Sermon: Till Now The Lord Has Helped Us: 1 Samuel 7:1–14


Pre-Introduction

The sermon text for today is 1 Samuel 7:1-14. I should say a word about the setting of this passage before I read it. The story that is told here happened in the days when judges ruled over Israel. Moses had lead the Hebrews out of Egypt, through the Red Sea, and in the wilderness for 40 years. Joshua had led the people into the promised land to take possession of it in fulfillment to some of the promises made to Abraham. The kings were not yet. Saul would be anointed king not long after the events mentioned here. And David would be king after Saul. But from the days of Joshua to the days of anointing of Saul as king, judges ruled in Israel. Some of the judges were good, some were bad. Mainly these were difficult times for the people of Israel. They were assaulted from without and from within.

The troubles within came in the form of wicked, unfaithful rulers, and false worship. Take Eli the priest and his “worthless sons” (that is how the scriptures speak of them) as an example. They served themselves instead of God. They worshipped falsely. They abused the people.

The troubles without came mainly in the form of conflict with the Philistines. Joshua led Israel into the land of promise, but the people failed to drive out all of their enemies. The conquest was left unfinished. And the Philistines harassed the people continually.

In 1 Samuel we are told of the birth of Samuel, who would eventually lead the people of Israel faithfully in the combined role of prophet, priest, and judge. These were days of renewal. These days were not without difficulty, please don’t misunderstand, but things were headed in the right direction. These were days of reformation. Proper worship was in the process of being restored. Samuel was faithful in his service. The people were exhorted to put away their idols. Victory was being won over the Philistines.

With that as the background, here now the reading of God’s holy word:

Scripture Reading: 1 Samuel 7:1–14

“And the men of Kiriath-jearim came and took up the ark of the Lord and brought it to the house of Abinadab on the hill. And they consecrated his son Eleazar to have charge of the ark of the Lord. From the day that the ark was lodged at Kiriath-jearim, a long time passed, some twenty years, and all the house of Israel lamented after the Lord. And Samuel said to all the house of Israel, ‘If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.’ So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, ‘Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you.’ So they gathered at Mizpah and drew water and poured it out before the Lord and fasted on that day and said there, ‘We have sinned against the Lord.’ And Samuel judged the people of Israel at Mizpah. Now when the Philistines heard that the people of Israel had gathered at Mizpah, the lords of the Philistines went up against Israel. And when the people of Israel heard of it, they were afraid of the Philistines. And the people of Israel said to Samuel, ‘Do not cease to cry out to the Lord our God for us, that he may save us from the hand of the Philistines.’ So Samuel took a nursing lamb and offered it as a whole burnt offering to the Lord. And Samuel cried out to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him. As Samuel was offering up the burnt offering, the Philistines drew near to attack Israel. But the Lord thundered with a mighty sound that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion, and they were defeated before Israel. And the men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car. Then Samuel took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Till now the Lord has helped us.’ So the Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel. And the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The cities that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel, from Ekron to Gath, and Israel delivered their territory from the hand of the Philistines. There was peace also between Israel and the Amorites.” (1 Samuel 7:1–14, ESV)

Introduction

Today, as you know, marks the five year anniversary of Emmaus Christians Fellowship. The people who would eventually constitute the church gathered for worship for the first time on Sunday, June the 5th, 2011. Those were tumultuous times, but the Lord has been faithful.

I would like to accomplish two things today. First of all, I would like to reflect upon the past five years in order to remember the faithfulness of God, and to give thanks. Secondly, I would like to say a brief word concerning the way forward.

Till Now The Lord Has Helped Us

First of all, let us look back upon the past five years and echo Samuel’s cry, saying, “till now the Lord has helped us!”

Remember that the people of Israel were enjoying victory over the Philistines. “The men of Israel went out from Mizpah and pursued the Philistines and struck them, as far as below Beth-car.” (1 Samuel 7:11, ESV) And Samuel, knowing that victory was the Lord’s victory, “took a stone and set it up between Mizpah and Shen and called its name Ebenezer; for he said, ‘Till now the Lord has helped us.’” (1 Samuel 7:12, ESV)

This stone was a memorial stone. It was a stone that served as a monument to the fact that God had helped his people and had given them victory. It served as a visible reminder to the faithfulness of God, calling the people to forever trust in him.

