Almost Obedient

  I.      Introduction

Slide1We’ve been studying the book of 1 Samuel, and if you remember back in 1 Samuel 8, the people Israel demanded a king.  Samuel said, “Are you sure about that?”  And the Lord said, “my people have rejected me, so I will give them what they want.”  So today, we’re going to look at the king the people of Israel received.  I think two verses illustrate this new king very well.  First is 1 Samuel 9:17,

When Samuel caught sight of Saul, the Lord said to him, “This is the man I spoke to you about; he will govern my people.”

Then a few verses later in 1 Samuel 10:20-22, it’s time to present Saul as king to the Israelite, and I’ll paraphrase a little here:

But when they looked for [Saul], he was not to be found.  So they inquired further of the Lord, “Has the man come here yet?”

And the Lord said, “Yes, he has hidden himself among the supplies.”

So Samuel appointed Saul as the first king who had been hiding in the kitchen pantry for some reason.  The people of Israel eventually had to seize him and force him to be king.

The Philistines mostly ignored the happenings within Israel, but the formation of a monarchy is about to renew the conflict with the Philistines.  The Philistines had defeated the Israelites in previous conflicts; if you remember all the way back to 1 Samuel 4, the Israelites made an attempt at independence, attacking the Philistines while holding the Ark of the Covenant in front of them like a luck rabbit’s foot.  On that day, 30,000 Israeli soldiers died and the Ark was captured by the Philistines.Slide3

The Philistines maintained control over Israel with strategically placed garrisons.  While the tribes of Israel were easily dominated, when Israel proclaimed they had a king, this was a sign of independence and the conflict began anew.

At the beginning of the chapter of 1 Samuel 13, the new king Saul divides his army and puts his son Jonathon over one division with 1000 men.  Jonathan was a devoted follower of the Lord and he faced a decision; the Lord had long commanded that the people of Israel occupy the land of Canaan, but the Philistines are in control.  Jonathan displays fearless devotion to God and immediately attacks a small Philistine outpost and routes them.  It’s a small victory.Slide4

Israel has been repeatedly defeated by the Philistines, so any victory here over the Philistines is significant.  Losing this garrison was humiliating to the Philistines, but it also threatened the Philistine’s control of the region.  While before small skirmishes erupted from time to time, this time because of the new proclaimed king and the loss of the outpost, scripture says Israel has become obnoxious to the Philistine.  The Philistines decide to eradicate the people of Israel.  Now it’s war.

The Philistine outmatched the Israelis in numbers, strategy, organization, and weaponry.  Let’s look at the Philistine army in 1 Samuel 13:5 –

The Philistines assembled to fight Israel, with three thousand chariots, six thousand charioteers, and soldiers as numerous as the sand on the seashore.

Some manuscripts say 30,000 chariots.  Either way, this is the largest chariot force mentioned anywhere in the Old Testament.  Continuing in verse 6 –

They went up and camped at Micmash, east of Beth Aven.  When the men of Israel saw that their situation was critical and that their army was hard pressed, they hid in caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns.

Slide5

Whew.  Israel expected some sort of punishment or military retaliation for their raid on the outpost, but this is a full-scale invasion that appears intent on eradicating Israel forever.

The Philistines had iron weapons and chariots; the Fighting Farmers of Israel had pitchforks.  Worse, Israel was dependent on Philistine blacksmiths for making and repairing tools they needed to farm.  This was a strategic decision by the Philistines; it says in verse 19 there was not a blacksmith to be found in Israel to prevent them from making swords and spears.  So the Philistines arrive in overwhelming numbers and defeat seems inevitable.

The Lord has a plan – doesn’t He always have a plan?  It’s our pride and independence that gets us into trouble, which we would avoid if we just stayed obedient.  What are the Lord’s instructions to Saul?  Let’s back up a little bit to last week’s lesson in 1 Samuel 10:5-8.  The prophet Samuel takes a flask of oil, anointing the new king Saul in the name of the Lord, and then says –

After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost… Go down ahead of me to Gilgal. I will surely come down to you to sacrifice burnt offerings and fellowship offerings, but you must wait seven days until I come to you and tell you what you are to do.

