Returning to God

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1 Samuel 7:2-17 (Samuel’s leadership)

INTRODUCTION: Our message series is on the life of Samuel, and so far we have looked at Samuel’s birth, his childhood, and then his call as a prophet. Then Samuel disappeared from the narrative for chapters 4, 5 and 6 while we followed the ark of the covenant on its adventures in the land of the Philistines. But now in chapter seven Samuel is back in the story. Israel has fallen away from God, and chapter seven is all about Samuel’s leadership in helping Israel return to the Lord. (Read 1 Samuel 7:2-17 and pray.)

How is your relationship with God today? Are you walking close with him? Are you growing in Christ, moving forward, making progress? Or have you plateaued or even stepped backwards in your Christian walk? God created you to have a relationship with him. And unless you are growing in that relationship, you are missing out on the best that God has for you. You are missing out on God’s daily love and guidance, his peace and assurance in your life. You are missing out on the main reason why you are here. If you have walked away from God in your life in any way, even just a little bit, it’s time to return. It’s time to come home to God.

That’s exactly where the people of Israel were here in chapter seven. They had walked away from God, and it was time to return to the Lord. Samuel, acting as prophet, priest and judge, leads them through the proper steps.

These steps for returning to God have not changed over the years. So as we look at Samuel’s instructions to Israel, we can see clearly the steps we also need to take to return to God even today. The steps are simple to understand, but often hard to take because of the stubbornness and pride in our hearts. But they are worth it! When you have walked away from God, nothing is more important than returning to the Lord.

I. Repentance (2-4)

The first step in returning to the Lord is always repentance. Verses 2-4 show us some of the key aspects of genuine repentance before the Lord.

    A. Mourning for sin and seeking after the Lord

First of all, there must be mourning for sin and seeking after the Lord. Look at verse 2: “It was a long time, twenty years in all, that the ark remained at Kiriath Jearim, and all the people of Israel mourned and sought after the LORD.” (1 Samuel 7:2)

Israel had been away from God for a long time. One of the consequences of their rebellion was that they were subject to the Philistines during these years. Now I am sure they were miserable the whole time they were under Philistine control. But there was something different about their mourning now. Now they literally “lamented after the Lord.” In other words, they were not just sorry that they were under the Philistines. They were sorry that they were apart from God.

True repentance always involves sorrow for sin and a seeking after the Lord. It is not just sorrow for the consequences of your sin or the difficulty of your circumstances, but it is a lamenting after God. There is a vertical dimension to your sorrow. You are sorry for your sin because of the way it has affected your relationship with God. And so true repentance begins with mourning for sin and seeking after the Lord.

    B. Putting aside any rivals to God in your life

A second part of true repentance is putting aside any rivals to God in your life. We see this in verse 3:

And Samuel said to the whole house of Israel, “If you are returning to the LORD with all your hearts, then rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” (1 Samuel 7:3)

Samuel said, “If you are really coming back to God, then get rid of your idols.” True repentance means putting aside any rivals to God in your life.

What are the rivals to God in your life? You never walk away from God to nothing. There is always something that we have allowed to come between us and God. If you are not as close to God as you have been in the past, what have you allowed to come in between? Perhaps it is another person, perhaps it is some goal you are pursuing, perhaps it is money, anger, pride, or the use of your time. What is it in your life that is keeping you from God?

Take a moment and think about that. Because whatever it is, before you can return to the Lord, you must identify your idols and put them aside. Coming back to God without putting aside your idols is like a man coming back to his wife after an affair and bringing the other woman with him. That won’t fly with the wife, and it won’t fly with God. True repentance means putting aside any rivals to God in your life.

    C. Committing yourself to serving God only

And then thirdly, true repentance means committing yourself to serving God only. That was the next part of Samuel’s instruction. “Rid yourselves of the foreign gods and the Ashtoreths and commit yourselves to the LORD and serve him only.” (1 Samuel 7:3) Repentance isn’t just a turning away from sin, but it is a turning towards God. If you just turn away from one sin to another, or exchange one idol for another, that is not repentance. That’s like quitting smoking and taking up drugs. You don’t really get anywhere.

True repentance always has a Godward direction. It is a returning to the Lord. You put aside those things that drew you away from God in the first place, and you commit yourself to serving the Lord only. And that is exactly what we find the Israelites doing in verse 4: “So the Israelites put away their Baals and Ashtoreths, and served the LORD only.” (1 Samuel 7:4) The first step in returning to God is repentance.

II. Prayer (5-11)

The second step is prayer. You need to talk to God about it. Now this second step, prayer, overlaps with the first step of repentance. The whole time you are showing sorrow for sin and putting aside any rivals to God in your life and committing yourself to serving God only, you will be praying as well. But it is helpful to look at this second step separately. And in verses 5-11, we find three aspects of prayer that are an especially important part of returning to God.

    A. Asking for prayer from other believers

The first aspect is asking for prayer from other believers. Look at verse 5: Then Samuel said, “Assemble all Israel at Mizpah and I will intercede with the LORD for you.” (1 Samuel 7:5) We need the help of other believers. We can’t make it on our own. Samuel realized this. He realized that Israel was weak and needed help. And so he offered to pray for them.

