait, I mean to one-on-one combat. David is stunned that no Israelite soldier takes up the offer. After all, they serve the Lord, the God of hosts! All Goliath's huge size means is that the near-sighted soldiers have got a shot at him too. He comments on this, and his brothers learn of it. Predictably, their younger brother's foolishness irritates them, because he's just a boy who doesn't know what he's talking about.

David says he'll fight Goliath if no one else will, and he won't be satisfied until King Saul lets him go out to fight. Saul gives him his own armor and weapons, but David says he can't use them because he's not used to them and they weigh him down. I imagine Saul and the others were hoping the heavy armor they think is needed to fight Goliath would convince David he shouldn't make the try. But David will still fight. He heads out and stops to arm himself with five stones for his sling.

Note, if you will, that he takes five stones. I believe he doesn't know exactly how the battle will end. He believes God will triumph, but he doesn't necessarily know exactly how that will happen. As it turns out he overloaded by four stones, but he doesn't know that at the time.

You know the rest. Goliath marches out, laughs at David, gets taunted by David and decides to dispatch him quickly and messily. But David pops him in the melon with a stone from his sling, knocks him down and then decapitates him with his his own sword. Cue the Israelites finding their courage and charging the Philistines, cue the Philistines losing theirs and getting while the getting's good.

Now, in fighting Goliath, David was answering a different kind of call from God. His call to be king one day is specific to him. But like all who followed God, he was called on to trust God and depend on him when facing trouble. So he figured God would be on his side against Goliath, just as God would have been on any Israelite's side if one of them could stop channeling Bert Lahr long enough to remember he was one of God's people.

Did David's decision to answer Goliath's challenge serve God? Yes. Was it foolish? Yes again. But the two in this case go together, and David's rash foolishness served God just as much as his courage and skill with a sling did.

Remember that David is at this point no older than 15 or 16 -- much older than that and he would have been with the soldiers himself. He is, therefore a teenager. What group of people are somewhat prone to acting without thought of the consequences, and when asked later why they made some less-than-optimal decision respond with a shrug and an "I don't know." I believe one such group is made up of teenagers.

We tend to think of teens' impetuous natures as a kind of moral or ethical immaturity, but in reality it has more to do with physical immaturity. The forebrain is the part of the brain that pops up with the "Bad idea, dude" signal when we consider what will turn out to be bad ideas. It does not finish developing until our mid-20s. Of course, there's no guarantee we'll use it once it develops, but before it develops, we really don't use it well at all.

So David's rash decision is exactly the kind of thing we should expect from a young man his age, and the amazing thing is that God uses what we would see as young David's weakness to win the victory. Yes, God uses David's skill with a sling and his speed and his quick thinking to take Goliath when he was down, but before any of that he used David's impulsiveness.

We all like to think God uses our strengths to do his work. If we have caring hearts or keen minds, if we have generous pockets or welcoming spirits -- we believe God uses them for the kingdom and for his glory. But does God use our irritability or our whininess or our laziness or our...well, that's a list that could get long depressingly quickly, couldn't it. The point is that God uses exactly those things for his work as well. God doesn't irritate us or get on our last nerve to make us snappish and then use that irritability, but he will work with whatever he's got to do his will.

After all, he won his greatest victory through the human frailty of his son. Why would we think our own frailties and limitations could hold him back?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Picked (First Samuel 15:34 - 16:13)

David's succession to Saul features a number of unusual characteristics.

For one, in the ancient world kings were usually succeeded by one of their sons, or by a brother if there were no sons. Sometimes non-family members took the throne on the death of a king, but that was usually because they had led a successful revolt and had caused the death of the king. On the rare occasions when a non-family member succeeded peacefully, the king himself usually chose who he wanted.

He would, of course, try to choose the best person for the job. The ablest military commander, the best legal mind, the wisest diplomat -- in fact, a king would probably try to look for the same qualities if he intended to choose from among his own sons. The primary goal was to select someone who was ready to be king and so minimize the amount of palace intrigue and maybe even bloodshed that could result from a poor choice.

So absolutely none of those usual procedures were followed in the selection of David. He's not related to Saul, Saul didn't pick him, and although he's shown some courage by facing down animals that threatened his sheep, he's too young and inexperienced to have made a good king.

And even more interesting, once he's anointed absolutely nothing changes for him. He's still the one who watches the flocks and he's the one too young to fight who'll be sent off to get word from his brothers when they're part of the war with the Philistines. Although in the eyes of Samuel and probably his own immediate family he's now the next king over Israel, his life proceeds as it did before. In fact, read the story of his visit to his brothers and you'll find that, king-to-be or not, they still see him as their troublemaking little brother.

But David's...interesting selection can tell us some important things about how God works, which might help us understand something about our own calls to serve him.

