Monday, April 11, 2016

The Story 10. Standing Tall, Falling Hard

Readings: Psalm 34:1-10, John 18:33-38,1 Peter 2:1-12, 1 Samuel 13:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 10th, 2016

If you want to play heavy rock guitar, then you need an amplifier and a distortion pedal. A distortion pedal takes the clean signal from the guitar pick up and mangles it, to produce that heavy metal sound much loved by rock guitarists ever since somebody first turned it up to number 11 on the amplifier.

Distortion on a guitar signal can be a fun thing. But distortion in the life of a disciple of Jesus Christ? NEVER a good thing. Chapter 10 of “The Story” introduces us to a priest called Eli, to a prophet called Samuel, (the promised son of a godly woman called Hannah) and to King Saul, who stands tall, but falls hard.

At this stage in their journey God's people were finding it hard to discern God's direction. We see a lot of distortion that will have far reaching consequences.

  • The distortion of Complicity.
  • The distortion of Conformity.
  • The distortion of Compromise.

Complicity

One of the first people we meet in chapter 10 of “The Story” is the priest Eli. Though Eli appears to be doing his expected duties, the skeleton in his closet is that he has two sons, Hophni and Phineas, who were taking advantage of the positions they had inherited from him. Scripture states it plainly. 1 Samuel 2:12 “Now the sons of Eli were scoundrels; for they had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.

In his old age, Eli does eventually try to intervene and call them to task, but by then it's too late to redeem the situation. Statesman Edmund Burke is quoted as saying “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” Not speaking out against things we know are wrong is a form of complicity that causes distortion.

The particular application of this passage is that it is directed at the religious community. There were things going on in the temple that should not have been happening. Misappropriation of offerings. Sexual immorality. As we think about some of the scandals that have rocked the church in recent history, we are reminded that there is nothing new under the sun.

The effect is always demoralizing and distorting. Peoples suspicions that religious folk are nothing but hypocrites are confirmed. Trust in religious communities as agents of positive change are wiped out by the indiscretions of a few influential leaders. The earliest church were well aware of this. We read in 1 Peter 4:17 “For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household.”

The New Testament remedy is that we should hold each other to the highest standards. That we should be accountable to each other. That we should speak the truth with love; not in a spirit of criticism, but of encouragement and hope and positive reinforcement.

To be the people of God is high calling. A calling to hold your head up high and stand tall. Of course, when you stand tall, the danger is that you can fall hard. We need to help each other to be disciples, in word and deed. Speaking out is never a recipe for popularity. Yet keeping quiet can be a form of complicity that can create huge problems further down the line.

By waiting too long to challenge his sons, Hophni and Phineas, Eli not only lost both of them in battle, but the whole nation ends up being defeated by the Philistines and Israels most sacred possession, the Ark of the Covenant ends up in enemy hands. That is the distortion of complicity. Then there is another kind of distortion in this chapter...

Conformity

Because of the failure of the religious institution, because of the lawlessness that was evident all around them, the people want reform. They look at other nations and think “If we had a King like they all have Kings then we could be as great as they are.”

They didn't need an earthly King. They needed a heavenly one. In time, God would provide that through the coming of Jesus into our world. But they were about to receive a lesson called “Be careful what you ask for.”

Samuel, a little boy who grows up in the temple, becomes the nations spiritual leader. Samuel warns the people that Kings could be absolute tyrants. They could enslave their sons, take their daughters, steal their land, burden them with taxes and use all that they had for their own selfish purposes.

The people don't hear him. “La-la-la, we want a King.” They are more focused on being just like the nations around them than they are on being God's unique and special people. That desire, the desire to conform to be just like everybody else, distorts their ability to be God's people.

Let us not pretend we are immune to such thinking. We don't want to stick out like a sore thumb. We don't want to be Mrs “Well she would say that.” We don't want be “That guy!' We want to be one of the crowd. The problem is, when we make that our goal, we get lost in the crowd.

