In the incredible mercy of God, when we don’t deserve it at all, we sometimes find ourselves in the flow of what He is doing – either sharing something of Him when we weren’t looking for it, or receiving a blessing from someone. I was just listening to Matt Redman discussing leading worship when he is not in the mood, and he explains that often when you just ‘go for it’ you suddenly find God meets you. But that is living out of a life laid down. Those who have trodden the road of faith for long enough know that there ARE no shortcuts to His presence.
We see this when we are looking at the story of Saul in 1 Samuel 15 going to war against his enemies. He had won the victory – he had defeated the Amalekites according to God’s order, but he felt that there was no need to completely eradicate them, even though this had been God’s command. It is too easy to curtail the commandments of God in order to please people, and to justify our decision in a way that sounds acceptable – the beasts they had kept were for a sacrifice to God. It appeared too blanket a commandment, too intolerant, to not allow a single living creature to survive. But why should we be concerned about what people think, when we have a direct commandment from God?
1 Samuel is one of those books that you read through and you think: “Hmmm, that was a bit harsh.” Perhaps v.33 of chapter 15 appears like that: “Samuel hacked Agag in pieces before the Lord.” However, a little context shows that it wasn’t simply the Amalekites’ ambush of Israel when they came up from Egypt that God was punishing them for – as it says in v.18 they are ‘sinners.’ See this treatment, for example:
The sources are consistent in their view of the Amalekites as an exceptionally wicked people. The verses from Deuteronomy point to their treachery (accord, Exod 17:8-16). They are seen as the embodiment of evil and hatred towards the Jews which were God’s chosen people. While Israel was to make justice and brotherly love—-even to strangers-—its guiding rule (see, e.g., Leviticus 19:34), the Israelites were commanded to not forget that Amalek had perpetrated a cowardly and unprovoked attack on the feeble and hindmost, when the Israelites were marching from Egypt.
The Israelites were God’s chosen people. It was through them that Christ was to enter into the world. The Amalekites, the forces of Mordor (so to speak), were seeking to eliminate the Israelites and God’s plan of salvation. The manner in which they acted was very much as a terrorist might approach the task-—picking on the poor and weak with cowardly attacks. They needed to be eliminated so that God’s plan of salvation could proceed. God chose His people which were His agent for the ultimate “good” of the Christ to act as His hand of judgment upon the Amalekites, and ordered their absolute annihilation.
To return to the title of this post: there ARE no shortcuts to His presence. This moment in chapter 15 means that Saul’s last chance to redeem his kingship and his posterity has gone. His destiny was thwarted by his own disobedience and his desire for popularity. This is one of the Scriptures in 1 Samuel which (like 3:9, 12:23, 16:7, 17:45 and 30:24) echo and translate readily into our professional, community and church family contexts – in other words, into the highways and the byways of our everyday decisions:
22 So Samuel said:
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices,
As in obeying the voice of the Lord?
Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice,
And to heed than the fat of rams.
23 For rebellion is as the sin of witchcraft,
And stubbornness is as iniquity and idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the Lord,
He also has rejected you from being king.”
The question that Samuel poses is one that strikes us today – God the righteous judge and the one who delights in justice; why would sacrifices please Him? Why would burnt offerings appease Him? Notice how in the new covenant just as under the old we have to listen to the prophets who plead that justice roll down like rivers, who demand for the noise of the songs to be taken away; with Isaiah we say that the fast God has chosen is one to loose the chains of wickedness and let the oppressed go free.
Obedience is better than sacrifice. Last Sunday our guest preacher urged on us the need simply to heal the sick, preach the gospel and make disciples – he asked why is it that young leaders in the church are always looking for something new to say? Or perhaps, looking for a new sacrifice to make… to carve their distinct niche in the franchise of the kingdom; to bring a brand that is unique and therefore will sell. With Samuel, we often ask when presented with a new ministry: What then is this bleating of the sheep in my ears, and the lowing of the oxen which I hear?
To heed is better than the fat of rams. We like the fat. We appreciate the abundance of God’s kingdom. But there will be plenty of abundance in the kingdom to come, and the kingdom coming. Right now, there are those who have nothing, and to heed simply means to pay attention to the commands we have already been given. I read the verse Matthew 25:36 in an article today:
36 I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
In our churches we must welcome the sick, the homeless and offenders. We must visit hospitals and prisons. Why do we waste time looking for a nuanced version of Christianity to sell to a saturated and consumer-driven Christian clientele, when Jesus has told us to visit the sick and the needy? That is where we find Him. That is where our hearts are changed.
Do we want real shortcuts to His presence? They are with the poor and needy. They are with those society has turned against. They are also with unquestioning obedience to the Lord. Obedience is perhaps more familiar to us today as the term ‘surrender’. What does that mean in real terms? Handley Moule puts it like this:
Yesterday perhaps … we lived at least part of our life to self, today, in full purpose, we live the whole of it to Him who died for us and rose again. Yesterday, it was very pleasant as a good thing in itself, if some action, some influence going out from us, brought back praise, spoken or unspoken, to ourselves; today, such a feeling is recognized as sin …today our deliberate choice is in the other direction. We prefer with unaffected preference, that all our earnings should go straight to Another, to our Lord.
In true purpose and choice He is now the centre of our whole life …We wish not to spend ten minutes irrespective of His interests, His claims, His will.
If we want to avoid becoming the pilgrim of yesterday, the victim of Christian nostalgia who seems to occupy so many back seats in church, we need to face up to the ‘today’ of obedience, the ‘today’ of Christ, not self. Every time I read 1 Samuel I grieve over Saul – such a tragic figure, and I can relate to some of his errors so well (not all of them). But yesterday I was Saul, today I am David. I would be the obedient anointed one, never willing to take any glory for myself, but always forgetting myself, giving the honour to Him in the proper and the right way. All of us must turn our backs on the spoils of the Amalekites; Saul made that mistake so that we didn’t have to.
King Agag, who cautiously but cunningly approached Samuel thinking that the ‘bitterness of death is past’, becomes symbolic of anyone or any goal that I allow to take the place of Jehovah. The shocking and graphic death that Samuel handed out to Agag is the death that we need to mete out to our own ego, to our own pet fantasies of greatness, in order that we grow into the stature of Christ.
Am I being merciful, am I being modern, am I being culturally relevant, to still permit myself to have: a career, ambition, absorbing leisure pursuits, adulation from people, friends who are leaky cisterns and draining my personal wellspring of Him? No, actually, this is stubbornness, this is witchcraft, this is sin and idolatry. Just like Saul, We are called to kingship when we are called to Christ. Has he rejected us from being king, because we are looking for shortcuts but not willing to obey the voice of God?