Setting the Stage
1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15; 15:34-16:13
Before I read the text from First Samuel, I want to offer a little context. Otherwise, this story is difficult to understand.
The events in the Book of Samuel happen several generations after the events of the Exodus and after the Israelites crossed into the Land of Canaan. As you may remember, the Israelites wandered in the wilderness for forty years, led by Moses, but Moses died before the Israelites entered the Promised Land. In fact, Moses died within sight of the Land of Canaan, but he did not enter. According to the Book of Deuteronomy, this was a final punishment for the disobedience of the Israelites during the Exodus.
The Israelites were led into the Land of Canaan, the Promised Land, by a man named Joshua. Remember the old camp song about the battle of Jericho? That Joshua. He led the Israelites until his death, and he lived to be quite old.
After Joshua died, the Israelites had no central leadership. Instead, each of the twelve tribes of Israel was ruled by a chieftain, but there was no central authority to unite all the people or to remind them of their covenants with God. Not surprisingly, the people drifted into sin:
Then the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshiped the Baals; and they abandoned the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they followed other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them, and bowed down to them; and they provoked the Lord to anger. (Judges 2:11-12)
This began a cycle of God forsaking the Israelites, until one of their enemies grew strong and attacked them. Then the people called Israel would call out to God, who would send them a prophetic leader, a judge. That judge would lead the Israelites to victory, but eventually, the Israelites would stray; they would lose faith. They would again turn away from God, God would leave them to their own devices, and eventually, God would send another judge.
The last of these judges was Samuel, for whom this book of the Bible is named. Samuel is very definitely a prophet, too. He responds faithfully when God calls him to serve.
During Samuel’s reign as a judge, God protected Israel from the Philistines. In today’s reading, Samuel is now an old man. The Philistines are menacing Israel and the people are afraid of what might happen when Samuel dies. The people want a king, like the Philistines have, like some of their other enemies have. The people of Israel want to keep up with the Joneses, it would seem.
1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15
4Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7 and the Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. 8 Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20 so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”
11:14 Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” 15 So all the people went to Gilgal, and there they made Saul king before the Lord in Gilgal. There they sacrificed offerings of well-being before the Lord, and there Saul and all the Israelites rejoiced greatly.
This is so interesting! The people called Israel, God’s chosen people, don’t trust God to protect them and take care of them. So, they ask God to provide them with a king, like the Philistines and all of their other opponents—the strength of the king will protect them and keep them safe from harm. Even though God tells the people exactly what can and will go wrong if they have a king, the people of Israel persist in asking for a king.
And then God relents. God gives in to the request of the people of Israel and makes Saul king over all the people of Israel. God lets the people of Israel make the wrong choice!
In our next reading, we hear that “the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Samuel 15:35). I find it fascinating that God expresses regret for God’s own deed. The only other time we hear this is after the story of the flood, when God expresses regret over the destruction of humanity. Shortly thereafter, God establishes a covenant with Noah, that he will never destroy humanity again.
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
34 Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35 Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
16:1 The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” 2 Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” 4 Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” 5 He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.
6 When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” 7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” 8 Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 9 Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen any of these.” 11 Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.” 12 He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” 13 Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.
Sermon Setting the Stage
Good morning! I hope I didn’t lose any of you with those long history lessons there. It’s not often that I give you two long readings from the Old Testament in worship. In fact, the first reading was one of the assigned readings for last Sunday, but I really didn’t want to tell the story of King Saul on the same day that we celebrated a baptism. Those are two very different messages. But on the day that we elect a new class of officers, it seems like a really appropriate reading.
Our readings from First Samuel are important in their own right because they remind us of the difference between what God wants for us and what we want for ourselves. These stories also show God’s great concern for God’s chosen people. Finally, these readings are important because they set the stage for a longer cycle of Old Testament stories. That is, these readings set the stage for the story of King David.
Scholars often refer to the first several books of the Hebrew Bible as the historical books, as they describe the interactions between God and God’s chosen people, Israel, particularly as the Israelites escaped from slavery in Egypt, wandered in the wilderness, and then established themselves in the Promised Land. These books include Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, First and Second Samuel, First and Second Kings, and First and Second Chronicles; they offer a theological history of the people called Israel.
The stories that we heard today from First Samuel fit a familiar pattern in these historical books:
I. The people of Israel have some sort of problem.
II. God delivers the people from that problem, whatever it is.
III. The people rejoice.
IV. Then the people get disinterested. They lose faith and turn away from God.
V. God gets angry.
a. Sometimes God punishes the people directly.
b. Sometimes God allows an adversary of Israel to punish the people.
