Sermons

Making the best of things

1 Samuel 8:1-22

Her father was an alcoholic. Her mother worked most all the time. She had little choice. Her brother had recently been killed. Things were chaotic at home. She felt she had to get out. So she decided she could finish school later. After all, the guy she was dating had asked her to marry him. She was sure that he didn’t really mean to hit her. He said he was sorry. He promised that it wouldn’t happen again. He’s positive that he’s going to get a job. His luck isn’t running too well. It’s decision time for her. What will she do? Will she make the worst of a bad situation?

Another true story: Two sixth formers are both contemplating going into pharmacy and opening a pharmacy in the small community in which they live. One young man has been promised by a wealthy businessman in the community that he will build for a pharmacy for him, and also mentor him in the details of running a small business. Here is success. Here is security. But the young man has a gnawing feeling that God wants him to be a minister. A minister? What kind of security is that? Think about all those years of college. It’s decision time. What will the teenager do? Will he go for the goal? Or will he go for the gold?

Another true story. The church has served its downtown community with a vibrant ministry for over one hundred years. But, now it is landlocked. It has no room for additional parking. The sanctuary is over one hundred and fifty years old and beyond repair. Growth is an impossibility; maintenance is a faint possibility. The people are leaving and moving to the suburbs. What will the church do? Will it move to the suburbs? That is where a church can grow. Or will the church remain downtown? Eight acres of prime property are available. The only problem is that the available property is downtown. Will people drive past dozens of other churches to come downtown to perform a ministry that no one else will if the church leaves? It’s decision time. Will the church move to the suburbs or will they continue in what they perceive God has led them to do? Will they be true to their mission? And where is that mission?

It was decision time for the nation of Israel in that reading from the first book of Samuel. Crisis was upon them. Samuel was now old. This great man of God who had led the people through countless crises now could not cut it any longer. Adding to the crisis was the fact that Samuel’s sons were ill equipped to continue in his stead. Abiah and Joel were pale imitations of their father. Serving the sanctuary at Beersheba, they had accepted bribes and perverted the very justice that their father had worked so hard to establish. Increasing the nation’s sense of decay was the fact that Israel’s external enemies were becoming more of a threat. The Philistines to the west and the Amorites to the east were becoming stronger and more aggressive. Things didn’t look good for God’s people. What were they to do? It was decision time.

The elders gathered to consider their plight. While their diagnosis was correct their prescription for its remedy was catastrophic. “We want a king. We no longer want God as our King. We want a king we can see – like the other nations.” With this wish, Israel was choosing nothing less than a radical change in its foundational commitments to and relationship with God. Their wish to be like the other nations was to some degree a rejection of their identity as God’s chosen community and the governing relationship that God had desired. Israel was making the worst of a bad situation.

Needless to say, God’s spokesperson, Samuel, was displeased. Perhaps Samuel thought to himself, “Why can’t we shore up the old system? Yes, the old theocracy has a crack or two in its foundation, but do we have to reinvent the wheel? Why can’t we work through the problem instead of casting aside the old system entirely?” Isn’t it worth consideration? Why throw out the baby with the bath water? We didn’t cast aside democracy because of the parliamentary expenses scandal. We don’t throw away the concept of marriage because some couples choose to separate. “Throw it away,” they said. “We want a new system. We want a king!”

Sometimes we can see the need to change. I know I don’t like things changing, when I get comfortable with them. So often, many folk say they find it hard when things change. That certainly wasn’t the case for the Elders of Israel. They were amazingly flexible. “Out with the old and in with the new! Give us a king.”

You might very well be thinking I’m going to say that their desire for change was a good thing, and we should try to be better at making changes that we’re perhaps not so keen on. But I’m not. I think the Israelites had lost the plot. Ancient Israel hadn’t been a monarchy or a democracy, but a theocracy: a gathering of tribes loosely ruled and reeled by God through spokespersons such as Samuel. God was Israel’s king, God’s unique people. Israel didn’t need a king. Israel had God. That’s why God responded to the prophet, “It’s not you they’ve rejected, Samuel, but they have rejected me as their king”. Israel had rejected its intimate and unique relationship with God. Israel wanted to be like everyone else. Israel didn’t want to be different.

