Doing Your Best
A Sermon by James P. Cooper
To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed (is better) than the fat of rams (1SA 15:22).
One of the things that we all love to do is to sit around with our friends and talk about the future. We love to make big plans about the things we hope to do, the places we hope to visit in our travels, the things we want to do next year in school. Everyone likes to make exciting plans for the future. But when we think about the various people we know, who are the ones we admire? Those who are able to tell a great story, to make a fabulous plan, but who never actually gets around to doing anything; or do we really admire the quiet friend who is always doing interesting and useful things?
One of the best things about Scouting (and there are many good things) is the emphasis on doing. Yes, there is some book learning: some of the badges, by their very nature, seem like school reports. But most of the badges, most of the learning that you do as Cubs and Scouts is for the purpose of giving you the knowledge that you need to do something practical, something that will be helpful to you, or to others: like backwoods cooking, pioneering skills, or life-saving.
One of the qualities that makes people very special, distinct from the other animals of the world, is that they love to learn new things throughout their lives. The little baby crawling on the floor and putting everything it finds into its mouth is trying to learn about the world through its most developed sense, the sense of taste. The little boy taking the clock apart to see how it works–and not being able to put it back together again; the teen-ager learning to drive a car; the business man going to a seminar to learn new ways to improve his business–all demonstrate how important learning is to human beings, that it is something that we keep doing throughout our lives. When we stop learning, we stop growing. But again, just knowing something isn’t enough. The whole point of learning is to prepare yourself to do something that is of benefit to somebody.
The Lord Himself teaches the importance of following through, of doing what you know you should do, in a number of places in the Word. In the the first book of Samuel we read about how king Saul lost his kingdom because he didn’t do his best. God had sent the prophet Samuel to command Saul to take the armies of Israel and to utterly destroy the Amalekite nation to punish them for the terrible things they had done to the children of Israel when they were trying to find their way into Canaan after fleeing from Egypt. King Saul was specifically commanded by God to utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey (1SA 15:3).
King Saul led his army into the battle, and the children of Israel were victorious. They captured Agag, the king of the Amalekites–but they did not kill him. They destroyed most of the possessions of the Amalekites, but they kept the best of the sheep, the best of the oxen, the lambs, and everything that they thought was nice. They only destroyed the things that were worthless to them (See 1SA 15:9).
When the Lord saw how Saul and the army of Israel had disobeyed His commandments, He once again sent the prophet Samuel to Saul to confront the king with his disobedience. As unbelievable as it sounds, the first thing Saul said when he saw Samuel coming, as he stood there surrounded by the animals he had been commanded to destroy, was “I have performed the commandment of the Lord!” (1SA 15:13) When Samuel challenged him, asking where all the sheep and oxen came from, Saul told him that the people had wanted to keep some of the animals to sacrifice to the Lord.
This made Samuel very angry because Saul had let his desire to keep the valuable animals lead him into disobeying the clear commandments of God, and then lying about it. Saul tried again to cover up, saying that he had obeyed by capturing Agag and destroying the Army, even though the command had been to kill Agag, and then he tried to shift the blame onto others by saying that it was the people who took the animals, and that he had been unable to prevent it.
King Saul was trying to excuse their disobedience by saying that they stole the animals so they could make a sacrifice to the Lord! They did something that would make God unhappy so that they could do something else to make Him happy again. It’s like stealing money to buy your parents a present to make them happy again after they find out that you stole the money. That doesn’t make any sense, does it? Wouldn’t it have been better for Saul to just do what the Lord commanded in the first place?
That’s what Samuel thought. He told Saul that the Lord does not really care for burnt offerings and sacrifices, but He cares for our obedience. He said, to obey is better than sacrifice (1SA 15:22). The Lord is trying to tell us through this story in the His Word that empty gestures are of no spiritual value to your life. It doesn’t matter what you say you are going to do, what matters to God is what you actually do.
Jesus Himself gave us a parable that teaches about this when he said, A man had two sons, and he came to the first and said, ‘Son, go, work today in my vineyard.’ He answered and said, ‘I will not,’ but afterward he regretted it and went. Then he came to the second and said likewise. And he answered and said, ‘I go, sir,’ but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father? (MAT 21:28-32)
Those who were with Jesus answered correctly when they said that it was the first son who did the will of his father, for this simple story makes the point so very clear that anyone can see the point that the Lord is making: There are two boys who are asked to do something. One says he will do it, but does not; while the other says that he won’t, then does it after all. Since their father wanted some work done, the son who actually does the work is the one who did the will of his father, no matter what each of them may have said. In other words, it’s not what you say, but what you actually do that counts.
Everybody has broken a bone–or knows someone who has. Think about what happens to a person who breaks their arm and has to have it put in plaster for several weeks. Although you get used to having the plaster on, towards the end you are really anxious for it to come off so you can move your arm around freely again. The great day arrives, the plaster comes off–and you can’t move your arm! It stays in place as if the plaster is still there. The muscles have become stiff and inflexible through lack of use. You have to gently stretch them, get them moving again, and over a period of several weeks, exercise them until they regain their former strength and flexibility.
This is an example of a very important law of nature: that if you don’t use something, you will lose it. If you bind your arm so that you cannot use it, it will eventually wither away and become permanently useless. This is why people who wish to keep fit need to exercise their muscles regularly to keep them strong and flexible.
The same thing is true of our minds. When I was fifteen years old and in the Sea Scouts, I took a course to learn how to safely navigate our ship along the coast and in the bays and harbors of the northeastern United States. While I was still in the Sea Scouts and regularly helping to take our ship from one place to another, the things that I learned from the books became very real and important to me, because I was using them. But today, sadly, I hardly remember any of it. I do remember some of the principles of navigation which apply to other things, but the detail is lost. I stopped using it, so I lost it.
The same principles apply in our moral and spiritual life. We can make all the plans we want about how we are going to change our life; we can learn all kinds of wonderful truths about life and about God; but they don’t mean anything unless we put them to use, unless they are regularly exercised so they remain flexible and strong.
At the end of every Cub meeting, Akela says, “Cubs, do your best.” And the Cubs respond, “We will do our best!” And every Scout has promised on his honor to “do his duty to God and Country.” The whole structure and concept of Scouting is to help and encourage young people to learn new things that excite the mind and broaden their view of the world and the people who live in it. But all the learning in the world, no matter how interesting, means nothing unless it is put into action.
King Saul did not understand that. He thought that as long as he said the right things, and went through the correct motions, that he could do pretty much what he wanted. Unfortunately for Saul, he was quite wrong, and as a result the kingdom was taken away from him and given to David instead.
When God came to earth to take on a human body and teach us directly, He taught the same lesson over and over, in many different ways. He taught us that it was not enough to proclaim our love to God, but that we had to obey the commandments, avoid loving the world for its own sake, to care for others, and to do all these things because He has asked us to.
Everyone of us, whether we are involved in Scouting or not, can benefit from remembering these ideas. For each of us to take our proper place in this world, a place where by our efforts we can add to the comfort, safety and well-being of others, we must do our best to put the principles of our lives into effect, to live our lives every day to the benefit of others. As the Lord taught in the 25th Chapter of the gospel of Matthew, then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’ Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ (v. 34-40) AMEN.
Lessons: 1SA 15:1-23, MAT 21:23-32, LIFE 1