Watercolor painting by E. J. Kirsch

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Jan 21, 2018

“A Religious Mistake” 1-21-18

I Samuel 14:24-47
January 21, 2018

I last preached on I Samuel on November 12.  Since then we celebrated the Thanksgiving, Advent, Christmas, and New Year seasons.  So this morning we need to hop once again into the way-back machine and journey to a different time and place, Palestine about 1,000 years before Jesus was born.
In that sermon so long ago in November, we were looking at a battle with a miraculous victory brought about by the boldness of Saul’s son Jonathon.
Since we looked at that passage more than two months ago, I think I need to take some time and remind you of that battle.
King Saul and his army of about 600 men were encamped near a top cliff on one side of deep ravine.  On the other clifftop on the other side of the ravine was an outpost of the enemy Philistines.
During the night, Saul’s son Jonathan and his armor bearer ventured down the cliff, and into the ravine.  From there they challenged the Philistines who invited them up to fight.  Jonathon took their invitation as a sign from God that He would give the enemy into their hands. 
When Jonathon and his companion reached the Philistine Garrison, they began to slay them.  On the other side of the ravine, observers from the Israelite camp noticed a fight on the opposite side of the ravine.  Saul took a roll call and found that his son was missing.  Saul assumed that Jonathan and his companion were the ones initiating the fight on the other side of the ravine, so he and his army went across to help them.
In the ensuing battle, the philistines began to flee with the soldiers of Saul pursuing them.  The pursuing soldiers were joined by men of Israel who had been hiding out from the Philistines in the hills and caves.  These men helped the army of Saul pursue and defeat the Philistines.  After this great victory, Saul had 10,000 men with him, as opposed to the 600 he had at the beginning of the battle.  God had done a great thing, assisted by Jonathan and his companion.
That is where we ended the sermon on that passage in November.  Now we have to move on and see how Saul messed up and somewhat diminished the great victory of God and almost killed the hero of the day, his son Jonathon.
And it may or may not surprise you to know that he used a religious ordinance to do so.  He had declared the day to be a day of Fasting, ostensibly to honor God and obtain God’s support in the battle.
But I think there was another motive in the fast.  And I think we see it in verse 24 in the words of the oath Saul imposed on the people: he said “Cursed be anyone who eats food before it is evening and I have been avenged on My enemies.”  He did not say that the fasting was so that the Lord would assist them in defeating His enemies.
We then see that Saul’s declaration had three effects.  Effect number one was that Jonathon unknowingly violated the oath and seems to have impeded God’s help.  This violation also caused Jonathon to judge his father’s actions as troublesome.
As Jonathan and the soldiers with him came upon a dripping honeycomb, he ate some honey.  He was unaware of the declaration of the fast because he had left the camp and started the battle before Saul made the declaration.  When told that he had violated the fast, he declared that the declaration had not been a good idea.  To keep a fighting army from eating would limit their energy as the day went on and they would not be able to continue to pursue the enemy.
Johnathan’s violation of the fast caused God not to give answers to Saul through the holy lots until the violation was dealt with.  So, Saul used the lots to determine who had caused God to be silent, and finally Jonathon was identified.
Both Saul and Jonathan agreed that Jonathan must die, but the people intervened and donated some kind of ransom to pay for the offense in another way.
The second thing that happened as a result of the fast was that the Israelite soldiers broke the food laws.  The food of God’s people had to be prepared in specific ways.  At the end of the day, when the fast was over, the men were so hungry that they did not observe the proper preparations.  The one that is mentioned specifically is that they did not allow the animals to be bled out before they cooked them.  So, ironically, the foolish imposition of one religious rite caused the men to violate another one.
The third effect of Saul’s foolish fast was that due to the men growing weak from hunger and the need to determine who had not fasted, the Philistines were not completely destroyed and they continued to be a problem to Israel.  Israel had a chance that day to destroy the Philistines, and Saul through his foolishness and self-centered-ness denied them the complete victory that God might have given.
So, what are Christians who live in the 21st century, about 3000 years after this event to do with it, what truth is there in it for us?
Well, I think we can note that it was not the last time that religious acts were used to the detriment of the religious ones.
During the colonial period of this nation and for the first one hundred and fifty years or so of its being, there were Christian groups, living in communities who were influential in their neighborhoods and states.  They are sometimes called religious communities.  Some of the better known ones were the Shakers, and the Harmonites of Harmony PA, New Harmony IN and Economy PA.
The downfall of both of those communities was that they took the scriptural lifestyle of celibacy from being a practice for a few to being the recommended or enforced practices for their societies at large.  So they died off.
It could be argued that many of the problems of the Roman Catholic Church could also be its insistence of Celibacy for its entire clergy.
But I think the lesson of Saul in this passage goes farther than that.  The establishment and enforcement of religious principles has fractured the body of Christ.  In the past, secondary doctrines, clothing preferences, and types of music during worship have separated believers. 
Modes or types of baptism have also separated believers.  All Christians believe that Christians are to be baptized but we differ on our views as to when they should be baptized and how.  This has divided the Christian church and on occasion in the past has been an excuse to kill people.
In our own times, so have differences in how we worship.  We all know how the various congregations in our community worship.  Some prefer what we call contemporary worship styles while others prefer a traditional style, and others try to compromise on what is often called “blended”.
I think all gathered here and many in our community know that we prefer traditional worship here.  And while we can offer theological and historical precedents for our choice, we need to allow other congregations to worship in other ways, as long as they conform to the essentials of the Christian faith.
And, if I may, I think that learning from Saul’s error can be helpful to those who are raising children.  We have been chosen by God to raise children not so we can become authorities and rule over our children as despots, but so we can assist them in becoming faithful servants of Jesus Christ. 
As such, we need to model a Christian life before them, and help them form a desire to love and serve Jesus.  But we ought not to force them to obey practices that are optional that we have found helpful for ourselves.  I think all Christians should read the Bible on a regular basis and pray often, and we should encourage our children to do so.  But most of us have found a time that works best for us.  We need to allow our children to find their own times and not insist that they follow ours.
And, as our children grow up, they may prefer less traditional worship or more traditional worship.  That is a preference, not a commandment.
One of my best friends insists that a desire to tithe the family’s income was part of the several things that severed his parents’ marriage.
We need to be careful how we use the things that God has given to help us.  They can be misused to harm Christians and divide or deplete the body of Christ.
And wherever you have authority over others, learn from Saul that you are to use your authority to help those who are subordinate to you and to help your common cause, not to force others to do your will for no reason other than to prove your superiority.
You are to use your authority to assist and enable, not to hamper the efforts of others.

Pastor David Horner
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906