The term Messiah means “God’s Anointed”, so it would have been used of the Old Testament kings as well as the prophecied redeemer of Israel.  However, as we see in Saul, even anointed kings can be foolish.  Throughout Saul’s story we see foolishness as well as valor.  Today, we read that his patience is lacking, an important character trait for a ruler.  And when he can’t wait for Samuel any longer, he takes on the role of priest himself, showing his arrogance and pride, important traits for a ruler NOT to have.  He is impulsive, giving reactive orders to his men (“don’t eat anything until I have avenged myself against my enemies”) which threatens his entire army (a starving army will not fight very well) and his own son (who wisely disobeys the order and gains his strength back) until the men rebel and refuse to allow Saul to kill his son for breaking his foolish vow.

Many have looked at our countries leadership throughout the years and declared them foolish, and some have legitimately been foolish leaders; impatient, arrogant, proud, impulsive.  Yet this doesn’t mean that God has not put them in office.  Some have disobeyed God once elected, and some have been put in their position for reasons known only to God Himself.  But to decide that because we don’t agree with or even respect a leader means that God is not involved in the process itself is to misread the scriptures.  God is in control today as He has been forever, and just because we can’t understand it doesn’t mean it is not so.

This is not to say that we should bow to the whims of our leadership, however.  Saul’s son was saved because his men disobeyed a direct order to kill him.  We are still called to use prayer, obedience, and Godly wisdom to know how to follow well, who to elect, and when to stand against bad leadership.

Saul is anointed king in Israel and we begin to see the dichotomy that will be his reign.  At his own coronation, he is so afraid that he hides among the supplies.  Not a great start to his monarchy.  Yet God is beyond such things as this and fills him with the Holy Spirit to inspire the men of Israel (330,000 of them) and then lead them in war against their enemies.  He shows mercy to those who questioned his kingship and gives Samuel credit where credit is due.  Hindsight tells us that Saul’s reign will be like this, a mixture of cowardice and bad decisions, and heroism and victory.

Things are never as clean as we’d like them to be in this world.  All of us have this odd mix of obedience and rebellion in our relationship with God.  The very worst people have glimmers of greatness, and the very best people have smudges of sinful selfishness.  But the point is never whether someone is sinful (spoiler: we all are) or righteous (spoiler: none of us is) but whether God can use us to further His Kingdom.  It is all in God’s hands, not ours, and the belief that our behaviors, missions, righteousness, and mistakes can change God’s will or God’s plans is one of the great errors of our race.

With the ark returned, the people were victorious again.  But once again, it didn’t take long for the people to turn from God and follow another path.  And this one is more parallel to our sinful path today and so easier for us to understand.  We don’t have false gods and idols that we turn to instead of God, but we quickly turn away from God’s leadership and to leaders of our own choosing or even creation.  And like the Israelites of long ago, it is God we reject when we do so.

The people, devoid of official judges for too long, ask to be like the cultures around them and have a king to lead them.  This is not God’s will – His plan is that He leads us – but He allows it to teach us a lesson.  In fact, too often God gives us just what we want so that we might learn to take what He offers instead.  Saul is handsome, tall, a leader to look at, but as we will see, he is not a leader in truth.  Samuel’s warnings of what a king will mean for his people will all come true in Saul’s leadership.  Saul will conscript their sons to fight his wars, using them as cannon fodder.  He will enslave their children not conscripted.  He will give his attendants the best of everything while taxing his people mercilessly.  And when they cry out to God for help, He will not listen.

When we turn away from God’s plan and God’s leadership, we pay a steep price.  No matter how attractive or acceptable the alternative, if it is not God’s plan, it will fail and lead to our ruin.

The story of the travels of the ark of the covenant is a great story.  It begins with tragedy, the military loss of the Israelites, the death of Eli’s sons (as foretold by God yesterday), Eli himself, and Eli’s daughter-in-law, and the capture of the ark.  It is convicting that while the death of Eli’s sons brings grief to the characters later on, it is the capture of the ark that brings the strongest reaction.  Would that we felt so strongly about God’s presence among us that losing it would be worse than losing our own children or spouses.

The episode with Dagon, the Philistine god, is also a great story.  That God would force the image of Dagon, who is not a god at all, to bow before Him not once but twice is a great lesson for the Philistines and for us.  If only our idols were such that we could physically see them bow before God.  But alas, our idols, the things we worship more than God Himself are less concrete these days.