What is there about our lives that defines us as disciples of Jesus Christ? Are our aspirations any different from those of anybody else? Are we just chasing after the same things as everybody else in our increasingly secular society? That's a challenging question. You may have seen the poster, “If you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

In studying “THE STORY” we've been talking about there being an “Upper Story,” which we have defined as being what God wants for our lives, and a “Lower Story,” how we experience life with all it's step ups and set backs.

The challenge here is to get off the “Lower Story” treadmill of keeping up with other peoples expectations and ask ourselves, “What is God's plan for my life, for my family, for my church, for my community?”

That's partly what our New Beginnings process is all about. This church has reached a particular point in its journey. It is time to sit down and pray together and discern together where God is leading us next.

Some of the conclusions we reach may require us to make major adjustments. Some may require us to keep doing what we are now doing and realizing that's what God had planned all along. Discernment is never a straightforward process. But know this. We are not called to be just like everybody else. We are not called to conformity. One of the historical terms used to describe Protestant churches like ours is actually “Non-Conformist.”

1 Peter 2:9 explains “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's special possession, that you may declare the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His wonderful light.” Attempts at conformity can seriously distort our ability to grow into the things God would love to see us embracing in our lives.

There is a third kind of distortion in this chapter. There is complicity, conformity and...

Compromise

In this chapter we meet Saul. Saul looks like he might be the man who could really make a difference. He stands tall. He is anointed for service. He is filled with the Spirit of God. He rallies the army. They win some significant battles.

Despite Samuel repeatedly telling the people that there desire for a King was not a good thing, Saul, and his son Jonathan, are doing great things in establishing the nation as a force to be reckoned with. Then it starts to unravel. The book of Proverbs teaches us “Pride comes before disaster, and arrogance before a fall.”(Proverbs 16:18.) This King who stands tall, falls hard.

The first unraveling comes at Gilgal. Saul and his troops are told to wait for Samuel to arrive to make an offering before they go into battle. Saul, decides to take things into his own hands... to cut a corner... to compromise and offer the sacrifice himself. Bad move. Just as he finishes, Samuel arrives and tells him that because of his foolish act, the royal task would pass to another.

The final blow to Saul's reign is in a battle with the Amalekites. Saul has strict instructions. The Amalekites were to be wiped out. Instead Saul spares the life of their King and takes the best of the spoils they acquired for himself. He claims that it was so he could make a sacrifice to God. But the sacrifice God was looking for was obedience.

Because of his unfaithfulness, his impatience and his willingness to play god and take things into his own hands, the office of King will be taken from Saul and given to another. For a while he stood tall. But he fell hard.

So … beware of distortions. The distortion of complicity can cause us not to speak up when we should be speaking out. The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.

The distortion of conformity can cause us to listen far more to the expectations of those who know nothing of God's ways, than focus on the requirements of God's Word. We are not called to be like everybody else. We are God's people.

The distortion of compromise can cause us to lose our identity as a person of God. Pride always comes before a fall. 'Playing God' is a subtle form of idolatry that never ends well.

Now, if you play electric guitar you will know that there is a subtle difference between 'Distortion' and 'Sustain'. Distortion can mean that you are playing beyond the capability of your equipment... and it can sound awful. When we disobey God we distort God to the world. Like Hophni and Phineas and even Saul.

But 'Sustain' can be sweet. Sustain can be where a guitarist hits that awesome spot and makes the instrument sing. There's a wonderful rock track by the late great guitarist Gary Moore, called “Pariesienne Walkways” (https://youtu.be/l2NpOngUqIQ) where, near the end, he holds a note that just goes on and on.

And even if that's not your kind of music, then I still hope you get the picture that God calls us to to be like Samuel, who through sustaining his life with prayer and service produced sweet music for God's glory.

Let us turn it up loud and rock this world with the love of Jesus Christ.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


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