After the Chicago Cubs lost their 96th baseball game in 2006, manager Dusty Baker, was called in to meet with the general manager. We all knew what that meant: he was a goner. You know what else we all knew? The manager wasn't the main problem. The Cubs were making a big change that wouldn't change anything. I guess we shouldn't be too critical. We all do that kind of thing. When things are not working in our lives, our families, or our churches, we decide that we need to make some big changequit, fire someone, leave our spouse, buy something, sue somebody. But we may very well be making a big change that won't change anything at all.
That's what happened over 3000 years ago in Israel. The pressure of enemies on their borders provoked Israel's elders to come to their leader, Samuel, and demand a king. Things just couldn't keep going the way they were. They needed a change. Well, God gave them their kingSaulas well as a stunning victory over their brutal enemy, Nahash, king of the Ammonites. At the end of 1 Samuel 11, Israel is celebrating.
There is a bittersweet moment, however, at the beginning of 1 Samuel 12. With the confirmation of the new king, it is time for Samuel to step aside. But before he goes, he has something to say. Samuel begins his retirement speech by confirming his integrity. Then it is almost as if Samuel has said, "So you're absolutely sure I'm a fair judge?" "Absolutely," they reply. "Okay, then," says Samuel, "Hear ye! Hear ye! Court is now in session. The accused will all rise." And he points at the people. Twice in the speech that follows, Samuel will tell the people to stand. These are courtroom words in Hebrew. In this ancient statement, God speaks to all of his peopleincluding usabout our propensity for making big changes that don't change anything at all.
Remember your salvation story.
Samuel begins by giving his people a history lesson. In 1 Samuel 12:68, he tells Israel to remember their salvation story. This story is repeated over and over in the Old Testament; it is like the Apostle's Creed for the ancient Hebrews. It was their national testimony of salvation. Samuel reminds them how it all worked. They cried to Godnot a kingfor help. In response, God appointed the kind of leaders they needed for the hour: Moses and Aaron. God not only rescued them but also led them to the land flowing with milk and honey.
Do you remember your salvation story? Our stories are all different, of course, but they're all the same, too. We were in bondage to sin and Satan and death. We had no hope and we cried out to God, "O Lord, save me!" He put the blood of the Lamb over our hearts, took us out of bondage, walked us through the waters of death, and brought us to a life lived in the milk and honey of God's promises.
In verses 9 through 11, Samuel offers a very short summary of the book of Judges. Judges tells the stories of seven cycles in the life of Israel. They would forget the Lord, he would get their attention by pulling back his safety fence, they'd get miserable enough to cry out to him and repent, and he'd send a deliverer like Gideon or Barak or Samson. We have cycles like that in our lives, too. "I accepted Christ when I was kid," my friend Tom said, "but then when I got in the Navy, I chucked it all. Then everything fell apart and I couldn't take it any more. I was a mess. So I cried to God and asked him to give me another chance."
Samuel reminds us of something we easily forget: every great rescue in your life came when you cried out to God (12:611). My experience confirms that trouble comes when we forget the Lord our God. Like Israel, we don't usually get in trouble because we consciously rebel against God. We simply forget about him. We forget to live with him in the mix. We make decision after decision without consulting his Word or praying. We go weeks without examining our hearts or confessing our sins. I believe that when we forget God, he begins to meddle in our lives. He usually meddles in distinctly non-spiritual parts of our liveshealth, for example, or our jobs. The car keeps breaking down or we cannot seem to get on the same page as our spouse or kids. One of the tip-offs that God is meddling is that in all this trouble we begin to see what we're becoming. We start to see the kind of man or woman we really are. We see how petty we are, or short-tempered, or weak. God is basically taking us back to where we started with himseeing how sinful and weak we are in this world, how utterly unqualified we are to solve our own problems.
Turn to God in your trouble.
The next time you face trouble, turn to God. In 1 Samuel 12:1215, Samuel reminds Israel of another time they had been in an up and down cycle. They had forgotten Godagainso God was meddling in their world by using the Philistines on one side and Nahash and his Ammonites on the other. But this time, instead of crying out to God, they decided they wanted a king.
As they did, we get into situations in which we're frightened, anxious, insecure, or confusedsome crisis where it is obvious we should cry out to God in repentance for forgetting himbut instead we say, "I'm going to quit my job. I'm going to try herbal medicine. I'm going to tell her to get out of my life. It's time for a new pastor."