Pretty straightforward.  Wait seven days for the prophet Samuel who will offer a sacrifice to the Lord and then tell you what comes next.  But what does Saul actually do?  1 Samuel 13:7b-13 –

Saul remained at Gilgal, and all the troops with him were quaking with fear.  He waited seven days, the time set by Samuel; but Samuel did not come to Gilgal, and Saul’s men began to scatter.  So he said, “Bring me the burnt offering and the fellowship offerings.”  And Saul offered up the burnt offering.  Just as he finished making the offering, Samuel arrived, and Saul went out to greet him.

“What have you done?” asked Samuel.

Saul replied, “When I saw that the men were scattering, and that you did not come at the set time, and that the Philistines were assembling at Micmash,  I thought, ‘Now the Philistines will come down against me at Gilgal, and I have not sought the LORD’s favor.’ So I felt compelled to offer the burnt offering.”

“You acted foolishly,” Samuel said. “You have not kept the command the LORD your God gave you; if you had, he would have established your kingdom over Israel for all time.

God’s instructions through Samuel told Saul to Gilgal and wait seven days for the priest Samuel to come and sacrifice burnt offerings.  Faced with overwhelming odds from the Philistine army, Saul acts by assuming the role of the priest and offering a sacrifice.  Saul foolishly disobeys God’s command out of fear, and his disobedience reveals that Saul has no comprehension of his responsibility to God.  Saul feared the loss of his soldiers and he feared losing the battle.  And what’s more, the whole purpose of sacrificing a burnt offering indicates absolute dedication to God, so Saul’s disobedient offering had absolutely no meaning.  If Saul was truly dedicated to God, he would have obeyed and waited on God.

II.      Fear

After Saul has completed his sacrifice, Samuel arrives and asks, “What have you done?”  It’s not like Samuel didn’t know, the aroma of burned meat was still in the air.  Ever come home at the end of the day and your neighbors are barbecuing?  You know exactly what they’re doing.  Samuel knows, too, but he asks Saul anyway to get the disobedient king to think about what he’s done.

But instead, Saul comes up with excuses for being disobedient.  The 7th day was not over, yet Saul didn’t wait until the evening.  Therefore, it must have been Samuel’s fault for not arriving earlier.  Saul was forced to do what he did.  When scholars write of Saul’s disobedience, they discuss failures ranging from taking on the role of the priest to failing to wait the full amount of time.  But the real reason is Saul’s character.  He didn’t trust the Lord to do what he was supposed to do.  He feared the consequences of failing to sacrifice more than he trusted in the Lord to whom he was offering the sacrifice.

Slide9

Proverbs 29:25 says that fear of man will prove to be a snare, but whoever trusts in the Lord will be kept safe.  Saul was afraid of the battle, afraid of the enemy, afraid his own men were not up to the task.  And so out of fear, Saul was attempting to summon the Lord’s power with his sacrifice, to pull a miracle out of a hat.  But one cannot conjure up a miracle from the Lord.  One commentary calls this “theological blackmail.”  The Lord will save His people, not because He has been summoned through our actions, but because it is in His nature to do so.  We cannot compel God.  God acts because He loves us.

We still do this today, don’t we?  How often out of fear, out of panic, out of lack of trust do we go to the Lord in prayer?  I remember the panic when both Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Ike were bearing down on Houston and reading about how many people went to the Lord in prayer for the first time in weeks or months or even years?  Yet to seek the Lord’s favor only in times of panic is futile.  God wants us to seek Him always.  God does not want us to live in fear; 2 Timothy 1:7 says –

For God did not give us a spirit of timidity, but a spirit of power, of love and of self-discipline.

Slide10Samuel tells Saul that if he had obeyed, the Lord would have established Saul’s kingdom over Israel for all time, but because of his disobedience, Saul’s kingdom will not endure. Unfortunately, Saul doesn’t learn from his disobedience; I think Saul is in denial about his disobedience, especially since we’re about to see this disobedience continue.

