Bridgewater, Massachusetts, January 6, 2002

1 Samuel 14:24-30, 37-46 Saul's foolish vow

Now the men of Israel were in distress that day, because Saul had bound the people under an oath, saying, "Cursed be any man who eats food before evening comes, before I have avenged myself on my enemies!" So none of the troops tasted food.

The entire army entered the woods, and there was honey on the ground. When they went into the woods, they saw the honey oozing out, yet no one put his hand to his mouth, because they feared the oath. But Jonathan had not heard that his father had bound the people with the oath, so he reached out the end of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it into the honeycomb. He raised his hand to his mouth, and his eyes brightened. Then one of the soldiers told him, "Your father bound the army under a strict oath, saying, 'Cursed be any man who eats food today!' That is why the men are faint."

Jonathan said, "My father has made trouble for the country. See how my eyes brightened when I tasted a little of this honey. How much better it would have been if the men had eaten today some of the plunder they took from their enemies. Would not the slaughter of the Philistines have been even greater?" . . .

And Saul asked God, "Shall I go down after the Philistines? Will you give them into Israel's hand?" But God did not answer him that day.

Saul therefore said, "Come here, all you who are leaders of the army, and let us find out what sin has been committed today. As surely as the Lord who rescues Israel lives, even if it lies with my son Jonathan, he must die." But not one of the men said a word.

Saul then said to all the Israelites, "You stand over there; I and Jonathan my son will stand over here."

"Do what seems best to you," the men replied.

Then Saul prayed to the Lord, the God of Israel, "Give me the right answer." And Jonathan and Saul were taken by lot, and the men were cleared. Saul said, "Cast the lot between me and Jonathan my son." And Jonathan was taken. Then Saul said to Jonathan, "Tell me what you have done."

So Jonathan told him, "I merely tasted a little honey with the end of my staff. And now must I die?"

Saul said, "May God deal with me, be it ever so severely, if you do not die, Jonathan."

But the men said to Saul, "Should Jonathan die--he who has brought about this great deliverance in Israel? Never! As surely as the Lord lives, not a hair of his head shall fall to the ground, for he did this today with God's help." So the men rescued Jonathan, and he was not put to death.

Then Saul stopped pursuing the Philistines, and they withdrew to their own land.

Matthew 11:16-19 Eating and drinking

"To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others, 'We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.' For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, 'He has a demon.' The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, 'Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.' But wisdom is proved right by her actions."

Jonathan said, "My father has made trouble for the country. (1 Samuel 14:29)

When I chose the title "How to Make Life More Difficult" for today's sermon, I did not intend it to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, as they say, "Life is what happens when you've made other plans." The experience of the last few days--though I hope never to repeat it--did give me some excellent material for today's sermon. So in addition to the rest of what I want to say to you today, here is a quick and easy way to make life more difficult:

Step 1: Buy a computer

Step 2: Install a new operating system.

For me, this was quite sufficient to make life more difficult! Step 2, in particular, has made my life difficult for about a week now. First, I had to reinstall the new operating system two or three times--and most of my software along with it--in order to get it working properly at all. Then a few days after I'd finally gotten it installed and working (I thought), all digital hell broke loose. Now, after two solid days of battling off several massive virus infections and reinstalling things two or three more times, each time correcting errors I made the last time, I think I have things working again. (Please, God?) And there are even a few improvements over the way my computer was set up before!

One of the obvious lessons in this for me is that change is usually harder than we think it is going to be--and the bigger the change, the greater the challenges and obstacles that will be thrown in our way. So here's a second, surefire way to make life more difficult:

Step 1: Make a major change in your life.

At one point, when I was in the middle of about the third or fourth re-installation, I was about ready to throw in the towel and simply put my computer back the way it had been before. But there were things the new operating system could do that the old one couldn't, and I realized that if I went back, I would lose the benefits that had caused me to upgrade in the first place.

Similar considerations drive us on when we resolve to make a change in our lives. When we make promises and resolutions to ourselves that we are going to change something in our life--whether we do it as the traditional New Year's resolution or at any other time--we have generally decided that something about the way things are now is broken, or just isn't as good as it could be. Especially when it comes to making a major change in our lives, we generally don't do it unless we have a vision in our minds of how life could be better if we carried through on the change that we have decided we want to make.

That, in itself, can and will make life more difficult for a while. To use a simple--and real--example, let's say I resolve not to stay up late anymore. The minute I actually try to carry out that resolution, I find that though my intentions may have changed, my habits have not. I have been used to getting a lot of work (or play!) done late at night, and I have mentally arranged my daily schedule with that in mind. So I hit midnight, and I still have a lot of things to do--things that need to be done by tomorrow morning.

So now I'm between a rock and a hard place. I can go to bed as I'd resolved to do, but not get the work done, with the consequences that flow from that. Or I can stay up anyway, finish the work, and feel bleary-eyed in the morning--not to mention kicking myself all day for violating my new resolution right off the bat.