When you have walked away from God, you are weak spiritually. You are going to need some help. You will need to ask other believers to pray with you and for you. Of course that is going to take humility on your part. We don’t like admitting that we need help. But that humility and reliance on others in the body of Christ is all part of the process.

That is why God has given us each other. We aren’t meant to live the Christian life in isolation. God calls us into community with each other, and we are meant to lift each other up. That means that I can be there for you when you are weak and struggling, and you can be there for me when I am weak and struggling. We need each other. Part of returning to God involves asking for prayer from other believers.

    B. Freely confessing your sin against the Lord

A second aspect of prayer is freely confessing your sin against the Lord. Look at verse 6:

When they had assembled at Mizpah, they drew water and poured it out before the LORD. On that day they fasted and there they confessed, “We have sinned against the LORD.” And Samuel was leader of Israel at Mizpah. (1 Samuel 7:6)

Here we have a corporate confession of sin, something we do not see as much of today. But it is certainly appropriate for entire groups of Christians to come together to confess their sin to God. Sometimes God will lead an entire church to come together to confess a particular sin or failing. Perhaps we need to see more of that. Perhaps God is calling us to do that as a church at some time. We are not sure exactly what this “pouring out of water before the Lord” represented. We do not find this in any of the other sacrifices to God. It seems to go along with their fasting – fasting from food and pouring out water before the Lord.

But either way the people of Israel came together in prayer and freely confessed their sin against the Lord. Once again this is a humbling thing to do. We don’t like admitting that we need help, and we don’t like admitting that we are wrong. Your confession of sin may be private, or it may need to be public. It will at least involve talking with those people whom your sin has affected and confessing to them. But first and foremost your confession of sin is a confession to God in prayer.

    C. Trusting God to deliver you by his grace

And then a third aspect of prayer we find in these verses is trusting God to deliver you by his grace with the emphasis on the word “grace.” Look at verses 7-9:

When the Philistines heard that Israel had assembled at Mizpah, the rulers of the Philistines came up to attack them. And when the Israelites heard of it, they were afraid because of the Philistines. They said to Samuel, “Do not stop crying out to the LORD our God for us, that he may rescue us from the hand of the Philistines.” Then Samuel took a suckling lamb and offered it up as a whole burnt offering to the LORD. He cried out to the LORD on Israel’s behalf, and the LORD answered him. (1 Samuel 7:7-9)

If you have walked away from God, I can guarantee that you have problems in your life. That is because God disciplines us when we walk away from him so that we will return to him. For the Israelites, their problem had a name. It was called the Philistines. And when the Philistines heard that the Israelites had gathered together at Mizpah, they went into attack mode. When the Israelites heard about it, they cried out to Samuel, and Samuel sacrificed a lamb. Remember, whenever you see an animal sacrifice in the Old Testament, that is a signal for you to think about Jesus. The Old Testament sacrifices point forward to the sacrifice of Jesus for us on the cross. They are a reminder to us of God’s grace.

Whatever problems you may have brought into your life by walking away from God, you need to come to God in prayer trusting him to deliver you by his grace. Don’t come to God asking him to deliver you because of something you have done. Don’t come to God asking him to deliver you because of something you will do. Come to God asking him to deliver you because of what Jesus has already done for you. That’s trusting God to deliver you by his grace.

What happened when the Israelites trusted God to deliver them by his grace? Look at verses 10-11:

While Samuel was sacrificing the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to engage Israel in battle. But that day the LORD thundered with loud thunder against the Philistines and threw them into such a panic that they were routed before the Israelites. The men of Israel rushed out of Mizpah and pursued the Philistines, slaughtering them along the way to a point below Beth Car. (1 Samuel 7:10-11)

Did you get that? While the Philistines were drawing near for battle, the Israelites are gathered around a sacrificial lamb. Samuel took the lamb, offered it up to the Lord as a burnt offering, and God answered his prayer. God thundered against the Philistines and threw them into a panic. He miraculously delivered the Israelites from the Philistines that day. That is the third aspect of prayer we find in these verses – trusting God to deliver you by his grace.

III. Growth (12-17)

So what are the steps to returning to God? The first step is repentance, the second step is prayer, and then the third step is growth. In other words, don’t expect to suddenly have it all together after taking these first few steps of returning to the Lord. We will never have it all together until we reach heaven. Returning to the Lord means returning to the process of growth as a Christian. It means you are resuming your journey, not arriving at your destination. This third step of returning to God is the longest step. It is continuing the difficult, daily, sometimes painful but always rewarding process of growing in Christ.