 

III.      Redefine Obedience

Let’s turn to 1 Samuel 15; the Lord has put Saul in charge of punishing the Amalekites; we have to go all the way back to Exodus 17 to understand who the Amalekites are.  They’re one of the many -ites that trouble Israel over the centuries.  The Amalekites, the Amorites, the Canaanites.  The Nightlights.  The Stalactites and the Stalagmites.  The Saturday Nights.

Moses, leading the Israelites out of Egypt in the Desert of Sinai, are attacked from the rear by the Amelekites who are picking off women and children that are straggling.  You may recall Joshua led a battle against them while Moses held his hand in the air.  Moses’ arm is tired so his arm is held up by Aaron and Hur.   Joshua wins that battle, but our God isn’t pleased that while leading His people to freedom that they are attacked.  In Exodus 17:14-16,

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Write this on a scroll as something to be remembered and make sure that Joshua hears it, because I will completely blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.”

Moses built an altar and called it The LORD is my Banner.  He said, “For hands were lifted up to the throne of the LORD. The LORD will be at war against the Amalekites from generation to generation.”

Slide11God’s justice will remove the Amalekites and blot out their memory.  Anybody here know any Amalekites?

Now is the time God has chosen for Saul to wipe out the Amalekites; 1 Samuel 15:1-3,

Samuel said to Saul, “I am the one the LORD sent to anoint you king over his people Israel; so listen now to the message from the LORD.  This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘I will punish the Amalekites for what they did to Israel when they waylaid them as they came up from Egypt.  Now go, attack the Amalekites and totally destroy everything that belongs to them. Do not spare them; put to death men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys.’ “

The time for justice to be delivered to the Amalekites has come, but listen to how Saul carried out these instructions in 1 Samuel 15:7-9 –

Then Saul attacked the Amalekites all the way from Havilah to Shur, to the east of Egypt.  He took Agag king of the Amalekites alive, and all his people he totally destroyed with the sword.  But Saul and the army spared Agag and the best of the sheep and cattle, the fat calves and lambs—everything that was good. These they were unwilling to destroy completely, but everything that was despised and weak they totally destroyed.

Of course Saul obeyed the Lord, *if* you redefine what obedience means.  In 1100 BC, capturing the king during a war meant riches for the winner.  The king could be ransomed off for a handsome profit.  And it would be a shame to kill all the animals, too, when there were so much better uses for them.

IV.      Denial

In verse 10, the Lord tells Samuel that He is grieved because Saul didn’t carry out His commands, so Samuel goes to see Saul, who in verse 12 is told that Saul is busy building a monument in his own honor.  In verse 13-15 –

When Samuel reached him, Saul said, “The LORD bless you! I have carried out the LORD’s instructions.”

But Samuel said, “What then is this bleating of sheep in my ears? What is this lowing of cattle that I hear?”

Saul answered, “The soldiers brought them from the Amalekites; they spared the best of the sheep and cattle to sacrifice to the LORD your God, but we totally destroyed the rest.”

It’s like Saul is saying, “Hey, not only did I obey, but I improved upon the Lord’s instructions!  I did so good, I awarded myself a trophy!”

But did Saul obey?  Saul is in denial about his obedience.  “The Lord bless you, I have carried out the Lord’s instructions,” he says.  As Christians today, we have specific instructions, too.  “Forgive one another, up to seventy times seven.”  And our response?  Oh, I forgive him, I don’t hold any grudges.  I just want to talk to him or ever see his face again.  Submit to one another, love one another as Christ loves us.  Are we really being obedient?  Or are we in denial, too, redefining what it means to be obedient?

  V.      Partial Obedience

One method of denial, a method of disobedience, is to be partially obedient.  Samuel’s question – if you obeyed, why do I hear cows? – is a telling one.  First he is in denial, then Saul explains that partial obedience is more than enough.  Look at verse 20 –

“But I did obey the LORD,” Saul said. “I went on the mission the LORD assigned me. I completely destroyed the Amalekites and brought back Agag their king.

The Lord said to destroy the Amalekites; Saul said of course he destroyed them except their king.  Colossians 3:5-6 says –

Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry.  Because of these, the wrath of God is coming.

