Thursday, March 01, 2007

Bad in the Best & Good in the Worst

Last week several newspapers carried an article entitled: “Letters Reveal Young Castro’s Faith In God.” I found them fascinating on many levels. What also impressed me was the observation by a Washington Post writer who suggested “anyone reading the letters would be convinced that Castro was a committed democrat - determined to hold free and fair elections.” Many people, even in the United States, viewed Castro as a person of the people until he ushered in decades of communist oppression and dictatorial rule. Richard Nixon started out with a lot of promise. He was an able communicator, strong on foreign policy, and a capable President—until Watergate. I imagine we could examine the lives of political rulers throughout the centuries and find bad in the best and good even in the worst.

Such is the case of the first king of Israel. It is easy to focus on his sins, his madness, his murderous outbursts—but we forget he did not start out that way. The story takes place in 1 Samuel 9:1-10:26.
"There was a Benjamite, a man of standing, whose name was Kish son of Abiel, the son of Zeror, the son of Becorath, the son of Aphiath of Benjamin. He had a son named Saul, an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites—a head taller than any of the others."
Wow. That’s something else. The word “impressive” is better translated “good.” It’s the same word used to describe the baby Moses or how God viewed his creation: tov, good. The phrase “a man of standing” according to some scholars implies a man of valor, a brave warrior. This guy was tall, good-looking, healthy, and his dad was a brave warrior. What more could you want in a King?

He’s also a working man of the time—perhaps a little better off than some, but still a guy who had responsibility. His father’s donkey’s had wandered off so he and a servant were sent off to search for them. These aren't a couple of pets. They are farm equipment: think tractors or combines! They cover a lot of territory with funny sounding names: the hill country of Ephraim, the area around Shalisha, the district of Shaalim, throughout the territory of Benjamin, and finally end up in the district of Zuph literally finding neither hide nor hair of the donkeys. At this point Saul turns to the servant and says—“You know, dad’s probably quit worrying about the donkeys and is now worrying about us! We’d better go back.” But the servant is persistent. I don’t know, maybe he’s hard-headed, determined, or maybe he can envision himself pulling the ploughs in place of the donkeys! “Not yet, there is a highly respected holy man in this area who could probably help us out if we ask him.

Saul is dubious. “But we don’t have anything to give him! It just isn’t done, you know.”

With his mind probably still on the image of himself in front of a plough, the servant pulls out his mad money: “Well, look at this! I’ve some silver here. Let’s offer it to him.”

On the way up, they run into some girls coming out of the town to draw water. “Is the seer around here?

Oh yes, in fact he’s presiding over a festival right now. If you hurry you can catch him!” The conversation is a little more detailed than this—in fact, some Rabbis suggest Saul was so good looking the girls were actually going into more detail than necessary just so they could keep looking at him! Saul and the servant hurry off and run right into Samuel. God had already told Samuel he would meet that very day the man he had chosen to lead Israel. I suppose one look at a man head and shoulders taller than anyone else grabbed Samuel’s attention. “This is the one!” Samuel then identifies himself as the seer. He invites him to the celebration with these words:
"Go up ahead of me to the high place, for today you are to eat with me, and in
the morning I will let you go and will tell you all that is in your heart. As
for the donkeys you lost three days ago, do not worry about them; they have been found. And to whom is all the desire of Israel turned, if not to you and all
your father’s family?"
How’s that for a greeting? “Hey, I know you’re wandering around lost as a goose, but come on to this banquet, take the seat of honor. Your donkey’s have been found, oh, and by the way, you are the new leader of Israel!”

Needless to say, Saul was somewhat taken back. "Who am I? I am from the smallest tribe of Israel, from the least clan in the tribe—why do you say such a thing to me?" Samuel doesn’t answer—he merely takes Saul to the banquet and gives him a special portion set aside for this very event. The next day, he sends the servant on ahead of Saul but holds Saul back. There he anoints Saul as leader of Israel and gives him three signs: he will meet two men who will tell him the donkeys have been found; he will then encounter three men with three goats, three loaves of bread and a skin of wine—they will give him two loaves of bread; finally when he reaches Gibeah he will encounter a procession of prophets and God’s Spirit will overwhelm Saul and he will begin prophesying with them—he will be a changed person.

Saul then turns to leave—the phrase used here is often used to describe a point of no return. He turned to leave and God changed his heart and everything was fulfilled that day. We notice a little trouble, though because some who see Saul among the prophets call out, evidently in derision: "Is Saul among the prophets now? Who is their father/leader?"

