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Ritual or Relationship

Over these past months, we have been reading through the book of 1 Samuel and last week we finally completed the transition from the era of the judges to the era of the kings. For many years after conquering the Promised Land, Israel had been led by judges – men and women whom God raised up at just the right time to rescue Israel from its enemies. But in recent days, the people of Israel had asked God for a king to lead them. They wanted to be like all the nations around them and have their king lead them into battle. Of course, this was really a rejection of God as their King, but God graciously decided to honour their request and to give them the king that they so desired.

And so God instructed Samuel, the final judge of Israel, to anoint Saul as Israel’s King. And last week we saw how Samuel then passed the baton of leadership to King Saul – firmly establishing Saul as Israel’s new leader. 

However, in his final address to the nation, Samuel solemnly warned Saul and all the people, that their obedience to God would determine their future fate. We read his words in 1 Samuel 12:24….

24 But be sure to fear the Lord and faithfully serve him. Think of all the wonderful things he has done for you. 25 But if you continue to sin, you and your king will be swept away.” 1 Samuel 12:34-25

Samuel makes it very clear that the success of Israel and its new King would depend solely on their decision obey the Lord or not.

And as we turn to chapter 13 today, that’s exactly the decision that will be put to the test. Will Saul and the people of Israel fear the Lord and faithfully serve Him? Or will they continue to sin – choosing instead to follow their own way? Let’s find out!

1 Samuel chapter 13 begins like this:

Saul was thirty years old when he became king, and he reigned for forty-two years.

2 Saul selected 3,000 special troops from the army of Israel and sent the rest of the men home. He took 2,000 of the chosen men with him to Micmash and the hill country of Bethel. The other 1,000 went with Saul’s son Jonathan to Gibeah in the land of Benjamin.

3 Soon after this, Jonathan attacked and defeated the garrison of Philistines at Geba. The news spread quickly among the Philistines. So Saul blew the ram’s horn throughout the land, saying, “Hebrews, hear this! Rise up in revolt!” 4 All Israel heard the news that Saul had destroyed the Philistine garrison at Geba and that the Philistines now hated the Israelites more than ever. So the entire Israelite army was summoned to join Saul at Gilgal. 1 Samuel 13:1-4

These first few verses in chapter 13 set the stage for Saul’s next big test. He had passed his first test with flying colourings – as you may remember from chapter 11 when He defeated King Nahash of the Ammonites. Saul had rescued the city of Jabesh-gilead (which was under siege by King Nahash) by assembling an army of 330,000 Israelites who completed annihilated the Ammonite armies. Through this battle Saul proved his abilities as a skilled and humble military leader, giving God all the glory for his victory – and establishing himself as a good and worthy King of Israel.

But with that battle complete, and no further looming threats, Saul then sent the army home – keeping just 3,000 special troops as his active and standing army. He stationed 2000 of those men in Micmash under his own personal command, and he stationed the other 1000 men in his hometown of Gibeah – placing them under the command of his son Jonathan.

The next thing you know, Jonathan has attacked and defeated the Philistine garrison that was stationed in Geba. Now we don’t know if Jonathan just took the initiative to do this or if he was acting by order of his father – but based on what we see later from Jonathan, I would guess he probably just took the initiative. He certainly comes across as a go-getter! He doesn’t just wait for things to happen – He makes things happen. And he certainly made things happen!

Soon the word was spreading throughout the land that Israel was revolting! And that’s true in both senses of the word. They were ‘revolting’ to the Philistines – who now hated them more than ever! And they they were revolting against the Philistines at the command of King Saul – who ordered the entire army to reassemble at Gilgal!

So of course, as you might expect in response, the Philistines also gathered their military to squash this revolt and to remind the Israelites who was in charge. It says in verse 5:

5 The Philistines mustered a mighty army of 3,000 chariots, 6,000 charioteers, and as many warriors as the grains of sand on the seashore! They camped at Micmash east of Beth-aven. 

1 Samuel 13:5

Now remember, the last time Saul assembled the army, there were 330,000 men – that’s a decent army. But this army of the Philistines is intimidating. First of all, it says there were as many Philistine warriors as grains of sand on the seashore. Now of course, that’s not literal number, but it just means there was a lot warriors – more than you could count! Certainly more than there were of the Israelites. 

Secondly, the Philistines had a huge technological advantage over the Israelites – they had chariots! And lots of them! Chariots were like the tanks of ancient warfare. No infantry wanted to go up against chariots! They were fast and they were deadly!