Those are the Lord’s instructions to us, these are the Amalekites of sin to us.   Yet, too often, we believe that we can pick and choose among God’s instructions, and then we act as though God should be appreciative of the bits and pieces that we do.  God defines obedience as total obedience.  We obey mostly, but we leave kingdoms of sin in our lives.

Let me offer a question for us to ponder – rather than asking ourselves how much we obey God, let’s ask God to show us where we do not obey.  Scripture tells us to hold captive every thought so that we do not sin.  Ever had a critical thought about somebody?  Scripture says we should be slow to speak so our tongue does not cause us to sin.  Ever said anything unkind?  We shouldn’t fool ourselves and imagine we are obedient.  We are nonstop disobedient; we just don’t want to acknowledge it.  We pretend partial obedience is sufficient.  But we cannot think ourselves as obedient to God when we redefine to ourselves what it means to be obedient.  If we’re partially obedient, we’re still disobedient.

VI.      Blame Others

Another way we are disobedient to is to blame our disobedience, our partial obedience, on somebody else.  I could forgive him if he wasn’t such a jerk.  It would be easier for me to go to church if the people there were friendlier.  That what Saul says.  In verse 20, Saul says, “But I did obey the Lord” and then he continues on in verse 21…

The soldiers took sheep and cattle from the plunder, the best of what was devoted to God, in order to sacrifice them to the LORD your God at Gilgal.”

I did obey the Lord, but the soldiers didn’t do right.   I had this great plan to serve the Lord, but somebody else messed it up.  Of course I made a covenant with my spouse for better or worse, but you don’t know my spouse.  Of course I can forgive my friend as soon as she asks for forgiveness. Sometimes we even blame God.  I lost my temper, sure, but God made me that way.

This disobedience is literally the oldest trick in the book.  Adam blamed his disobedience on Eve.  “It’s her fault!” And the Eve blamed it on the serpent.  But we cannot blame our own disobedience on somebody else.  God will see through that every time.

Slide22

VII.      Rely on Rituals Instead

And finally, we disobey because, well, that’s the way we’ve always done it.  There’s no need to change if nobody’s complaining.  Besides, as a Christian, I attend church, I go to bible study, I tithe, I serve, I pray, I teach.  So those things cover up what little disobedience remains, right?

Verse 22-23, Samuel answers that question.

But Samuel replied:

“Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices
as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD ?
To obey is better than sacrifice,
and to heed is better than the fat of rams.

For rebellion is like the sin of divination,
and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.
Because you have rejected the word of the LORD,
he has rejected you as king.”

The Lord expects and receives our sacrifices, but He does not delight in them.  Sacrifices in the Old Testament atoned for sins.  Sacrifices in the New Testament further the Kingdom of God.  Those things are good, but God does not delight in them.  God delights in obedience.  God delights in the righteous who seek after Him.  Look at Matthew 5:23-24,

Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.

Jesus tells us that if we bring a sacrifice to the temple but we have something against our brother, we are to leave that sacrifice there and make amends with our brother.  Only then are we to return and offer our sacrifice.

Look, making it up to somebody when you’ve wronged them is a good thing.  But wouldn’t obedience in not wronging them in the first place be better?  Sacrifices are payments for disobedience, sacrifices are accepted by God, but it’s not sacrifices that God wants most.  He doesn’t need our sacrifices, because the Lord needs nothing from us.  He desires us to be obedient for our benefit.

VIII.      Conclusion

A man wanted to help his son understand the importance of making right choices.  He put up a post in the back yard, and every time his son made a bad choice, the father would give him a nail and have him nail it into the post.  When he made a good choice, he’d get to remove a nail.  As the boy grew, there were always a couple of nails in the post, but as he grew and matured, one day he pulled the last nail out of the post.  He felt pretty good about it, too.  But his dad asked him to take a good look at the post.  The nails were gone, but the post was full of holes.

Slide27

We’re forgiven of our bad choices.  But the effects of our sins leave scars.

We disobey for many reasons and in many ways..  Fear, redefine, denial, partial obedience, blame others, rely on rituals.   Saul performs a perfect hat-trick in verse 15; denial, partial obedience, *and* blaming others all in one sentence, so we’re not limited to disobedience in one category.