VI. The people of Israel repent.
VII. God saves or redeems the people, then the people rejoice.
It’s a pretty common pattern. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. Repent, return to faith, and then God will provide. Inevitably, these problems begin when the people of Israel fail to place their full trust in God.
This is the point in the sermon where I usually raise up some problem in the world or some challenge in our congregation. That problem or challenge always relates to some problem from the scripture reading. But that approach doesn’t work as well today. Part of the problem is that the people of Israel don’t fully trust in God. The other part of the problem is that kings cannot be trusted. Period.
I’m not sure there’s a sermon in either of those problems. Not at the moment, anyhow.
I mean, there’s always a sermon on the theme, “trust in God.” We all need to place more trust in God and less trust in ourselves or in other fallible human beings. I think most of you already know that. Though I do wonder if we’ve all gotten too suspicious in recent years.
Have we grown so skeptical, so distrustful of one another that we also have trouble trusting in God? Maybe distrust of fellow humans makes it easier for people to believe that there is no God. I don’t know. All I can tell you is that a sermon from me, telling all of you to have more trust in God? That feels wrong.
I know that the last fifteen months in the life of this congregation has been one of the most challenging times we’ve ever faced. I know that our budget would really be hurting if we hadn’t received a bunch of money from the federal government as part of the various stimulus packages. I also know that we made all our mortgage payments, met all our payroll, and every other obligation we’ve had since the start of the pandemic.
I know that we have learned how to do worship online, and as a result, we reach more people on a Sunday than we ever could before the pandemic. I know that we’ve baptized three babies and one teenager since the start of the pandemic. We’ve confirmed four young people as members of this congregation, too!
I know that we learned how to hold Session meetings, Deacons’ meetings, committee meetings, and even a congregational meeting on Zoom. And I know that today, we are meeting in person! We don’t have to hold any meetings online if we don’t choose to!
We have survived this pandemic!
We have survived.
I don’t need to tell you to have faith, because you all kept the faith and you continue to show that faith. Well done, you good and faithful servants!
But we still have challenges to face. The work isn’t over.
Our scripture readings this morning remind us that God cares about what we do; God pays attention to our actions. And yes, God lets us make mistakes. While this might seem like a design flaw, that God would create us with free will, and thus allow us to go astray, it’s not a flaw. It’s God. The God of Israel who is in relationship with God’s chosen people. It is the God who so loved his people that he sent them a king, even after he warned them against kings.
The work that God gives us is the work of reconciliation and restoration. We are called to fix this church and fix the world outside of our walls. We have the freedom to mess this up completely. We also have the opportunity to work as partners with God in this plan of restoration.
Later today, you’re going to see one of the areas where the Presbyterian Church really gets things right. I’m talking about our congregational meeting. We don’t have kings in the Presbyterian Church; we don’t even have bishops. Instead, you all are in charge of how we do things.
I serve as your pastor, but this is NOT my church. It’s not even your church. It’s Christ’s church; you folks are the stewards. We would be in a world of hurt if I were in charge of everything. I’d ask for too much of your money and I wouldn’t begin to know where to start when something in one of our buildings needed to be fixed. Even if I tried to get something repaired, I’d probably hire the wrong contractor. But that’s okay. I’m not in charge. You are.
But each one of us is fallible. We’re flawed and short-sighted. We’re blind to our own flaws. So, in our system, authority is not vested in any single person. We elect councils to make the important decisions for the congregation: the Session, the Deacons, and the Nominating Commission. They work together to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit as we live into God’s call to do the work of reconciliation and restoration.
Today, we set the stage for our own success, our future as a congregation, our witness to the love of God in the world. We’re bringing some very talented people back into leadership in this congregation, and at the same time, we’ve recognized the gifts of a couple new people, and we feel called to bring them into leadership, as well.
We are called as partners in Christ’s service. Just as God listens to us and cares about our actions, we have to look for the movement of the Holy Spirit. We also have to listen to one another. We have to be attentive to the movement of the Spirit among the members of our church family. We can only move forward together. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Beloved, as you depart from this place, remember to give your fears over to God, to trust in God’s grace and mercy, and work with one another to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit. Then go forth and be instruments of God’s peace and love and reconciliation. Do not return evil for evil to any person, but know that we are all loved by God, and that we are called to reflect that love to everyone we meet. Go forth and be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, let all God’s children say, Amen!