What’s more, the Israelites didn’t even have spears or swords. If you jump down to verse 19, we read this:

19 There were no blacksmiths in the land of Israel in those days. The Philistines wouldn’t allow them for fear they would make swords and spears for the Hebrews. 20 So whenever the Israelites needed to sharpen their plowshares, picks, axes, or sickles, they had to take them to a Philistine blacksmith. 21 The charges were as follows: a quarter of an ounce of silver for sharpening a plowshare or a pick, and an eighth of an ounce for sharpening an ax or making the point of an ox goad. 22 So on the day of the battle none of the people of Israel had a sword or spear, except for Saul and Jonathan.

1 Samuel 13:19-22

It really was like one of those lop-sided battle scenes you see in the movies where you have the peasants & farmers in revolt with their clubs and pitchforks – facing off against the well-armed, well-trained, professional army. 

And so when the Israelites realized what they were up against, their boldness and resolve began to waver. Verse 6 says…

6 The men of Israel saw what a tight spot they were in; and because they were hard pressed by the enemy, they tried to hide in caves, thickets, rocks, holes, and cisterns. 7 Some of them crossed the Jordan River and escaped into the land of Gad and Gilead.

1 Samuel 13:5-7a

In other words, they were terrified! They lost all courage and began hiding from the enemy and fleeing from the battlefield. In fact, as we’re going to see next week, nearly the entire army deserted!

And I just had to wonder, what was so different this time?

I mean, not too long ago, they all boldly attacked and defeated King Nahash! Under Saul’s leadership then, God had given them a great victory – they had completely scattered the Ammonite army!

And I guess we don’t know exactly how big that Ammonite army was or how well-trained they were or what technology they had – but we know it was enough for the Ammonites to have previously conquered all of the cities east of the Jordan River. So they must have been formidable army! And so if God had helped the Israelites defeat the Ammonites then, why couldn’t they trust God to help them defeat the Philistines now?

How quickly they had forgotten what God had done for them!

But I guess we do the same thing.

How many times in our life does God do some amazing things? Either he saves us from disaster or he leads and provides for us in some incredible way or he takes our rotten lousy situation and He flips it around for good?!

I think probably all of us could share some of those kinds of stories where we saw God do amazing things!

But yet how often do we panic the very next time something goes wrong? How often do we fear that God’s not going to come through for us – even though He has ever other time! How often do we doubt God’s goodness and his ability to take our situation and use it for good?

I think if we’re honest, we’d admit that we’re very much just like those Israelites – we are so quick to forget the goodness of God.

I think that’s why I really admire the example of Jeremiah. In Lamentations chapter 3, the prophet Jeremiah writes about all the ways that he was suffering – and he was suffering a lot. He was known as the weeping prophet. There was not a lot of good things happening in his life at this time!

And in Lamentations chapter 3, there are about 40 verses where Jeremiah talks about how miserable he is, but right in the middle he does some remembering. Let me show you – and I’ll skip the first 14 verse of misery and jump in at about verse 15. This is Jeremiah lamenting about how bad life had gotten for him….

15 He has filled me with bitterness

    and given me a bitter cup of sorrow to drink.

16 He has made me chew on gravel.

    He has rolled me in the dust.

17 Peace has been stripped away,

    and I have forgotten what prosperity is.

18 I cry out, “My splendor is gone!

    Everything I had hoped for from the Lord is lost!”

19 The thought of my suffering and homelessness

    is bitter beyond words.

20 I will never forget this awful time,

    as I grieve over my loss.

But now look what Jeremiah says in this next verse…

21 Yet I still dare to hope

    when I remember this:

22 The faithful love of the Lord never ends!

    His mercies never cease.

23 Great is his faithfulness;

    his mercies begin afresh each morning.

24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;

    therefore, I will hope in him!”

Lamentations 3:15-24

I love how, even though Jeremiah is in the middle of great suffering and loss, he doesn’t forget the goodness of God. He remembers!

    • He remembers that the faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    • He remember that God’s mercies never cease.
    • He remembers that the Lord is his inheritance – and because of that, He can trust and hope in Him.

I don’t know what kind of things you’re going through this morning, but I’d encourage you to remember those things too! Remember the goodness of God. Don’t be like those Israelites, running in fear from the Philistines because they had forgotten who God was and what God had done for them.

Remember the goodness of God.

Because when we forget the goodness of God, we end up making some pretty foolish choices – which is exactly what Saul ends up doing… Take a look at what happens next. verse 7

Meanwhile, Saul stayed at Gilgal, and his men were trembling with fear. 8 Saul waited there seven days for Samuel, as Samuel had instructed him earlier, but Samuel still didn’t come. Saul realized that his troops were rapidly slipping away. 9 So he demanded, “Bring me the burnt offering and the peace offerings!” And Saul sacrificed the burnt offering himself.