It is good, I think, for the people of God to pause from time to time to remember God’s faithfulness. It is good for our souls and for our faith to set up “memorial stones” as Samuel did, even if we only erect them verbally. It is good for us to stop, to remember God’s faithfulness, and to give thanks to him. That is how I would like for todays sermon to function. I want for it to be a kind of verbal Ebenezer – a memorial stone in form of speech which leads us to rejoice, saying, “till now the Lord has helped us!”

And so let us think back upon the past five years so that we might give thanks.

Tumultuous Times 

Many of the people who would eventually constitute Emmaus Christian Fellowship gathered for worship for the first time on June 5, 2011. Do you remember that first meeting? I do! We met there in the Youth House at BFC. It was awkward. I was nervous. I had no idea what to expect.

We were all members, or regular attenders, of Bible Fellowship Church before that day. I was born and raised in that church. I was about 19 when I began to serve as Jr. High Youth Director in that church. I think I was 23 or 24 when I was hired on as their full time Youth Pastor. I do have a lot fond memories of my experience there. A lot of wonderful relationship were established during that time. A lot of good things happened. I certainly learned a lot. I suppose I was 28 or 29 when I was asked to become the next Sr. Pastor after the founding pastor retired. A five year transition plan was established and announced to the congregation.

I think we were probably a year into it when troubles started to brew. There were a couple of individuals in the church (one in particular) who started to notice that I believed in the sovereignty of God over salvation and the doctrines of grace, also known as Calvinism. I wasn’t teaching this explicitly from the pulpit at that time. I don’t remember ever mentioning Calvin’s name. But you can tell that a guy is a Calvinist if you are listening for it. I had been one since my Sophomore year of college, that is from the age of about 19. So I was hired as a Calvinist from the beginning. It was known by others on staff that I was a Calvinist. It was not hidden. But I didn’t teach the doctrine explicitly. The reason for this is probably due to the fact that BFC wasn’t a church that taught much doctrine at all, at least not in a systematic and explicit way. But of course I had a fully formed Calvinistic worldview. And that worldview undoubtably informed and permeated all that I did say. And there were a couple of folks who picked up on it. And they decided to stir up trouble.

The elders of BFC were aware of this. And over the course of about a year there were countless meetings on the subject. There were meetings with those who were bothered about Calvinism, meetings with the Sr. Pastor, meetings with myself, meetings with the staff – meetings, meetings, meetings. And there were studies too. Books were read on the subject. And the elders were given the task by the Sr. Pastor to study the issue in order to determine how to progress with the transition plan that had been established. They did. And they determined that, though more study was needed, the doctrine was sound, and that the transition plan should continue.

These men devoted a lot of time to this.  And you would think that this would have settled the issue in an elder run church, but it didn’t. For a year these individuals, for reasons that I will not discuss here, were allowed to stir up trouble. Over time more were gathered to support their cause. And some who had a lot of influence within the church – people who should know better – people that you would expect more from – joined in to stir up trouble. A culture of gossip spread. Misinformation speed. Selfish ambition and self protection ruled the day. These elders who had served faithfully – who had worked very hard in their study, sitting in on meeting after meeting over the course of about a year – were not honored as they should have been honored, but rather a mob mentality developed. Emotions ran high. Eventually it became obvious that the situation had escalated to a point of no return. It was time to leave.

To this day if I am asked, “what caused the split?” I do not say Calvinism. That was indeed the presenting issue. But the true cause was sin. Gossip, slander, manipulation, double-talk, selfish ambition, pride, self-protection. The scriptures warn about these things. James says,

“But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:14–18, ESV)

Brothers and sisters, there was a way forward during those difficult days that would have been God honoring. Instead the name of Christ was defamed in those days.

