“We’re tired of this government. It’s not getting anything done, it’s getting in the way of our happiness, the economy is stalled and we don’t feel safe at home. Our friends in the world don’t trust us and our enemies don’t fear us. We need a change; out with the old and in with the new!” Even though this sounds like a rant you might hear if you tune in to certain TV and radio talk shows, it’s not. No, this was the complaint of the Israelites around 3000 years ago. The government they wanted to replace? God himself.
From the time he had brought his people out of slavery in Egypt, the Lord had been Israel’s king. He had led them, fought for them, guided, protected and fed them. But when the Israelites looked at their neighbors they saw flesh and blood rulers, kings who wore crowns and carried swords and led their nations into battle. That’s what the Israelites wanted. They weren’t content to have God lead them, they wanted a man. They rejected the King of kings in favor of a fallible, sinful, human king.
But it’s not like this was anything new. Countless times over the previous 400 years, the Israelites had turned away from God to follow their own path. Almost from the moment God gave his chosen people their own home in the Promised Land, Israel was stuck in a sad, cyclical rut: they would rebel and turn away from the Lord, he would allow one of the neighboring nations to oppress them, they would repent and cry out for help, and God would raise up a Judge, a Gideon or a Samson, to rescue them. Rebel, repent, rescue, repeat.
The last of the judges the Lord raised up to lead Israel was named Samuel. He had served the Lord faithfully his entire career, but the Israelites wanted more, they wanted a king. Samuel tried warning them. He tried to tell them that having a king would mean sending your sons off to die in war, sending your daughters to serve in the palace, and being burdened with the taxes necessary to run a government – but the Israelites insisted. The Lord gave in, gave them what they wanted and crowned Saul as Israel’s first king. Before Samuel stepped aside for good, he did something most people would consider unthinkable today: he reminded them of the past, of their sin and guilt, of their faithlessness and God’s faithfulness. He closed by reminding them that on top of all their other sins they had now added one more: rejecting the Lord as King by asking for a human king.
How would you feel if someone stood up in front of your friends and family, everyone you know, and confronted you with a list of all the worst sins you committed over the course of your entire life? Remember the way you treated your parents and those things you did in high school? How about those “mistakes” you made in college, the ones you try to forget? And what about those more recent “indiscretions” that, if they became public knowledge, would ruin your career, marriage and family? Can you imagine having someone go through your life with a fine tooth comb, pulling up and exposing all of your shameful sins and failures? Just the thought of it is horrifying. How would you respond?
Hopefully, like the Israelites did. They feared God’s well-deserved wrath. They confessed their sin. They begged for mercy. The Word of God before us is Samuel’s response to Israel’s repentance. Given how regularly Israel had rebelled against God, Samuel’s first words come as a surprise: Do not be afraid he told them. Samuel began with forgiveness. He assured them that although they had rejected God, God had not rejected them. He still loved them. He had chosen them as His people and he would not abandon them.
It’s 3000 years later in a different time and place, but isn’t that exactly what happened right here just a few minutes ago? We stood here and confessed that we have sinned against God and deserve nothing but his wrath and anger. We threw ourselves on his mercy and asked for his forgiveness. And the Lord, just as he did through Samuel all those years ago, assured us that He has forgiven every one of our sins. He does not count them against you. He has chosen you as his child and he will not abandon you. Everything that you’ve done in the past, even the things you would like to forget but can’t, God has forgotten them all, buried them at the foot of his Son’s cross. The past doesn’t concern God any longer. What God is concerned about is tomorrow.
Samuel continued: You have done all this evil; yet do not turn away from the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. Do not turn away after useless idols. They can do you no good, nor can they rescue you, because they are useless. For the sake of his great name the LORD will not reject his people, because the LORD was pleased to make you his own. Samuel reminded Israel of her true identity – she belonged to the LORD. This was a wonderful comfort but also a stern warning. Just because you have a king now doesn’t mean you don’t have to answer to THE King. And beware of where your chosen path leads: first you want a king like your neighbors, next you will be tempted to follow idols like your neighbors. Don’t forget what the Lord has done for you. He won’t reject you! Don’t reject him!
In the same way, we stand here as God’s chosen and forgiven people. There’s no question; whoever has been baptized and cleansed in Jesus’ blood are God’s children. The question is, how will we respond? Will we remember all the great things he has done for us and follow him faithfully? Will we serve him with all our heart? Or will we turn away after useless idols?