The Lord calls us to obedience, and sometimes we’re our own worst enemy when we try to obey.  We act out of fear instead of trusting in the Lord.  We deny our disobedience or try to redefine it.  We make excuses, or we try to make up for it afterword.   Don’t ask yourself in what ways you’re being obedient to the Lord; in some small ways, everybody is partially obedient.  Ask yourself instead how you’re not obeying the Lord.  Are you following God’s commands?  Are you living a life of partial obedience to God’s commands?  Do you find it easier to be obedient when you know people are looking?  Have you been struggling with some area of your life that you know needs to be surrendered to God?

Don’t try to answer the question by listing all the things you do.  I go to church, I sing in the choir or play in the band.  I teach a class.  I serve God most of the time.   That is not the standard God wants for us.  Partial obedience doesn’t cut it.   God wants us to trust Him and follow Him with all of our heart, our soul, our mind and strength.  Don’t settle for less.

To God be the glory.

Security in God

I. Introduction

I visited a coworker in the hospital this weekend. He told me he was at home watching tv when the doorbell rang. When he opened the door, there was a 6 foot cockroach standing there. Before he could say anything, the cockroach punched in the stomach and ran off.

The next night, he was sitting at home again. The doorbell rang. There was the 6 foot cockroach again. This time it punched him in the stomach and the karate-kicked him before running off.

The third night when the doorbell rang, my friend was a little more cautious. He cracked the door to peek out, and there was the six foot cockroach again. The cockroach kicked the door into his face so hard he saw stars. Then the cockroach came in and jumped on him and kicked several times so hard he nearly lost consciousness. He dragged himself over to the phone and called 9-1-1.

The 9-1-1 operator asked him what the emergency was. In a weak voice, my friend answered, “there’s a nasty bug going around…”

There are a lot of nasty bugs going around, from the H1N1 swine flu to job losses to the price of gas. It shouldn’t surprise you that “nasty bugs” have been part of our existence for thousands of years. Today, we’re going to look at Psalm 62 and see how David deals with one of life’s turn of events.

II. Psalm 62:1-2, Security in God Alone

My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

Let me give you some background on what is going on in David’s life at this point in time. David is much older now; his affair with Bathsheba is long in the past, and David has long since confessed his sins and placed his trust in the Lord. But if you recall during our studies the last few weeks, confessing your sins to Lord frees you from sin and gives you reason to rejoice. It does not, however, free you from the repercussions of your sins. When Nathan said, “You are that man,” in 2 Samuel 12, David finally ceased his self-deception and acknowledged his sin against the Lord. The Lord offers mercy and grace, but also tells David “Out of your own household I am going to bring calamity upon you.”

David has several more children over the years, but the sword never leaves his house. As his children grow, David has to deal with children that are disrespectful to him. His son, Absalom, claims the throne for himself. David, not willing to fight his own son for the throne, flees to the desert. A very stressful time in David’s life, losing your job to your son who’s trying to killing you. My day doesn’t seem so bad.

And it is this time in David’s life that he pens Psalm 62 and gives us instruction for how to deal with life’s nasty bugs. David’s strength comes not from his position as king or from wealth or from power, but in the Lord.

My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken.

We should have a single source of security, in God and God alone. David gives us three pictures of security in God –

• God is my rock. What images does this bring to mind? What qualities of a rock provide security?
o Steadfastness
o Stable
o Unmoving
• God is my salvation. If God is our salvation, why does that give us security?
• God is my fortress. What images of security does a fortress bring?
o Protection.

III. Psalm 62:3-4, Security that Withstands Attacks

How long will you assault a man?
Would all of you throw him down—
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?

They fully intend to topple him
from his lofty place;
they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
but in their hearts they curse.
Selah

Our security is attacked many ways. Job loss, personal conflicts with others, sometimes with many others. Satan does not want you to have security and will deceive you that your security is misplaced. He wants to topple you. And he will keep this up for an unfairly long time – “How long” will he assault a man.

• What sort of things threaten our security and make us feel unsafe?