Those were tumultuous times. The spring of 2011was not very enjoyable. Those were dark days for my wife and I. Not only was my immediate family effected, but also my extended family. We had been a part of Bible Fellowship Church for a very long time. And, as you could imagine, it was also difficult for the elders and their wives. Some of them had served faithfully as elders for decades. We lost a lot, brothers and sisters. Some of you lost a lot when you threw your hat in with us on June 5, 2011.

Why do I bring all of this up on a day that is supposed to be about celebration?

One, I do think the story needs to be told. We’ve been quiet about it for five years. Very little has been said in public. We decided to go away, to let the emotions settle, to work on forgiving from the heart, and to pray for opportunities for reconciliation. We’ve done that. We are a congregation at peace. We are ready and willing to forgive. And a few opportunities for reconciliation have presented themselves in the past six months or so, praise be to God. But it is good, I think, for the story to be told. To this day it amazes how a church could watch it’s entire elder board leave (with the exception of the Sr. Pastor) and not ask, what happened? A few have had the courage to ask. Most rather not know. But I think it is right, now that some time has passed, to say a few words about it. I’m not interested in slandering anyone. But is it not good to say just enough to set the record straight? Those who served as elders at BFC had their reputations damaged. Our church has a reputation to uphold in this valley. And in my experience most people don’t have a clue as to how things went down 5 years ago.

Two, it is very important that remember these things. I do not want you to remember so as to be stirred to anger. Forgive, brothers and and sisters. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Colossians 3:12–13, ESV) Forgive your brothers and sisters in Christ. But you must not forget the past.  You know the expression, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is truth to that.

Someone recently asked me, “do you ever wonder if the same sort of thing that happened at BFC will happen at Emmaus someday?” My answer was, “I do not wonder if it will happen, I know it will! We will face difficulty at some point (actually, we’ve already faced some). It’s not if, but when? The key is to not be caught off guard. It is important for us to continue to build and maintain sure foundations so that we might weather the storms of life. And after that we must decide to be nice to each other when there are differences of opinion! That is the real issue here. Troubles will arise, but we are to handle ourselves in a way that is godly. We are to show one another brotherly love. We are to do things in a decent and orderly way. Ultimately, I do not worry about these things because I trust that God will sustain us.

Thirdly, I bring up the difficulty from the past in order to serve as a backdrop to what I’m about to say. Brothers and sisters, it is amazing to me that we are here today. God has been so go to us. He is has been faithful to us, despite our difficult beginnings. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea… The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.” (Psalm 46:1–2, 11 ESV)

Now that I have said a word about the struggle out of which we were born, I would like to list some of the ways that God has been faithful. And as you listen to these things I want for you to imagine Samuel setting up that memorial stone as a reminder to the people of Israel that the Lord had helped them thus far.

Faithful To Provide A Place Of  Worship

Brothers and sisters, remember that God has been faithful to provide a place for us to worship from the beginning.

Bible Fellowship Church, to their credit, was kind enough to allow us to use their youth room as we started out. As I sat down to write this I had in my mind that we were only there for a few weeks, but I went back into our sermon archive to investigate. We have every sermon, with the exception of one, I think, in video form on our website. The early ones are painful to watch. I was just a kid! I was reminded by those videos that BFC allowed us to stay for 10 weeks!

We meet in the evenings. We were grateful for their hospitality. But I will admit it was a little awkward to drive back onto that campus and walk into the room where I had served as a youth pastor for years, having just been canned.

And remember, we didn’t know where we would go from there. We had 10 weeks to find a more permeant solution. I remember meeting with a few pastors around the valley, enquiring if we could rent from them. Nothing was panning out. But then EV Free came through. They offered us their place at 4:00pm on Sundays, and at such a reasonable rate. Pastor Bill was new to the church. He and their elders were very gracious to us.

EV Free served us well for about 2 years. The facility was very comfortable. Relationships between the churches were very good. But we longed to meet on Sunday mornings and to be in a part of the valley where there was no other church. It was then that a door opened here at Diamond Valley Middle School. The price was right. We were able to purchase a trailer and other equipment needed to make this work. We’ve been here for almost 3 years now.