Now, we aren’t tempted to bow down to the same idols the Israelites were; idols named Baal and Asherah, idols made of wood and stone. But there are no shortage of things that demand our attention, our time, our devotion, our energy, our money, our hearts. What is it that demands devotion in your life? Is it work? Does your career demand sacrifices; sacrifices of time spent with your family or time spent in God’s Word? Maybe a certain lifestyle, behavior, or activity demands your full attention. Will you let those things, that lifestyle, that stuff become the goal, the idol to which you devote your time and energy? Today, Satan doesn’t need to tempt us to bow down to idols made of wood and stone if he can convince us to follow our own feelings and desires rather than God’s Word.
They may look different, but these idols are really no different than those Samuel warned the Israelites about. They’re things that can divert our attention away from our God-given responsibilities in life, they are things that can draw our attention away from God and his Word. And, like those idols, in the end, they’re useless. (The Hebrew word for useless is the same one used in Genesis 1:2 the earth was formless and empty, or as one translator puts it: good for absolutely nothing whatsoever.) Sure, these idols promise to help us or entertain us or bring us pleasure. And sometimes, they do give us a moment of happiness. But none of those things will be there to help in a time of need. None of them can save you from your sins or take away your guilt. None of them can get you to heaven.
So why do we put our souls in danger by turning to these worthless idols instead of God? Our problem is the same as the Israelites: a short attention span. A poor memory. God had rescued his people from Egypt, guided them through the wilderness and given them a home in the Promised Land – but they had forgotten his goodness to them. It doesn’t take long to forget what God has done, just ask nine of the lepers. How quick are we to forget what God has done for us? Already today, he has forgiven us, promised us new life and salvation – does that make any impression on our hearts or have we already moved on to planning the menu for tonight’s Packer game? With tears and trembling we praised and thank God for making our children his children in Baptism – and yet too often we forget that Baptism is not the end but the beginning of a lifetime of learning at Jesus’ feet. How many sicknesses, disasters, and tragedies has God rescued us from, only to watch us go back to following our own way? It’s very easy to turn away from God when you forget or fail to appreciate what he’s done for you. Many have gone down that path. Will we follow them?
That answer would be scary if it weren’t for one important promise: For the sake of his great name the Lord will not reject his people. Again, the proof is in the past. No matter how many times the people of Israel turned away from him, the Lord always remained faithful, ready to forgive them, save them, and take them back. The entire OT paints a portrait of God’s faithfulness to unfaithful people. Why was the Lord so patient? Why did he remain faithful to his unfaithful people? Because he had made a promise to them and to the world that he would not, could not break: he was going to send a Savior into the world and he was going to use the nation of Israel to do it.
And God kept his promise. The spiritual situation in Israel wasn’t much better during Jesus days than it was during the days of Samuel. Many Israelites had turned away from God and turned to their own idols. But that didn’t stop God from being faithful to his Word. He sent his Son to become one of us, to take on our human nature so that he could obey God’s Law in our place. Jesus broke the mold by remembering his Father and by obeying God with all his heart. He remained perfectly faithful in spite of countless temptations to go his own way. Even though he proved he was the promised Messiah through his authoritative preaching, signs and miracles, many if not most of the people rejected him. But even that didn’t stop Jesus from doing what he had come to do: to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). Consider what great things our faithful God has done for an unfaithful world!
And then consider your own life. You were born in sin and unbelief and deserved to be left there. But the Lord came to you through his gospel, through Baptism, to claim you as his child. When you wanted nothing to do with him, He claimed you to be his own. He credited Jesus’ faithfulness to your account. And in spite of all the times you have been unfaithful over the years, God has remained faithful, he has always been there to forgive you when you beg for mercy and repent. And who can begin count all the times and ways God has fed us, healed us, guarded and protected us from evils seen and unseen. Consider what great things your faithful God has done for you!
He’s better than any other king. He’s the kind of leader you want to serve with all your heart. And he promises to help you do just that. Listen again to Samuel’s parting promise to his people: As for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you. And I will teach you the way that is good and right. God still does the same for us today. On our own, we would forget the great things God has done. But God has given pastors and parents to remind us. He gives Christian friends and family to pray for us and encourage us. And best of all, he gives us his Holy Spirit, who does both – teaches us God’s will through the Word and intercedes for us with the Father. God never rejected Israel and he has promised that he will never reject us either.
So don’t reject him! Serve the Lord with all your heart. You can and you will when you remember what he has done for you. When you sin, don’t be afraid; repent and trust in Jesus’ forgiveness. When the idols of the world tempt you, don’t turn away; and be sure that God won’t turn away from you. Be sure to fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart; consider what great things he has done for you. Amen.