    A. Marking your progress

So what are some of the aspects of Christian growth we find in our passage this morning? The first one is such an important one to keep us going and keep us motivated, and that is marking your progress. Look at verse 12:

Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen. He named it Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far has the LORD helped us.” So the Philistines were subdued and did not invade Israelite territory again. (1 Samuel 7:12-13a)

God had given the Israelites a victory that day at Mizpah. Samuel didn’t want the Israelites to forget it, so he set up a stone as a marker saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.” He named the stone Ebenezer, which literally means “Stone of Help.” There is a song we sometimes sing called, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.” One of the verses says, “Here I raise my Ebenezer, hither by they help I’ve come,” that is “Thus far the Lord has helped me.” If you’ve ever wondered what that verse was all about, it is talking about this incident right here in 1 Samuel. It’s talking about marking the progress that God has given you in life.

Whenever you undertake a big project, it is always good to stop and mark your progress. When you hike up a mountain, it is good to stop along the way and look back at how far you have come. When you are working towards a high school diploma or a college degree, you take note of important milestones, you keep track of how many courses completed and how many left to go. Even when you do something simple like mowing the lawn, you stop and look at the sections you have already done to motivate you to finish the rest.

In the same way, you need to find ways to mark your progress in the Christian life. If God speaks to you through a verse in the Bible, perhaps put a date next to that verse right in your Bible. If God answers a prayer for you, write it down somewhere. Perhaps start a prayer journal where you can keep a record of these things. But find ways to mark the progress in your Christian life, so that you can see how far you’ve come. It will motivate you to keep on growing and keep you from getting discouraged when you are not as far along in your Christian life as you would like to be. As John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace,” once said, “I am not the man I ought to be, I am not the man I wish to be, and I am not the man I hope to be, but by the grace of God, I am not the man I used to be.” Now that’s an example of a believer who was marking his progress in the Christian life.

    B. Seeing the changes

A second aspect of Christian growth is that you will begin to see the changes in your life. The Israelites certainly did. Look at verses 13-14:

Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines. The towns from Ekron to Gath that the Philistines had captured from Israel were restored to her, and Israel delivered the neighboring territory from the power of the Philistines. And there was peace between Israel and the Amorites. (1 Samuel 7:13-14)

Now please understand. This does not mean that when you return to God all of your problems will just suddenly disappear. Christians go through hard times just like everyone else. But it does mean that God will withdraw his disciplining hand from you. And it means that God will be there to help you with your difficulties. You may still suffer the consequences from the bad decisions you made while not walking with God, but you will also see some positive changes in your life.

You will also experience what I like to call the “ripple effect” of obedience. The ripple effect is simply this. When you get one part of your life back in order with God, the other parts start to come together as well. The Israelites experienced the ripple effect. When they returned to God, not only were they delivered from the power of the Philistines, but there was also peace with the Amorites. The Philistines lived outside the borders of Israel. The Amorites were those groups of people still living within their borders who had never been uprooted.

And so the Israelites experienced both deliverance from outside forces and peace within their borders. There was a ripple effect of positive change. When you return to God, you will experience the ripple effect too, as the various parts of your life begin to fall back into place.

    C. Living it out in your daily routine

And then the third aspect of Christian growth is living it out in your daily routine. We see this illustrated for us in Samuel’s life in verses 15-17:

Samuel continued as judge over Israel all the days of his life. From year to year he went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal to Mizpah, judging Israel in all those places. But he always went back to Ramah, where his home was, and there he also judged Israel. And he built an altar there to the LORD. (1 Samuel 7:15-17)

Samuel had just led Israel through a dramatic time of returning to God. The people responded to his leadership. They repented of their idolatry and put their trust in the Lord. God delivered them from the Philistines with loud thunder from heaven. They set up a stone as a marker of their progress. This must have been a mountaintop experience for Samuel. He probably thought, “Wow, God that was awesome! That was so exciting! What do you have for me next?”

Well, what God had for him next was the daily routine of judging Israel. Year after year Samuel went on a circuit from Bethel to Gilgal and Mizpah, judging the people of Israel. He would finish the circuit, go back to his home in Ramah, and then he would start all over again. Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Ramah. Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Ramah. Judge the people, start again. Bethel, Gilgal, Mizpah, Ramah.

Mountaintop experiences are great. But we don’t live on the mountain. Nobody lives on the mountain. We usually live in the valley. It is one thing to serve God in the dramatic moments of life. It is another thing to serve him day by day in the daily routines of life. But that is what we are called to do. Get up each morning, read my Bible, say my prayers. Go to work or school, love the people God has placed around me, do a good job, come back home. Love my family, love my neighbors, love my church. Try to do everything to God’s glory. Get up the next morning and do it all over again.

It is not always glamorous or even exciting to grow as a Christian. But it is worth it. It is the only thing that makes life worthwhile. And it is what God has called us to do.

CONCLUSION: The Israelites waited twenty years from the time they got the ark back before they returned to the Lord. Twenty years! I’m sure they didn’t intend to wait that long. But the years have a way of slipping away from you when you do nothing. Nobody ever says, “I will wait until next year to come back to God.” They just say, “Not today.” But after awhile all those “not-today’s” begin to add up to weeks and months and even years if we’re not careful.

Have you drifted away from God? How long has it been? If it’s even been one day, that’s too long. It’s time to come back. It’s time to come home. It’s time to return to the Lord.

© Ray Fowler

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