We’d love to own our own building someday, but we are very comfortable and thankful for this place. And we should remember and not forget that God has been faithful in this area to this present day. We’ve always had a place to meet. Thanks be to God.

Faithful To Provide Elders, and Later, Deacons

And the Lord has always been faithful to provide leadership for the church.

We started with a solid group of elders. Steve Bovee, Jon Severns, Ron Overton and I served as elders from the start. Rom VomSteeg was an elder at BFC, but he did not serve at Emmaus because he was caring for his first wife, Chris, who passed in November of 2013. Danny Anady served as treasurer from the beginning. What a blessing these men were to us from the start! Eventually we added two deacons – Mike Thezier and Dave Anady.

Over time Jon Severns and Ron Overton resigned from eldership. Jon was caring for ailing parents. Ron and Kathy moved to Riverside. Kris Vanderschuit was appointed to the office of elder during that time, and later Phil Anady and Russell Schmidt we appointed.

We have been so blessed to have faithful men hold these offices. Praise be to God.

Faithful To Lead The Elders Through Important Studies

The Lord has also been faithful to lead these elders through important and foundational studies.

One of the first studies we undertook was the topic of biblical eldership and deaconship. We worked hard to establish our foundation documents – our Bylaws, Statement of Faith, Church Covenant, Emmaus Distinctive’s, along with other key documents. We also studied the London Baptist Confession and decided to adopt it. As we studied the Confession we also studied various views of the law of Moses and the Christian Sabbath. After that we undertook a study on eschatology. There have been other studies too. But I mention these because there was a lot riding on each of these. There was the potential for division amongst the elders. These doctrinal issues were very important. I’m sure we will only grow more aware of their significance as we will look back upon them in the years to come.

God has been faithful to carry through us these studies and to bless us with an unusually high degree of unity.

Faithful To Lead Us Through Difficult And Important Decisions

Connected to this is the fact that God has also brought us through major ministry decisions.

A ton of work has gone into establishing our overall philosophy of ministry. Deciding to become a fully confessional church (adopting the LBC as our confession) was a huge decision. We struggled early on with questions concerning music. We labored to establish our membership process. We also made some rather important decisions concerning youth and children’s ministry. Recently we decided to join an association of churches. We also decided to move to the weekly observance of the Supper and to the use of wine.

It really is astonishing to think about all of the changes that have happened over the past five years. When you are in the thick of it sometimes it feels like things are moving slow (in my opinion). But when you step back from it and begin to list it out you realize how quickly things have moved. To put into church lingo, we have transitioned from a broadly evangelical, totally independent, seeker friendly church, to one that is decidedly Reformed, confessional, associational, and devoted to the ordinary means of grace.

Brothers and sisters, these are big changes.  Thank God that things have gone well. Foundations have been laid. Lord willing, we will enjoy building upon these foundation for years to come.

Faithful To Provide Members

God has also been faithful to provide members. This is what a fully formed church consists of – officers and members. We have been blessed with such a solid core of members from the beginning.

We formally received members for the first time in January of 2013. It took about a year and a half long to adopt our foundation documents and to develop a membership process. Our records show that we received 25 members on January 6, 2013. We received 2 more in February.  Another 12 were added in June of 2013. All of these folks were with us from the beginning, it simply to time to move everyone through the process. So by June of 2013 we had 39 members on the roster with about 22 children on top of that. More were attending the church than that. Some were visiting. Others were there to stay, they just hadn’t progressed through membership for one reason or another.

Today we have 81 members with another 15 or so who regularly attend who will, Lord willing, become formal members soon. Friends, did you know that there are 50 children in this church? I kid you not – 50! And I know of at least one in the oven. They could overthrow us if they wanted to.