First, as we see in the story David was not the obvious choice to be king, even for Samuel who had spent a lifetime as God's servant. Samuel sees the tall and strong older sons of Jesse and believes they look like kings, so God must have chosen one of them. But God tells Samuel that his criteria for kingliness don't necessarily match human criteria. After all, Saul looked the part of a king as well, but proved to be spiritually too weak to lead God's people.

Next, we see that God is willing to wait until the person he selects is present. Had Jesse's sons all been present, he could have led them before Samuel youngest first just as easily as he did this way. He could have had them in a group and let Samuel see them. The arrangements of the meeting ensure that the choice God really wants to make won't be shown to him until the very end, but he will wait and not settle for less than what or who he wants.

And we see that God's choice may not bear full fruit right away. David is just a boy now and won't be king for many years, but God makes his choice now in spite of all the time that will be involved.

You and I are called by God for roles just as surely as was David. We are probably not called to be the kings of Israel -- because the throne room would get very crowded -- but we are each called. Just like David, we are each called for a purpose God intends for us to fulfill. Oftn we tend to hang back from the idea God calls us to something, saying we're not up to it or that God must surely have someone around who could do better than we could.

Really? Do we really expect God to say, "You're right! I don't know how I could have messed up like that! Good thing you knew yourself better than I did so you could set me straight!" We don't, but backing away from God's call out of a false modesty amounts to the same thing. Not a one of us is worthy of that call, but God has made it and promises us we can fulfill it with his help.

We may have been called long ago for a role that has yet to come to pass, just like Davdi waited long before he was king. But just as surely as he was anointed for his role long before he stepped into it, those who still wait to learn what God wants of them have been anointed for whatever that is.

Plus, there may be a thing or two we can do for God in the meantime. You may remember David got one or two little matters out of the way before he became king, too.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

King Me! (First Samuel 8:1-20)

The people of Israel here do a curious thing -- they see a problem and in order to solve it, they ask for it to get worse. Don't ask me why.

The problem is that Samuel's sons, whom Samuel has named judges to follow him, are not very good at their job. This really shouldn't surprise anyone. The "judges" we read about in their book were not exactly like our own judges -- they were religious leaders who were thought to be gifted by God's spirit to lead the people in a time of crisis. The people would fall away from following God and trouble would come. God would raise up a leader or "judge" to help them and then things would get better. Then they would fall away and the cycle would start over.

This kind of leadership couldn't be inherited. Being the son or daughter of a judge was no guarantee that a person would receive the same spirit, and so we have men like Samuel's sons, who are only magistrate-type judges and not very good ones at that, since they are corrupt.

But when the people ask Samuel for a king, they are asking for exactly the same kind of situation, only worse. There's no guarantee that the eldest son of a good king will himself be a good king -- there's only the guarantee that he's going to be king. If illness or intrigue or war intervene, he may not be king at all, but that's also no guarantee that there will be a good king on the throne. If you have a good king, Samuel says, that might be better than a bad king, but the king will still draft your sons, use your daughters in arranged marriages to his own political ends, and tax you, and you won't be able to stop him. Kings in that culture didn't have Parliaments or other restrictions on their power. Even though the Israelite kings would have the Law of Moses, they could (and often did) ignore it if they wanted to.

The people stick to their guns. They want a king like other nations have. And that's where we see something interesting crop up. The people weren't necessarily asking to have a monarchy begun. They had a king: God. God was the ruler of the people of Israel. God had given them their law and, though his spirit, guided them in following it. The Israelites asked for a change of kings, from having God as their sovereign to having a human being.

Does that make a difference? Well, several, but I wanted to point to one of them. When God was their sovereign, the Israelites had the Law of Moses to follow. But they had to interpret it for themselves sometimes, because some things weren't as clear-cut as others. They could always seek God's guidance, but we know that while God responds to our prayers that response is rarely the words in the sky declarative sentence we want. They had to develop, with God's help, their ability to discern and judge. They had to mature, if you like.

A human king, however, can always have a definitive answer. "Lord, I know I am supposed to honor my father and my mother, but my dad took off when I was one and is back asking me for a loan. What should I do?" God's response is not likely to be as clear as a king's: "You're right, he's a bum. Kick him to the curb." That may sound great, but the problem is that when someone answers every question for us, we never learn how to develop our own answers. What do you call a being whose every action is dictated by your will? A pet, that's what! And we are not God's pets!

God desires our growth, our maturing in our lives of faith. He meets us where we are but he wants us to get better, and he leads us in doing so. So he doesn't cover all the bases and nail down every detail -- if he did we would never grow into what he has in mind for us to become. No earthly king, teacher or ruler can do this; only our Lord and savior. And it is what he desires for us more than anything.