When Saul returns home his uncle asks him what happened. When he learned Saul visited Samuel he asked, “What did Samuel say to you?”

He assured us the donkeys had been found.” The writer tells us, “But he did not tell his uncle what Samuel had said about the kingship.

Sometime afterwards, Samuel summons Israel to Mizpah to reveal who is their new king. One more time he rebukes their impatience for a king and then, evidently through the drawing of lots, the Tribe of Benjamin is singled out, then the clan of Matri, next the clan of Kish and finally Saul is singled out. But he’s nowhere to be found! They find him hiding in the baggage! When he stands up, it’s like he keeps standing up! There he is: head and shoulders taller than anyone else! Samuel says: "Here he is, the one God has picked—is there anyone like him?" Everyone cheers and Saul goes home accompanied by valiant men—evidently men of action, waiting for his command. However, the chapter ends with this statement: But some troublemakers said, “How can this fellow save us?” They despised him and brought him no gifts. But Saul kept silent. Later on we will notice he has a chance to avenge himself on these troublemakers, but refuses to do so.

Later on it will be so easy to villainize Saul—especially as he plunges into madness. But here, it is quite obvious Saul starts out with great promise. And what makes for his greatness is not his looks or royal bearing. It is his humility. No matter what happens later, right now he is humble. No matter how arrogant he will become, now he refuses to demand recognition or power. This is a man, who for the present, demonstrates the first criteria for a true leader.

Throughout the Bible it is clear God’s people, especially his leaders, are to be people who do not think too highly of themselves. They are to be people who truly view God as the ultimate leader. They are to be people who are constantly aware of the needs and concerns of the people they lead. But this isn’t just true for leaders, it’s true for all of God’s people. In one sense we are all leaders in the fact we are trying to lead, to influence people to enter into God’s rule and control. If we approach people with a better-than-you or arrogant posture we demonstrate our lack of qualification. If we think of others as less than us, we have disqualified ourselves. So the primary message for us as Christ followers is to recognize our standing: we are merely servants—no better than anyone else. We are not to look down our noses at anyone for any reason. We are to look at the needs and hurts of all those we are trying to influence and seek to understand and love them in their need. As leaders: elders, deacons, ministry leaders, and ministers: we, too are called to realize our appointment is not because of our greatness or particular abilities. Our number one qualification is supposed to be a striving for humility—a self-denial, a desire to put the interests of others ahead of our own interests. We are called to look at the needs and hurts of those we are trying to mature in the Lord and to seek to understand them and love them in their need.

So how do I develop the humble spirit? That’s a tall order, isn’t it? I am quite aware dispensing advice on how to be humble is a bit presumptuous! For what it’s worth, I’m not the one who came up with these ideas. They all come from the Bible! First thing: realize you will never arrive at true humility—and if you did arrive, you probably wouldn’t know it. In fact, it’s a pretty good bet if you think you’re humble, you’re not. With that disclaimer in mind, one of the best practices for developing humility is silence. Be quiet and listen to what others are saying. One Jewish Rabbi said: It takes a person three years to learn how to talk, and seventy years how to be silent. When someone attacks, instead of being defensive, be quiet. Next, especially when in discussion with others, ask yourself: Is God speaking to me through them? Remember, God can speak through anyone. So listen to everyone as if they potentially have a message from God to be discerned. Finally to paraphrase Paul: look at others as more important than yourself—their needs more pressing than yours.

There is another message for us: it is possible to start off well and end badly. The entirety of Saul’s story is a cautionary tale for all of us. Just like the stories of Fidel Castro, of Richard Nixon, the Shah of Iran, of Kings, Queens, and Nobles throughout history: all are stories of promising beginnings and tragic endings. We must be ever vigilant to guard our hearts from the pride—to embrace humility every day. I remember reading about an incident regarding Dr. Howard Hendricks, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary. A young professor idolized Dr. Hendricks. When he took a position at DTS he was ecstatic he would be serving on the same faculty. During the very first faculty meeting everyone broke into small groups for prayer and—wouldn’t you know it—he was in Dr. Hendricks’ group! He couldn’t wait to hear this man’s prayer. When it came Dr. Hendricks’ turn he prayed: Lord, please don’t let me ever become a dirty old man!

May we all learn the essence of humility. May you learn to humble yourself before God and trust fully in him. May you learn the wisdom in listening and setting aside your own wishes and agendas in favor of the needs of others. May you begin well, but more importantly, may you end well in the grace of God!

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