“Mr. Speaker, I want to address the house as I have done so many times before,” said an MP. “I appreciate the opportunity to say a word about what the honourable members has suggested. ow I know it sounds wonderful, but let me ask you: If we stop manufacturing weapons and started growing crops to feed the hungry nations of the world, what kind of security would that give us? We would give away our future. I know it sounds good and I know the people are hungry, but it is a little bit idealistic, don’t you think?”

Being different is hard. We want to be like everyone else. We want to get on the current bandwagon. We want a king we can see, said Israel, and God said, “Samuel, them what they want.”

We have to be careful what we pray for because we just might get it. Israel ended up swapping one form of slavery, the slavery they knew in Egypt, for another form of slavery, the slavery they came to know under their kings. They rejected the God who drew them and brought them out of slavery. They rejected the God who sought to be not just their deity but their loving Heavenly Father who spoke to them before they needed to hear the word. We have to be careful what we pray for because we just might get it. It’s called making the worst of a bad situation.

What did God do? God gave Israel a king. He didn’t exactly approve their choice, only permitted it; but then went on to help them find a king. Isn’t that just like God? God is always trying to make the best of a bad situation.

Perhaps you’ve noticed that some things don’t start off well. I’ve lost count of the number of times I started some sort of DIY project full of an inflated sense of own abilities, and before very long I’ve cut the wrong bit of wood, or drilled a hole in the wrong place. I once thought changing a lock was a simple matter of unscrewing the old one, popping the new one in, and screwing it back up. Hours later, unable to even close the door, let alone lock it, I had to ask Steve Tremain to rescue me, and he sorted it very quickly and easily. Just because something doesn’t start well that doesn’t mean that God cannot help to make the best of it.

The point is that it doesn’t matter whether we begin poorly, or whether we start well and mess up along the way; God is there to help us make the best of a bad situation. God loves us too much to leave us to deal with our poor choices.

Mother Teresa was once asked by a reporter, “Do you still go to confession?” “Yes, every week,” she answered. The reporter said, “God must be awfully demanding to demand of you that you go to confession.” “It is like this,” she said, “When your child does something wrong and comes to you and says, ‘Daddy, I’m sorry,’ what do you do? You take that child in your arms and hug him and kiss him because that is the way you can show that child that you love him. That is what God does for us.” Whatever we do, God forgives us. God loves us, and helps us to make the best of a bad situation.

I mentioned a young lady at the beginning of the sermon. She left home and married the young man. He never got a job. After a few years she finally said, “I’ve had enough. I’m tired of the abuse and the laziness.” She left him and limped back to her parents. But she found another partner, and they raised three beautiful children. She and God made the best of a bad situation.

The two teenagers, the would-be pharmacists? One of them became a pharmacist in the small community in which he grew up. He became very successful and prosperous and a strong leader in his church. He used his wealth and influence within his church and community to make it a better place. One does not have to be a professional minister to be true to one’s calling. The other teenager? He rejected the wealthy businessman’s offer to build him a pharmacy and became a minister.

And the church? It relocated, but remained downtown and became a model for inner-city ministry.

We all make decisions, some good and some bad. We all mess up. Possibly to admit that is a good place to start in making the best of a bad situation.

The congregation was milling around at the end of the service, and the offering plate filled with money was lying on the communion table. Only the minister saw five-year-old Sam take a five pound note. The minister put her hand on Sam’s shoulder and said, “Sam, don’t you think you ought to put that back?”

Sam looked frightened and, “I’m so sorry. Please, please don’t tell my daddy, he’ll kill me.” Knowing that the punishment would not be quite that severe, the minister did tell Sam’s dad, and he immediately responded, “I’m going to kill that child.” The minister said, “Wait a minute. I’m sure there were times in your life when you took something that didn’t belong to you.” “Yes, you’re right,” replied the dad. “I was sent to town by my mother with two dozen eggs to sell. I told her that I dropped and broke one dozen, but I really sold them and kept the money. I was about the same age as Sam. I’ll talk to her.”

Sam’s dad told her that he knew she had taken the five pound note. Sam cringed, expecting to be banished to prison for the rest of her life. Then her dad began to relate the story to her of how he, too, had stolen something. Then, in a mutual moment of love, they hugged each other and Sam exclaimed, “Oh, Daddy, I’m so happy. We’re both thieves!”