The ark is send from town to town and everywhere it goes, it brings death to God’s enemies.  Tumors arise on the people near it – modern scholars have wondered about the possibility of the ark being a cancer-causing agent – to such an extent that their guilt offering includes golden models of the tumors themselves.  When finally no other town will hold the ark, it is sent back home.  Yet even there, death comes to those who desecrate the ark.

It is difficult for us to think in terms of God being limited to a place or object.  We believe that through God’s Holy Spirit, He is within us, with us, and everywhere present with or without a symbol like the ark.  Yet we still seem to believe that He is more strongly present in some places.  People always seem reluctant to swear in church, thought they have no compunction to do so outside it’s walls.  And we still hold the front of the church to be more sacred than the rest, telling kids not to run and treating it with a bit more reverence.  Maybe we aren’t so far away from our past beliefs that God resides in some places more than others after all.

The story of the travels of the ark of the covenant is a great story.  It begins with tragedy, the military loss of the Israelites, the death of Eli’s sons (as foretold by God yesterday), Eli himself, and Eli’s daughter-in-law, and the capture of the ark.  It is convicting that while the death of Eli’s sons brings grief to the characters later on, it is the capture of the ark that brings the strongest reaction.  Would that we felt so strongly about God’s presence among us that losing it would be worse than losing our own children or spouses.

The episode with Dagon, the Philistine god, is also a great story.  That God would force the image of Dagon, who is not a god at all, to bow before Him not once but twice is a great lesson for the Philistines and for us.  If only our idols were such that we could physically see them bow before God.  But alas, our idols, the things we worship more than God Himself are less concrete these days.

The ark is send from town to town and everywhere it goes, it brings death to God’s enemies.  Tumors arise on the people near it – modern scholars have wondered about the possibility of the ark being a cancer-causing agent – to such an extent that their guilt offering includes golden models of the tumors themselves.  When finally no other town will hold the ark, it is sent back home.  Yet even there, death comes to those who desecrate the ark.

It is difficult for us to think in terms of God being limited to a place or object.  We believe that through God’s Holy Spirit, He is within us, with us, and everywhere present with or without a symbol like the ark.  Yet we still seem to believe that He is more strongly present in some places.  People always seem reluctant to swear in church, thought they have no compunction to do so outside it’s walls.  And we still hold the front of the church to be more sacred than the rest, telling kids not to run and treating it with a bit more reverence.  Maybe we aren’t so far away from our past beliefs that God resides in some places more than others after all.

Samuel is in a way the last of the judges.  Though not listed in the book of judges, he is the final ruler in Israel before the time of the kings.  Yet he is unique among the judges for a number of reasons.  First, he is not raised to battle a foreign invader.  Samuel is raised up rather to battle the power of sin in the people themselves.  He, like Deborah, is not only a judge but a prophet, hearing the voice of God (“which was rare in those days…” according to 3:1) and relaying it to the people.  Second, Samuel didn’t follow the sin cycle storyline.  As the judges degraded over time, the story seemed to end with Samson, who was the worst of them all.  Yet suddenly the cycle is broken and the leadership in Israel is restored with Samuel.  Juxtaposed with Eli’s other sons the priests, Samuel is the righteous one standing against the debauchery of the priests of the time.  And juxtaposed with Samson, Eli is a Nazarite who fulfills his vow.  Finally, Samson was not a military leader but a priest serving in the temple, something no other judge had done.  Despite his similarities to Deborah and Samson, Samuel is a new breed of judge, and the last.

It is exceptionally important that God raised Samuel at this time for a number of reasons.  First, as noted above, he redeems the line of the judges.  Second, he redeems the priesthood, which had fallen into disgrace because of sons of Eli, sleeping with the temple workers, robbing the worshipers, and stealing their sacrifices for themselves.  And finally, he redeems Eli, standing in for the wicked sons who would die soon at God’s hand.  And isn’t it interesting to see Eli’s response to the news that God would kill his sons for their sins:  “He is the LORD; let Him do what is good in His eyes.”  This is not a lack of love for his sons, but rather a deeper love for God and trust in God’s righteousness.  Eli’s faith began with God and radiated out to form his own will.  Today, our faith begins with us and radiates out to God, seeking His blessing on our own selfish willfulness.

What can we learn from Samuel?  What can we learn from Eli?  What can we learn from Eli’s sons?