Why didn't Israel just call on God? For the same reason we often fail to. When the people of God are in trouble, we will usually try everything else but simply walking by faith. That was the problem in Israel. They didn't want to walk by faith and trust God alone. Churches don't want to walk by faith either. We would much prefer strong leaders who tell us where we're going than to attend prayer meetings to seek direction.
Walking by faith requires two unpalatable things. The first is the rigor of a relationship with God. In verse 14, Samuel explains that living by faith means keeping careful track of your daily relationship with God; it means we confess sin, rest in his ways, and ask for grace to be what we cannot otherwise be.
Second, walking by faith requires living without a backup plan for God. It wasn't that Israel wanted to reject God as their deliverer. They just wanted a contingency plan. Nobody in their right mind would tell God to take a hike, but we would like to have alternatives in case he doesn't want to deliver or bless us on our schedule. No matter what we try to change to get out of trouble, we cannot change the way our covenant relationship with God works. Samuel says in verses 14 and 15: Now you've got your king, but the covenant still works the same way it always has. Follow the Lord and life will work. Disobey and rebel against the Lordking or no kingand life won't work.
When we became Christians, we entered into this ancient covenant relationship with God. Jesus has given us every advantage we need when it comes to our relationship with God, but the basic nature of the covenant is still unchanged. When we love and obey God, through the grace and help of Christ, life works. When we don't, life doesn't work. Change whatever you want, but it won't work till you are where you need to be with God.
Banish fear by trusting in God.
Finally, Samuel uses a zinger of an illustration. In verses 16 through 19 Samuel employs courtroom terminology for a second time. He tells Israel to stand still and behold the power of God.
A heavy rain at harvest is devastating and, in that part of the world, almost unheard of. But God sends a deluge at Samuel's cue that hammers their crops. Israel had to get their fears in the right order. That's what had happened to Israel. They were terrified of Nahash, with his custom of gouging out the right eye of every captive. Who can blame them? We, too, become fear driven when trouble comes. The fears of failure, or of losing our livelihood, family, standing, or happiness miniaturize God. We may believe all the right things about God, but he shrinks in our minds. We may say he's all-powerful, but he's mini-omnipotent in our heads. The power of whatever we fear is bigger, louder, and more dangerous. On the other hand, as Oswald Chambers wrote, "The remarkable thing about fearing God is that when you fear God you fear nothing else, whereas if you do not fear God you fear everything else."
When we miniaturize God, he may engineer a demonstration to persuade us to fear him more than anything else in this life. It may look like God was just trying to scare Israel, but he was actually loving them very dramatically. The Bible says the Lord disciplines those he loves. That storm was God's love in actionan effort to draw stubborn, prodigal people back to the only safe place in the world: their relationship with God. In fact, something very strange happened after this demonstration. Verse 18 says, "So all the people stood in awe of the Lord and of Samuel." In this context, awe equals feareyes wide, mouths dry, brows damp, and scalps tingling. Then they plead with Samuel to pray to God for them and ask that he wouldn't pound them for their sin like he just pounded their wheat. Samuel replies, "Don't be afraid."
Here you are, at a time of great stress in your life. Instead of changing something that won't change anything, here is what you do. Turn to your unchanging God (12:2025) and serve him with all your heart (verses 20 and 21).
There are two particular ways I counsel people in trouble to do this. First, stay close to the Lord. Read your Bible, pray your heart out, and come to church. Second, don't grab some false comfort or help. Rely on God's unshakeable love for you. You are God's own beloved son or daughter, part of his bridal people. He chose you before you chose him, and he did it because it delighted him to do so.
"But what about all our sin?" we say, as Israel did that day. Trust God's love to redeem you from your sin, as he has done through Christ. God will give you the help you need. You need someone to pray powerfully for you, and you need to know how to think and behave. That's what God will give you in times of trouble. The Israelites looked to Samuel for those needs. We look to one greater than Samuel, to Jesus and the Holy Spirit who always intercede for us in our need. Maybe change is necessary in your life, but you need to know the way of change that is "good and right."
Remember your salvation storyhow you cried out to God and he saved you. Remember your down-and-up cycles, where sin had sunk you and the Lord delivered you. Remember to re-prioritize your fears, with the fear of the Lord supreme. And then turn to the unchanging love of your unchanging God.