Brothers and sisters, the membership of Emmaus is a faithful membership. We are not the kind of church that brings people into membership in a carless way. Nor are we the kind of church who will leave people on the membership roster forever even if they do not attend but once or twice a year. Membership means something here. You enter into a covenant. You agree be here. You agree to support the ministry here. You agree to love one another as a church family, and to use your spiritual gifts for the building up of the body of Christ.

I’m so thankful for the members of Emmaus. It is truly a pleasure to serve as one of your pastors. And I am also thankful that God has been please to, slowly but surely, add to our number over the years. We have seen a lot of people move away. That is never easy. But, thanks be to God, he has brought others in too. The membership of Emmaus has been a faithful membership.

Faithful To Bless Us With Unity

The Lord has also blessed us with unity. This is a gift from God.

And it seems to me that the unity we enjoy is of the substantial kind. It is unity rooted in sound doctrine. And it is unity rooted in meaningful relationships. In other words, it is not superficial unity – the kind you get by avoiding potentially difficult subjects, or by avoiding relational depth. I’ve been pleased with the way that we have labored in the word together, and the way that you have loved one another in the Lord.

We have unity. I see that as a gift from God. May it forever remain.

Faithful To Provide Finically

The Lord has also been faithful to provide for the church financially. I don’t know if you understand how rare it is for a church to be able to stand on it’s own, supporting a full time pastor and other support staff, from day one. It’s rare. We have never been without. God has always provided what need. I’m so thankful for this.

Faithful To Protect Us From Attacks From Within And Without – Some Subtle, Some More Obvious 

God has also been faithful to protect us from attacks from within and without – some subtle, some more obvious.

There are a lot of things that happen to the church and in the church that you don’t see. Let me just say that I, along with the elders and deacons, are very much aware of the fact that there is a constant battle that rages in the spiritual realm. The Lord has been faithful to protect us. Praise be to God.

Let Us Continue in Full Dependence Upon our God

I’d like to say a brief word about the way forward from here before we conclude.

As positive as I have been about the church in this sermon please understand that I am aware of the fact that we are far from perfect. We are off to a good start, I think. But friends, there is so much work to be done. We have weakness. I plan to address some of them this summer after we conclude our series in John and before we start Revelation in the fall.

Not only is there a lot of work to be done, but we must remember that the enemy always threatens. He is forever on the prowl, seeking to devour. And who will he devour? He will devour the one who has grown comfortable and complacent.

Brothers and sisters, it for these reasons that I feel compelled to say that we must continue on in full dependence upon our God.

And how do we do this? How do we depend upon God? We depend upon him through prayer. Prayer is one of the means by which we depend upon God.

I would like to see us learn to better labor in prayer as a church.

A while ago I was reading in Colossians devotionally and I came across 4:2 where Paul’s commands us to, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2, ESV) A bit later he commends a man by the name of Epaphras. He was “one of [the Colossians, Paul says], a servant of Christ Jesus… always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.” (Colossians 4:12, ESV)

This is my hope, that would grow in our prayers. That we would “continue steadfastly” in them, “struggling” for one another in them. My hope is that we would pray this way as individuals, as families, in small groups, as elders and deacons, and as a congregation.

The elders would like to begin something new on the third Sunday of July. We would like to start gathering together for a prayer service on Sunday evening on the third Sunday of every month. I plan to send you prayer updates once a month starting in June. These prayer updates will include general and specific prayers for the church, or association, the community, and the nations.

Conclusion

I’m aware of the fact that this sermon was unusual. We did not really study 1 Samuel 7. We drew one principle from it and built upon that. But I though that it would be good for us to do what Samuel did when he raised that Ebenezer. He remembered the Lord’s faithfulness and he built a monument to the Lord as a reminder to the people saying, “till now the Lord has helped us!” It is good for us to do the same. To pause from time to time to remember the Lord’s faithfulness and to give him thanks. This we have done. May the Lord help us from this day forward.

“Here I raise my ‘Ebenezer’
Hither by Thy help I come.
And I hope, by Thy good pleasure, Safely to arrive at home.”

(Come Thou Fount)

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that we may present everyone mature in Christ."
(Colossians 1:28, ESV)

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