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The Blessing of Choice--1 Samuel 7 & 8

    My kids haven’t been in school since March 6. The older two are done with the school year now, but their last in-person day was March 6. However, I still brought them down with me to the church building a few days a week so I could have some quiet time to study and pray and get things done that needed to be done. Every single day we were going to come here for the day, one of the kids would inevitably ask this question, “Can I bring something with me to daycare?” Sometimes it’s a toy, sometimes it’s a coloring book. Mine and Jonny’s answer is almost always the same, “No. There are toys, coloring books, etc. at the daycare.”
    And why do we tell them this? Is it to be mean? No. It’s because we know from experience that if they bring something with them, it’s going to get lost at the daycare. It’s inevitable, and it happens every single time we let them bring something with them.
    But, on the rare occasion, just to give them the opportunity to grow responsibility, we say, “Are you sure you want to bring that toy? Do you remember what happened last time you brought a toy? It got lost, didn’t it?” And they say they remember but it’ll be different this time. This time they’ll watch out for their toy and keep it safe. Some day, that might actually happen. But we know it’s more likely that they’ll lose their toy. But we let them anyway, always with this warning, “Okay, you may bring that with you, but if it gets lost, there’s nothing I can do about it. You’ll have to just deal with it being lost.”
    We let them make the choice to do something we know is not going to end well. After all, that’s part of free will, right? And part of maturing as a person is learning how to use that free will to do what is responsible and right.
    Today, we’re starting 1 Samuel. I want us to understand the history of 1 Samuel as we move into the book so we understand how it fits into what we’ve read of the Old Testament so far.
    1 Samuel opens in the time of the judges. So since we know that, we also know that the period of the judges was a very troubled time for Israel. We can use Judges 17:6 to summarize the time, “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes.” Everyone did what was right in their own eyes, even those who were supposed to lead the people, judges like Samson, lived according to their own ways and not God’s ways.
    As 1 Samuel opens, we’ve had about 300 years of this downward spiral of the morality of Israel, from pretty good, to okay, to bad, to worse. But we also saw glimmers of hope through Ruth’s story as we know that Boaz was one of the Israelites who still followed God’s law and loved the Lord’s ways and did what was right!
    I want us to know this morning, that Samuel, who we will meet today through Scripture, was a judge at the same time as Samson. And that’s your first blank this morning if you’re taking notes.
    1 Samuel opens with the story of a handful more Israelites who love the Lord and do the right thing. We have a priest and judge, Eli; we have a man Elkanah, and his wife Hannah; and through answered prayer, we have Elkanah and Hannah’s son, Samuel. Samuel was dedicated to serve the Lord in the Lord’s house in Shiloh with Eli as his mentor. Samuel heard the voice of God call him at an early age and he began to serve God faithfully.
    Now, leading up to the portion of 1 Samuel we’re going to look at today, we see that the Philistines are still the major problem for Israel, since we’re in the same time period as Samson. Because the Israelites did their own thing, they did evil in the sight of the Lord, God allowed for the Philistines to have a few key victories over the Israelites, and in one of these victories, the Philistines captured the Ark of the Covenant.
    The Ark of the Covenant or the Mercy Seat was a piece of furniture in the Tabernacle in the Wilderness, and later in the Temple. It was placed in the Holy of Holies, the Most Holy Place, the place that no one could enter except the high priest once a year. The Ark was where the Holy Presence of God rested when He descended upon the Tabernacle to dwell amongst the people. Because the Ark is where God’s Presence would rest, the Ark came to symbolize the Presence of God, even though it wasn’t actually God’s Presence.
    The people confused the Ark of the Covenant with the actual Presence of God, so much so that they thought if the Ark went with them into battle, it would guarantee that they would be victorious. Their enemies thought this too, so when the Philistines captured the Ark, they thought it was like a magic box, that if they had it, they would always be victorious.
    Of course, that wasn’t true. In fact, the opposite happened. Because the Philistines captured the Ark, God’s hand was heavy upon them. They suffered severe losses, and diseases. So, once they figured out that it was because they had taken the Ark from the Israelites, they returned the Ark to Israel.
    That takes us to our passage for this morning. We’re going to be in 1 Samuel 7 & 8. The Ark of the Covenant is returned to Israel, but the Philistines still oppress the Israelites and the Israelites just cannot get the victory.
    So, Samuel gathers all the people to him, and this is what he says to them, 7:3, “If you return to the Lord with all your heart, remove the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your hearts to the Lord and serve Him alone; and He will deliver you from the hand of the Philistines.”
    If you’re taking notes, you’ll see your next blank there, that if you return to the Lord with all your HEART. Samuel was dedicated to the Lord at a young age, like many Christian parents do with their own children, but Samuel actually made the choice to continue in the path he was set on. Samuel made the choice to obey the Lord, to follow Him and to do what was right in God’s eyes. Samuel was also dedicated to leading God’s people to make the same choice, to obey God and to follow Him and His ways.
    His call here is a call to tell the people that what was missing in their lives was a dedication to follow God. He was telling them essentially that it wasn’t the Ark that gave them victory, it was God’s Presence with them, and that without God’s Presence, there was no hope. They had to return to the Lord, they needed to cry out to God with all their hearts.