Samuel is in a way the last of the judges.  Though not listed in the book of judges, he is the final ruler in Israel before the time of the kings.  Yet he is unique among the judges for a number of reasons.  First, he is not raised to battle a foreign invader.  Samuel is raised up rather to battle the power of sin in the people themselves.  He, like Deborah, is not only a judge but a prophet, hearing the voice of God (“which was rare in those days…” according to 3:1) and relaying it to the people.  Second, Samuel didn’t follow the sin cycle storyline.  As the judges degraded over time, the story seemed to end with Samson, who was the worst of them all.  Yet suddenly the cycle is broken and the leadership in Israel is restored with Samuel.  Juxtaposed with Eli’s other sons the priests, Samuel is the righteous one standing against the debauchery of the priests of the time.  And juxtaposed with Samson, Eli is a Nazarite who fulfills his vow.  Finally, Samson was not a military leader but a priest serving in the temple, something no other judge had done.  Despite his similarities to Deborah and Samson, Samuel is a new breed of judge, and the last.

It is exceptionally important that God raised Samuel at this time for a number of reasons.  First, as noted above, he redeems the line of the judges.  Second, he redeems the priesthood, which had fallen into disgrace because of sons of Eli, sleeping with the temple workers, robbing the worshipers, and stealing their sacrifices for themselves.  And finally, he redeems Eli, standing in for the wicked sons who would die soon at God’s hand.  And isn’t it interesting to see Eli’s response to the news that God would kill his sons for their sins:  “He is the LORD; let Him do what is good in His eyes.”  This is not a lack of love for his sons, but rather a deeper love for God and trust in God’s righteousness.  Eli’s faith began with God and radiated out to form his own will.  Today, our faith begins with us and radiates out to God, seeking His blessing on our own selfish willfulness.

What can we learn from Samuel?  What can we learn from Eli?  What can we learn from Eli’s sons?

The story of Ruth is a fascinating glimpse into the life of the Jewish people in the time of the judges.  Through this book, we are introduced to the Kinsman-Redeemer, a title that has immediate impact on us who follow Jesus Christ.

Ruth, honorably giving up her livelihood and possibly even her life out of love for her mother-in-law Naomi (Mara), cannot free herself from the trouble God has put her in.  As a widow, she had no way of gaining a livelihood besides marriage, and few would marry a widow, especially a Moabite widow.  Her only other option was to rely on her in laws to support her, but since Naomi was also a widow with no means of supporting herself, they were doomed to rely on the generosity and mercy of others.  This was no way to live.

But along comes Boaz.  As the second-nearest relative, a kinsman, he was in a position to save them, to marry Ruth and provide an heir who would be her support in her old age.  And so he did, honoring Ruth’s sacrifice for Naomi.  He even went out of his way to entice the nearest relative to relinquish his claim of redemption.

Our sin has put us in an even more dangerous position than Ruth and Naomi’s.  While they would lose their lives if not redeemed, we are in danger of the very flames of hell due to our sinful nature.  It would take the redemption of our nearest kinsman to save us.  And God, in His mercy, sent His son Jesus to be our brother (Heb 2:11) and nearest kinsman.  Then it was up to Him to redeem us, and redeem us He did.  By paying the price for our sin, He redeemed us and gave us a new life.  This is the message of Easter, of the Cross and Resurrection, and of our faith.

As the sin cycle of the book of Judges ends, a new phrase takes prominence in the narrative, “In those days, Israel had no king.”  It began in yesterday’s reading but continues today.  Not only did they have no king, they also had no judge, and in fact no enemies from whom they needed saving.  In this final cycle, the enemy is themselves, the judge is non-existent, and the salvation comes through debasement: the murder of an innocent woman, the destruction of an entire tribe, and the kidnap of their own women.

This is not a story I ever heard in Sunday school, nor do I teach it.  No curriculum I’ve ever found includes it, and no sermons are preached on it for any reason but shock value.  It is a story that seems to have no redeeming point and no Christological foreshadowing, so we ignore it.  But I believe there is a very strong and pertinent point to this story, and it should be taught, granted to the appropriate audience.

We are not far from these people we read about.  Sin is not only prevalent but applauded in this world, celebrated in every movie and series, taught to our children and encouraged by our schools, even our private Christian ones.  While we may not be attacking houses to have sex with the men inside, we are attacking the poor, the minority, and the unaccepted, overpowering them to control them with regulations.  We rise up as a people to defame and attack those who act inappropriately, debasing them on social media and destroying careers, families and people.  And yet the slide toward godlessness continues.

We are facing the consequences of our own societal degradation and sin cycle.  As with most empires in the world, the American Empire, most historical sociologists agree, is failing and all signs show it coming to an end.  And in the midst of it, we are becoming meaner, cruder, and more celebratory of any and all sinfulness.  How will the church speak up in the midst of societal decay?  What does Jesus have to say to us as America loses its power and another power rises?  How do we fulfill our mission as a church and as God’s people when the world around us changes?