You can insert the appropriate New Year's resolution into this situation. And sad to say, most New Year's resolutions don't survive one week into the new year. As soon as we find ourselves between that rock and that hard place; as soon as we find that we're actually going to have to work and struggle and experience failure in our efforts, we tend to drop our fine resolutions and go right back to the way things were before. But not without kicking ourselves for our weakness, and digging ourselves even deeper into the pit labeled, "It's no use. There's no way I'll ever change for the better."

Do you want to make life more difficult for yourself? Just promise yourself to break a long-standing habit or change one of the less desirable parts of your character, and you'll have enough mental and emotional trouble to last for quite a while.

And yet, we humans are built so that we can never be quite satisfied with ourselves if we are not changing, learning new things, growing in new ways. Not only does life become uninspiring if we always do everything the way we've always done it; but there are parts of ourselves that just plain need changing. There are parts of ourselves that are hurtful both to ourselves and to the people around us. For example, even though I use the excuse that I have to stay up late because I have so much work to do, I end out getting less done, because I'm tired the next day and work much less efficiently than I do when I've had a good night's sleep. Besides, like anyone whose batteries are running on empty, I can get downright grumpy and hard to live with when I haven't had enough sleep.

So we humans will keep on making our resolutions--and breaking them almost as often as we make them. Every once in a while, we will actually succeed in changing something about our lives--and that will give us the boost we need to keep going. If it's something significant, the change usually won't happen until we've made several false starts, and then done a lot of struggling, praying to God, and turning to others for help in overcoming our old habits. Change makes life more difficult. But if the change is for the better, the difficulty will be only for the short run; then the benefits will take over, and bless us for the long run.

Sometimes, however, the promises and resolutions we make for ourselves aren't so wise in the first place. Sometimes even with the best of intentions, we make life unnecessarily more difficult for ourselves. And that brings us to our Old Testament reading for today.

Saul was the first king of Israel. Before that, the people had been led by people such as Moses, Joshua, the various "judges," and then Samuel. None of these people were kings. All of them were led directly by God as they, in turn, led the people. So in effect, God was leading the people through various human leaders who were answerable directly to God.

Though this arrangement generally worked well, once the people had been in their Promised Land for a few generations, they had had enough of this informal divine leadership, and demanded of Samuel that he anoint them a king. After resisting this request, and on God's behalf telling the people how hard life would be if they rejected God's leadership and insisted on being led by a king, Samuel, prompted by the voice of God, finally capitulated to the people's demands and anointed a king to rule over them.

That king was Saul. Good-looking and very tall--he literally stood head and shoulders above the people (1 Samuel 9:2, 10:23)--Saul also turned out to be headstrong, and often foolish. He did lead the people in a few quick victories over their enemies, which established his popularity and his kingship. But then his new status went to his head, and he began to disregard God's orders as given through Samuel, and follow his own way instead, whenever it suited him. Often, his way was not very wise.

In today's story, the Israelite army, under Saul's leadership, was gaining a great victory over their most intractable enemy: the Philistines. This victory was precipitated by Saul's son Jonathan, who bravely went out against the entire Philistine army with only himself and his armor bearer. Because of his faith that God could give them the victory, the two of them threw the Philistine army into a panic; and when the rest of the Israelite army saw what was happening, they rallied and routed the Philistine army.

However, Saul had bound his army by a strict--and foolish--oath that they were not to eat any food before the evening come and victory was gained over their enemies. Jonathan, of course, was already in the Philistine camp when his father pronounced that oath, so he didn't know about it, and he ate some honey as the troops moved along through the woods. This set the stage for the conflict that followed between Jonathan and his father.

This story is a lesson in how to make life more difficult than it really needs to be. Saul and his army already had enough difficulties for that day simply in battling their enemies, without adding more difficulties by binding themselves not to eat anything while pressing the battle forward. As Jonathan said, it would have been better if the men of the army had eaten something along the way to give themselves more strength for the battle.

This goes for our inner battles, too. God does command us to overcome our inner enemies--those bad habits and character flaws that we resolve to change each year as the new year begins. But we tend to make things even more difficult for ourselves than they have to be. It's hard enough to overcome a bad habit. But sometimes, thinking it will be an incentive, we also deny ourselves some simple, harmless pleasure that we enjoy until we have overcome that bad habit or character flaw. For example, we may vow not to play a musical recording we especially like until we have lost ten pounds or quit smoking.

There is no need to afflict ourselves this way. God put the pleasures of this earth here for us to enjoy--as long as we are engaging in them sensibly. Jonathan tasted a little honey, and his eyes were brightened. We, too, need to taste some of the honey of life's pleasures along the way as we struggle against our inner enemies. So to adapt a popular platitude: as you struggle to fulfill your New Year's resolutions, don't forget to stop and taste the honey. Amen.


Music: Treasured Moments
2001 Bruce DeBoer

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