    The people are presented with a choice, return to God with all your heart or continue to suffer the consequences of God’s Presence being removed from the people. Verse 4 tells us that they made a good choice. They removed the foreign gods from among them and they turned their hearts back to God. Verse 6 tells us this about the people, too, “They gathered to Mizpah, and drew water and poured it out before the Lord, and fasted on that day and said there, “We have sinned against the Lord.” And Samuel judged the sons of Israel at Mizpah.”
    There’s our third blank in there as well, the people said, “We have sinned against the Lord.”
    They recognized that their actions, their choice to do what was right in their own eyes was in fact, sin. But, they were free to choose. At every turn, they were free to choose. They chose to do what was right in their own eyes. Then they chose to listen to Samuel, to recognize their sin and to repent and turn back to the Lord.
    That’s free will again. We let our children have the choice to choose something, even if we know that the outcome is not going to be good for them. In the same way, God lets us choose to do what is not good for us: sin. He lets us walk in that path if we really want to. Now, that doesn’t mean He doesn’t give us warnings, because He does. And that doesn’t mean that He doesn’t try everything that He can to get us to come to Him, without imposing on our free will. He does try everything He can. He lets us sometimes suffer horrible consequences in hopes that we will turn from what is bad for us. But, again, the choice is ours.
    When the people made the choice, and Samuel had offered a sacrifice to the Lord, Samuel cried out to God and the Lord heard him. Things began to turn in favor of the Israelites. They subdued the Philistines in battle and were able to keep them out of the borders of Israel. Samuel knows that the change in battle is because God helped them, not because of some magical box, but because of the actual Presence of the Lord with them.
    7:12 says this, “Then Samuel took a stone and set it between Mizpah and Shen, and named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” The last blank in your bulletin this morning is helped.
    Samuel set up this stone to remind the nation that God helped them, that they needed the Presence of the Lord to be with them. It was a reminder that they needed to use their free will to choose God.
    Things seemed to go well for a time because of the people’s choice, because of Samuel’s choice to lead the people to choose God. But after some time passes, we get another choice that leads the nation in a not so good direction again.     1 Samuel 8:3 says, “His sons, (that’s Samuel’s sons) however, did not walk in his ways, but turned aside after dishonest gain and took bribes and perverted justice.” They made a choice to do what was right in their own eyes, and because Samuel had become an old man, and his sons weren’t fit to judge, or lead, the nation, the people gather together and tell Samuel they want him to appoint a king over the nation, just like the other nations have.
    Now, at first that might not seem like such a bad idea, but remember that what God’s desire for His people was, was for them to rely on God to lead them, for God to be their leader, their guide, not a human judge, not a human leader, not a king. They were meant to follow the Lord.
    It would seem by now that they might have learned that their human leaders have fallen short. Even the good ones, Othniel, Ehud, Deborah, Samuel, were only able to lead the people to the Lord for as long as they were alive, but as soon as they died, the people made the choice to do evil again. I’m not sure why they thought like a king would do better. But, that was their choice.
    Samuel was troubled over their choice to ask for a king and he took his worry to God. 8:7 gives us the Lord’s response to Samuel, “The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in regard to all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them.” The Lord gives Samuel a warning to the people, that if they chose a king, they would face certain consequences.
    A king would take their sons into his army to fight for the king, and possibly die for the king. A king would take their daughters to work as servants. A king would take a tenth of their fields, their vineyards, their groves, their seeds. A king would take their servants as his own. A king would take a tenth of their flocks. And finally, a king would take them and they would become his servants. The warning ends with this, 8:18, “Then you will cry out in that day because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
    The people don’t listen, they choose to have a king anyway.
    All of this comes down to choice. They had those choices, to choose to serve the Lord, to follow Him, to obey Him, to walk with Him, or to choose not to. God let them have their choice, even though He knew what a king would do to the people. He let them have their choice.
    Even though we know sometimes how a choice our children make will turn out, we let them make their choices.
    Even though God knows how our choices will turn out, He lets us make our choices. I see that as a blessing, because we know that if we choose Him, it was because we wanted to, not because we were forced to or because we grew up being indoctrinated, but because we wanted to. Because we see His love, His kindness, His forgiveness, His compassion and grace for what it is and we are in awe. The blessing comes in knowing that beyond a doubt we are His because we chose Him.
    The blessing comes in knowing that if we listen to Him, obey Him, let Him guide us, let Him lead us, it will be well with us because He knows what is best for us, and He has good in mind for us.
    Luke 11:28 tells us what Jesus said, “He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.”
    1 Peter 1:14-16 says, “As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”
    He is a good Father. He loves us dearly. He wants what is best for us, but He lets us choose. He always has.

1. 1 Samuel 8:18 says that some day the people would cry out because of the king they chose, but the Lord would not hear them. Why do you think God would not hear His people, even when they cried out?

2. What does God’s protection of human free will teach you about God’s character?

3. It can be a struggle to always follow God and do what He asks of us, to always choose Him instead of ourselves. What does Galatians 5:16 says about how we can overcome that struggle?

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