Rico Tice was visiting a person from his church who had a brain tumour. As this woman prepared for her operation, she reminded herself of the wonderful words from Isaiah. ‘Fear not, for I am with you. Be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you. I will uphold you in my right hand.’ Those words were on her lips as she went in for six hours of surgery.
What a contrast that is to what we see in this morning’s passage. Here, Saul in facing death having been told that is forsaken by God. These verses are filled with despair rather than hope. We want to be sure that Saul’s story does not become our story. How can we know that God is with us rather than against us? How can we know that we will face our death with confidence?
Saul faces death without hope.
Saul has spent years ignoring, disobeying and rejecting God. Now, in his time of crisis, he finds that God has rejected him. This is an upsetting passage. One Bible commentator entitles his thoughts on this chapter quoting the words, ‘it was night.’ Another preacher says that these verses are disturbing, dark and difficult.
When Saul is told that God will not listen to him, he does something that reveals the wickedness of his heart. That night, he disguises himself, and consults a medium. Saul knows that God hates such things, for he was the one who had expelled the mediums and spiritists from the land. When the woman fears that she will get in trouble for what she is about to do, Saul vows, in the name of the Lord, that she will not be punished. What sort of person invokes God’s name to encourage them to do something God despises?
I have to warn you that the Bible sees such things as séances and Ouija boards as being very dangerous. This is more that counterfeit spirituality, this is the occult. It would seem that when a medium relays voices from the dead, what they are actually doing is deceiving you, or worse still, they are being deceived by demons. When people die, they either go to heaven or hell. Mediums cannot bring them back.
If that is the case, then how come God permits this woman to raise Samuel from the dead? A man called Matthew Henry explains that this was a once off event, where God allowed the prophet Samuel confront the Saul after death, as he had in life. Samuel had been the one brave enough to speak to King Saul about his sin. Saul had always ignored him. It is no different now. The only new piece of information that Samuel tells Saul is the fact that he is going to be killed tomorrow.
While the questions around Samuel being raised from the dead have been debated for centuries, two things are very clear: there is not an ounce of repentance in Saul and not crumb of comfort from Samuel.
Samuel asks Saul why he has disturbed him. Saul responds with some of the saddest words in the Bible. ‘I am in great distress, for the Philistines are warring against me, and God has turned away from me and answers me no more, either by prophets or by dreams. Therefore I have summoned you to tell me what I should do’ (15).
What Saul should do is repent of his sin, but that is the one thing that Saul had always refused to do. Even now, Saul will not acknowledge that he has done anything wrong. He knew that consulting a medium was detestable to God but all he does is offer an excuse. Look back over Saul’s life and all you ever hear is excuses. Saul actually seems incapable of repentance.
Compare Saul’s unwillingness to acknowledge his sin with an event that took place during the Great Awakening in America in the 1700s. There was a prayer meeting with eight hundred men. Into the meeting a woman sent a message asking the men to pray for her husband. The note explained that her husband had become unloving, proud and difficult. The leader of the meeting read the message in private and then did something daring. He read the note allowed and asked if the man who had been described would raise his hand, so that they could pray for him. Three hundred men raised their hands. Each been convicted by the Holy Spirit of their sin, and now longing to confess. ‘’Rather than hiding sin, or minimising it, or blaming others, the repentant heart longs to confess’ (Bryan Chapell).
Samuel could have recalled a whole catalogue of ways in which Saul had disobeyed God—Saul had offered unlawful sacrifices at Gilgal (and blamed his actions on Samuel turning up late), Saul set up a statue in his own honour, he was filled with murderous jealousy towards David, he tried to kill his own son, and, most shockingly, he had slaughtered the priests of Nob. But the incident that Samuel recalls was the time Saul refused to obey God’s instruction to destroy the Amalekites, kept the spoils of war for himself, lied about it, and offered excuses rather than repentance. That had been the moment that confirmed that the kingdom would be taken from him.
Saul’s life is a stern warning against refusing to listen to God. You know those before and after photos that diet-clinics produce. Well the before and after photo for Saul is desperately sad. When we are first introduced to him he is a peerlessly impressive man (handsome, and a head taller than anyone else). He seemed to be humble, and we were given the impression that he knew God. Yet it soon becomes clear that this is not the case. In a few short years Saul becomes a corrupt, paranoid, fearful and brutal man who craves power and will do anything to ward off those who might threaten his place in the world. Now, forty years later, he is a shivering wreck, without hope and incapable of change.
God had been patient with Saul. He is patient with all of us. God has repeatedly spoken to Saul, and Saul has continually ignored God. Instead of being drawn into a life of repentance, Saul’s heart became impenetrable. The sunlight that melts the frost also hardens the clay. God wants his word to draw you to him, yet your refusal to listen can insulate your hearts from his calling, and leave you worse off than you were before.
Jesus faces death to bring us hope
To face death apart from God is the most tragic of all human predicaments. Many face death unaware that they are about to experience the judgement of the God they have ignored. Yet I have had the privilege of being at many funerals where the sorrow of loss was mingled with a confident joy that the deceased is now far happier than they ever were in life. They are now in the presence of the God they love.
How can we be confident that God is with us as we pass from this life? After all, like Saul, we have ignored God every day!
The writer to the Hebrews says, ‘today, if you hear God’s voice, do not harden your hearts.’ Biblical repentance is a gift of God where (unlike Saul) we offer no excuses for our sin but rejoice in the truth that God will not despise a broken and contrite heart (Psalm 51:17). Biblical repentance is about acknowledging our guilt and trusting the one who has taken the punishment we deserve. The difference between the Christian and Saul is not the absence of sin but what we do with our sin. The Christian trusts in the loving God who gave his Son to die for me while I was till his enemy.
You see, the major lesson from the life of Saul is that we need a better king. The people had rejected God’s rule over them when they demanded a worldly king, in order to appear as impressive as the other nations. They got a king that reflected their own rebellious hearts. It was a disaster'
But there is another king, a king who perfectly reflects the heart of God. Like King Saul, Jesus was deeply troubled the night before he died. In a walled garden he sweated drops of blood. The next day he was pinned to a cross, where the physical pain was surpassed by the spiritual despair. Darkness fell in the afternoon, and the Son of God cried out, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?’ Because Jesus was forsaken in death, Saul’s experience need never be ours. In Christ alone we will not face death alone. Jesus promised never to drive away anyone who comes to him. Let his love melt your heart and give you hope.
I began this sermon by telling you of a woman who faced a six-hour operation with words from the prophet Isaiah on her lips. Let me finish with a few more words from Isaiah. God says, ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with the one who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and revive the heart of the contrite’ (57:15).
The Christian should be the most humble person in the world. We deserve what Saul experienced, but Jesus died so that we would not have to. Yet sadly, people often see us a self-righteous and proud. We know that our guilt was so serious that Jesus had to be forsaken in death to take the punishment we deserved. We don’t need to offer excuses when we are confronted with out failings. Instead we should rejoice in the truth that the Son of God loved me, and gave himself for me, and so I will never face any crisis alone.