Scripture: 1 Samuel 8:1–22
Sometimes something happens that makes you rethink everything.
I don’t know how many conversations we have all had this week, after moving the food pantry, and the church office, and the sanctuary from one side of the building to another, about what really is a priority, and what is needed and what isn’t. “Do we really need that do-dad?”
On a broader scale, this is precisely what has happened throughout the world in these last 20 months. We are rethinking our priorities, our practices, even our relationships. Homeowners, spending a lot more time at home, are wondering why they haven’t fixed up that room or made those repairs. Employees are questioning if they want to remain with the same job, or the same company, or even in the same vocation. Economists are talking about what they now call The Great Resignation to describe the massive number of workers quitting their jobs, rethinking their priorities, and making significant changes to their lives.
Sometimes something happens that makes you rethink everything.
Today’s Scriptural passage is an example of a cultural rethink. Last week, Pastor Cristina explored the story of young Samuel and his first prophetic word, which showed us the potential and possibility of young people who speak with the voice of God. But in just a few short chapters, Samuel has grown up and grown old. He now has sons of his own. And in a twist of irony, the boy who spoke against old Eli for the injustices of his sons, now receives a similar message himself. Now it is Samuel’s sons who have turned from the ways of God, taking bribes and “perverting justice.”
But instead of seeking a prophetic word from God, or looking for new leadership from God, or redressing their injustice, the people of God are ready to throw out the baby with the bathwater. They want to throw it all out and start over! “Give us a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
Since the beginning of God’s involvement with this people, each generation has understood themselves to be set apart. Different. Abraham and Sarai will not sacrifice their son like the other nations do. Jacob and Leah and Rachel are not beholden to first-born, power-driven tradition like all of the other nations. Moses and Aaron and Miriam will not stand for the violence of the Egyptians and the empires of the day. Samuel shows that age and religious prestige are not the only ways to speak on God’s behalf, as is assumed in that time and place. All of the other nations were a violent and rather unimaginative mess, but God’s people were set apart. And each generation of God’s people, then, has had to pause and ask again who God was in this time and place, and what God was calling them to be. They have had to ask “how are we going to be different than the others? How are we set apart?” All of the other nations have kings, but Israel has been different; God alone is their king.
But here, in Chapter 8, this generation fails the test. “Give us a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” Instead of seeking Samuel’s wisdom and God’s leadership, they want to fit in with the rest of the violent and unimaginative mess. They want a king. Even though all kings do is take. Take your money. Take your sons for war. Take your daughters to cook your food. Take your land and use it the way they want to. Did you notice how many times the word “take” appeared in the passage? The other nations have long lived with an “expectation of taking.” I see what I want, so I take it. That is the way of the other nations. That was the way of Eli’s sons, who took meat from the pots and daughters from the families. It was the way of the Egyptians. Now, Samuel’s prophetic voice said “taking is not the way of Yahweh.” But by the time he got old, and Samuel’s sons had forgotten that voice, the people were ready to throw it all out and start over. They were ready to accept a cheapened version of what God had in store for them. An imitation. They were ready to put a human king in charge, even though every human king did the same thing: take…take…take.
Many of you have been reading the book by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, Jesus and John Wayne, including a couple of classes studying it in Sunday school. Du Mez describes the Church in the United States in the 20th and 21st Century in ways that sound a lot like the people here in 1 Samuel 8. “Give us a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
In short, she suggests that in the last 100 years, in yearning to fight the dangers of the other nations—Nazism, fascism, communism, and militant Islamism—the United States has sold out to leaders and a model of leadership much like what the Ancient Israelites asked for. The method which they chose to fight these ideologies, and the leaders they chose to do it, ended up looking a lot like those ideologies that they claimed to fight. In short, to battle the militarism, nationalism, hyper-masculinity, and homogeneity of those destructive groups for the last 100 years, they turned to militarism, nationalism, hyper-masculinity, and homogeneity. Of course, they called it other things, like patriotism, and strength, and the American way. But in the end, they yearned for the same thing that they were fighting against. Take. Take. Take. “Give us a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
And Du Mez writes, once again the people of God have failed to set themselves apart. Through the 20th Century and today, a large part of the Church still yearns for a king in the way that the Israelites yearned for a king. They want that lording over power, that military might, that political strength that kicks butt and takes names. In the same way as the Ancient Israelites did 3000 years ago, the Church today has chosen to be a cheap imitation of what we could have been, and who we are called to be. There have been prophetic Samuels, who have tried to call us to the ways of Body of Christ diversity, and inclusivity, and alterity. But so often, those voices have been ignored and even belittled by those yearning for a cheap imitation, a swagger and an arrogance and an unambiguous certainty. Some of the loudest voices and the most popular preachers today are those who espouse the same militarism, nationalism, hyper-masculinity, and homogeneity. Of course, they have called it different things, like Truth, Church, and the Christian Way. “Give us a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.