If our security is based on our circumstances, in people, in ourselves, in wealth or relationship, our security is fragile. But David repeats himself – we do not find security in anything but God and God alone. Verse 5-8 –

IV. Psalm 62:5-8, Security in God Alone, Still

Find rest, O my soul, in God alone;
my hope comes from him.

He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will not be shaken.

My salvation and my honor depend on God [a] ;
he is my mighty rock, my refuge.

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

Selah

The Lord God is still our rock, our salvation, and fortress. The Lord is also described as a refuge. Like a fortress, we can run to the Lord for safety when we feel threatened.

David reminds the people of Israel that the Lord is not just a fortress of safety for him, but for all people. We can trust in Him. More than that, verse 8 says that I can also pour out my heart to God. God knows our thoughts and feelings, he knows our pain, our hopes and desires. When we are in need, in trouble, in fear, trust in Him at all times and pour out your fears to Him.

I change my wallpaper on my laptop monthly with various Christian wallpaper, usually with a calendar on it, always with a Christian saying or a piece of scripture. One of them by Charles Spurgeon a few months back was very thought-provoking. “If we cannot believe God when circumstances seem to be against us, we do not believe Him at all.”

We have security in God because He tells us so. And if God is for us, who can be against us?

V. Psalm 62:8-10, Security Nowhere Else

Lowborn men are but a breath,
the highborn are but a lie;
if weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
together they are only a breath.

Do not trust in extortion
or take pride in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
do not set your heart on them.

Where else can we possibly put our faith, we else can we find security but in the Lord? David lists several places where we look for false security –

• In relationships. What sort of relationships do we try to find security in?
o Parents
o Children
o Friends
o Spouses
o Politicians
o Government
o Church
o Ourselves
• In what ways can these relationships fail us?
• David also cautions us against placing our faith in things, especially ill-gotten gains. What sort of things do we use to seek security?
o Money
o Property
o Jobs
o Insurance
• In what ways can things fail us?
• Why are we tempted to add other forms of security like wealth or relationships, rather than rely on Christ alone?

In Psalm 44:6, “For I will not trust in my bow, neither shall my sword save me.” Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the Lord our God.” And in the exact middle of the bible is Psalm 118:8, “It is better to trust in the Lord
than to put confidence in man.”

Jesus, of course, knew all this. There is no security anywhere but God. Matthew 6:19, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, where thieves break in and steal.” Instead, we can trust in God because of who He is. He is unique, one of a kind. Let’s look at the final two verses of Psalm 62.

VI. Psalm 62:11-12, Security in God Because He is Unique

One thing God has spoken,
two things have I heard:
that you, O God, are strong,

and that you, O Lord, are loving.
Surely you will reward each person
according to what he has done.

• What are some of the attributes of God that give us security in Him?
o His Power
o His Love
o His Goodness
o His Mercy
o His Justice
o Fulfilled prophecy

VII. Conclusion

God knows we have fears and concerns about our security. He is training us for something better, something that requires us to learn to trust in Him. If God is so powerful, why is it that we are scared? Is God really in control? That’s what we ask ourselves, and what God wants us to know, even when we don’t see Him at work. It’s precisely at those times God is at work in us.

C.S. Lewis said in Mere Christianity, “Imagine yourself as a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on; you knew that those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised. But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make any sense. What on earth is He up to? The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of – throwing out a new wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up towers, making courtyards. You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

How to Gain the Christmas Spirit

The best way to give wings to the Christmas Spirit is to give gifts to people who need them. My wife and I exchanged few gifts this year, opting instead to give to charities instead. Instead of giving somebody a trinket they didn’t need, we’d ask them what their favorite charity was. Then we’d give to that charity, to people in need. We hope many lives were brightened this year.

Giving a gift to those in need is precisely what God did for us 2000 years ago. We are, each one of us, people in need. We want mercy on us for the lies and cheats and naughty or evil thoughts we’ve had. Instead, we deserve justice. Instead, we received a gift of forgiveness. It all began when God came down out of heaven with a baby in His arms. Merry Christmas.

Here’s what happens when you give a gift to those who need it. Fair warning; you may need a tissue to wipe away a tear or two. Try cheering for those who need encouragement.

They played the oddest game in high school football history last month down in Grapevine, Texas.