1 Samuel 13:7b-9

Now at first glance, it might appear that Saul did a good thing. Surely it was a good thing to offer sacrifices to the Lord before going into battle. After all, Samuel had done that very same thing not too long before this. If you remember back in chapter 7 before Saul was made king – at that time, the Philistines were advancing, and so Samuel offered a burnt offering sacrifice to the Lord and God had answered by thundering from heaven and throwing the Philistines into confusion! God was clearly pleased with that sacrifice and gave them a great victory that day.

And so it would appear that Saul wanted to do the same thing again. The problem was that Samuel didn’t show up as expected to offer the sacrifice. Saul had waited for him for seven days, but Samuel still hadn’t come.

And so, gripped by the fear that he was losing his men, Saul made an extremely foolish choice. He over-stepped his authority as King and took on the role of being the priest and offered the burnt offerings and the peace offerings Himself.

And he did this in direct disobedience to God. God had clearly instructed the Israelites that only the priests were to offer these sacrifices – God had never given the King any authority or right to do so.

For Saul to take the role of priest and offer the sacrifices himself was a clear and blatant violation of God’s commands.

It would seem that Saul thought it was more important to go through ritual of making the sacrifice than to actually be obedient to God. For Saul, the ritual was more important than the relationship.

And doesn’t that just strike home for us!?

As North American Christians, we’re pretty good with the rituals. We may not do the burnt offerings or things like that anymore, but we have all kinds of religious activities that we partake in. We read our Bibles, we go to church, we sing the worship songs, we put some money in the offering – we do all kinds of religious rituals. And those things are all good and wonderful – but how often are we doing those things simply out of habit? How often are we just going through the motions without even having an awareness of God? Far too often we practice the ritual without the relationship!

And I guess that’s the two-sided coin of habits. It think it’s great to get into the habit of going to church each Sunday and reading your Bible each morning and things like that. Developing those habits helps us do good things even when we don’t feel like it. But the other side of the habit coin is that it’s easy to forget why you’re doing those things in the first place.

All of our religious rituals are intended to help us grow in our relationship with God. They are the ways that we get to know Him or to worship Him or to communicate with Him. The point isn’t the rituals – the point is the relationship. The rituals are simply how we engage in that relationship.

And so I’d just encourage you to consider your own religious rituals. When you engage in those things (Bible reading, prayer, church, whatever it is…), are you just going through the motions because it’s a good thing to do – or are you using those times and those opportunities to really engage with your Heavenly Father?

Because rituals without the relationship is pointless. Its a waste of time and it’s an insult to God.

And to take it a step further, as we see in Saul’s case, ritual’s done in disobedience are sinful. Look at verse 10.

10 Just as Saul was finishing with the burnt offering, Samuel arrived. Saul went out to meet and welcome him, 11 but Samuel said, “What is this you have done?”

Saul replied, “I saw my men scattering from me, and you didn’t arrive when you said you would, and the Philistines are at Micmash ready for battle. 12 So I said, ‘The Philistines are ready to march against us at Gilgal, and I haven’t even asked for the Lord’s help!’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering myself before you came.”

13 “How foolish!” Samuel exclaimed. “You have not kept the command the Lord your God gave you. Had you kept it, the Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever. 14 But now your kingdom must end, for the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart. The Lord has already appointed him to be the leader of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.”

1 Samuel 13:10-14

Saul’s foolish choice to value ritual over his relationship with the Lord cost him the kingdom. Samuel emphasizes the point that, had Saul been obedient to the Lord, God would have established his kingdom forever. But instead, God would hand the kingdom over to another – to someone who would seek after the heart of God – not just go through the rituals.

And that’s where we’re going to leave it for today – we’ll pick it up next week here and see how the rest of the story unfolds – but I think this verse 14 is a great verse for us to take home and think about this week.

“…the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart.” 1 Samuel 13:14

That was true back in the time of Saul – and that’s true today too. God is still looking for people who are seeking after the heart of God. God’s looking for people who want to have a real relationship with Him. That’s been his goal since the beginning of time. That’s why He created mankind.

God wants to have a relationship with us. He doesn’t care about our empty rituals. He wants us to love him and know him. He wants us to go through life with Him like closest friends – through the ups and the downs right beside us all the way. He wants to have a relationship with us.

That’s why Jesus died on the cross and rose again – to make it possible for us to have a right relationship with God.

So this morning my question for you is not, “Have you been doing your devotions?” or “How many times have you missed church this year?” But the real question is this: “Are you a man or woman seeking after the heart of God?” Do you pursue a relationship with your Creator? Do you know and love your Heavenly Father?

Rituals certainly aren’t bad – but through those rituals, are you seeking to know and love and worship him more and more?

That’s the question that you need answer today.

“…the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart.” Are you that man? Are you that woman? I hope that you are.

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