But that isn’t the end of the story. Look at how God responds here in I Samuel. God easily could have slapped the Israelites around a little bit. Could have told them, “You don’t need a king, you dummies! You have me! Everything is working fine. Shut up and enjoy the life I gave you.” God could have told them that their insistence on the force and overpowering strength of the other nations was wrong, and then used divine force and overpowering strength to prove it. God could have said, “kings take too much of your freedom away” and in essence taken their freedom away until they listened. In fact, this is more or less what Samuel wanted to tell them. He was on board with the slapping around, for sure.
But God doesn’t do any of that. More than once, God tells Samuel to “listen to the people.” God invites Samuel to listen to what was behind their request, to their fear and their grief and their need for clarity. In contrast to the human king, who will “take…take…take,” God’s response is “give the people what they want.” In short, the good news of the story is that God gives them what they ask for, en route to giving them what they need. God chooses to work through their imperfect longings and their violent tendencies. A human king is still going to be a disaster. But in the short game, God will give them what they ask for, because even as God is letting them fail, he has the long game in mind. God will use their violent and worldly tendencies to show them how violent and worldly they are.
Remember your freshman English teacher, who graded your essay and wrote all over it “Show. Don’t tell.” The best narratives are the ones that don’t just say something, but show something. I could stand here and say words about how to change the oil in your car, or I could send you a YouTube video of someone doing it. God knew that the people of God would not understand that human kings were a disaster until they lived with a few of them. Until they realized that even the good ones make mistakes. Over the next few weeks, we are going to take a look at the next 500 years of the era of the monarchy. Human kings who take and take and take. It will take at least that long for the people of God to figure out what Samuel and God are trying to tell them. God will tell them…and then show them through the long game that the worldly and violent tendencies that they choose will ultimately fail. It will take some time, and some more prophets like Samuel, and even then a lot of them will still not get it.
I know that doesn’t sound much like good news, but it is. God refused the worldly way of violence and certainty, choosing instead trust and relationship and unending love. God chose the long view and gave the people freedom, even if it meant failure, knowing that he would never leave them or forsake them, standing by their sides as they fell. Because in the process, God would show them what love looks like. What true power is all about. The strength of grace. The story becomes a demonstration of wisdom and grace, of choosing an empowering love instead of an overpowering force.
Which is good news for us, as well. As messy as the Church in the United States has been in the last 100 years, God has not checked out. In the same way that God has let us chase after our worldly idols of power and money and virility and patriotism and patriarchy, God also refuses to leave us when those empty worldly values fail. When we think that the kings and queens of this world will fix everything for us…and they don’t…God doesn’t say “I told you so,” and shrug his shoulders or berate us for not listening in the first place. When the culture around us loses its way, and the vulnerable are beaten down, and Americans—and even Christians—are at each others’ throats, God doesn’t laugh at us and say “where’s your king now?” No, every time that our violent tendencies and our worldly values fail us, God picks us up and says, “let’s try again.”
The good news for us is that there is still room to rethink our priorities. Our purpose. Our calling. There is still space for us to ask “how is the Church of Christ different than the nations around us? How are we set apart from the kings and princes and presidents and politicians around us? How do we set aside the kings and queens of cable news and social media, and—like Joe preached a couple of weeks ago—to pick up and open the Bible and ask how the Scriptural story shapes us?” We have fallen again and again as the Bride of Christ, but God picks us up every time and invites us to reconsider, to reprioritize, to rethink who we are meant to be.
Even Du Mez, who doesn’t mince words in her condemnation, ends her book with a word of hope. Even though so many in the Church have been unfaithful to the message of God in Christ, and “fractured our political landscape,” some get it. And those who do may lead us away from the kings of the other nations, and into a new age for the Church. She writes that some in the Church “have promoted alternative models, elevating gentleness and self-control, a commitment to peace, and a divestment of power as expressions of authentic Christian manhood….What was once done might also be undone.”
I love our Finance Ministry team. They are thoughtful and wise and thankful in the way that they have led our church through some days of financial uncertainty. And once again, Tuesday night, a few days after the news that our sanctuary had been damaged by a fire, they met in a time of uncertainty. A time for a “great rethink”…and a stewardship campaign. But did they wave their arms in the air and cry panic? Of course not. In fact, the stewardship campaign, which you’ll get a letter about this week, has the theme “Maintaining Our Focus.” A reminder that there is work yet to do. A reminder that God is ready to pick us up once again. It’s that focus that makes us different. It’s what sets us apart. For 166 years and counting.