It was Grapevine Faith vs. Gainesville State School and everything about it was upside down. For instance, when Gainesville came out to take the field, the Faith fans made a 40-yard spirit line for them to run through.

Did you hear that? The other team’s fans?

They even made a banner for players to crash through at the end. It said, “Go Tornadoes!” Which is also weird, because Faith is the Lions.

It was rivers running uphill and cats petting dogs. More than 200 Faith fans sat on the Gainesville side and kept cheering the Gainesville players on—by name.

“I never in my life thought I’d hear people cheering for us to hit their kids,” recalls Gainesville’s QB and middle linebacker, Isaiah. “I wouldn’t expect another parent to tell somebody to hit their kids. But they wanted us to!”

And even though Faith walloped them 33-14, the Gainesville kids were so happy that after the game they gave head coach Mark Williams a sideline squirt-bottle shower like he’d just won state. Gotta be the first Gatorade bath in history for an 0-9 coach.

But then you saw the 12 uniformed officers escorting the 14 Gainesville players off the field and two and two started to make four. They lined the players up in groups of five—handcuffs ready in their back pockets—and marched them to the team bus. That’s because Gainesville is a maximum-security correctional facility 75 miles north of Dallas. Every game it plays is on the road.

This all started when Faith’s head coach, Kris Hogan, wanted to do something kind for the Gainesville team. Faith had never played Gainesville, but he already knew the score. After all, Faith was 7-2 going into the game, Gainesville 0-8 with 2 TDs all year. Faith has 70 kids, 11 coaches, the latest equipment and involved parents. Gainesville has a lot of kids with convictions for drugs, assault and robbery—many of whose families had disowned them—wearing seven-year-old shoulder pads and ancient helmets.

So Hogan had this idea. What if half of our fans—for one night only—cheered for the other team? He sent out an email asking the Faithful to do just that. “Here’s the message I want you to send:” Hogan wrote. “You are just as valuable as any other person on planet Earth.”

Some people were naturally confused. One Faith player walked into Hogan’s office and asked, “Coach, why are we doing this?”

And Hogan said, “Imagine if you didn’t have a home life. Imagine if everybody had pretty much given up on you. Now imagine what it would mean for hundreds of people to suddenly believe in you.”

Next thing you know, the Gainesville Tornadoes were turning around on their bench to see something they never had before. Hundreds of fans. And actual cheerleaders!

“I thought maybe they were confused,” said Alex, a Gainesville lineman (only first names are released by the prison). “They started yelling ‘DEE-fense!’ when their team had the ball. I said, ‘What? Why they cheerin’ for us?'”

It was a strange experience for boys who most people cross the street to avoid. “We can tell people are a little afraid of us when we come to the games,” says Gerald, a lineman who will wind up doing more than three years. “You can see it in their eyes. They’re lookin’ at us like we’re criminals. But these people, they were yellin’ for us! By our names!”

Maybe it figures that Gainesville played better than it had all season, scoring the game’s last two touchdowns. Of course, this might be because Hogan put his third-string nose guard at safety and his third-string cornerback at defensive end. Still.

After the game, both teams gathered in the middle of the field to pray and that’s when Isaiah surprised everybody by asking to lead. “We had no idea what the kid was going to say,” remembers Coach Hogan. But Isaiah said this: “Lord, I don’t know how this happened, so I don’t know how to say thank You, but I never would’ve known there was so many people in the world that cared about us.”

And it was a good thing everybody’s heads were bowed because they might’ve seen Hogan wiping away tears.

As the Tornadoes walked back to their bus under guard, they each were handed a bag for the ride home—a burger, some fries, a soda, some candy, a Bible and an encouraging letter from a Faith player.

The Gainesville coach saw Hogan, grabbed him hard by the shoulders and said, “You’ll never know what your people did for these kids tonight. You’ll never, ever know.”

And as the bus pulled away, all the Gainesville players crammed to one side and pressed their hands to the window, staring at these people they’d never met before, watching their waves and smiles disappearing into the night.

Anyway, with the economy six feet under and Christmas running on about three and a half reindeer, it’s nice to know that one of the best presents you can give is still absolutely free.

Hope.

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