1 Samuel 8:4-11ff; 1 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
In her book Hallelujah Anyway Anne Lamott quotes Mark Yaconelli, a youth minister, who says, “The Bible is a weird collection of songs, stories, poems, letters, prayers, rules, dreams, mystical experiences, dietary rules and detailed instructions for building a giant boat. The people who wrote the Bible are trying to express an overwhelming, freeing, terrifying, exhilarating experience that we have nicknamed ‘God’” This story from 1 Samuel is one of those experiences. It’s a short little story that seems only to tell of the history of Israel’s political movements, but it’s more importantly a story that tells us of the people’s experience with God.
Until this point in the history of Israel, Israel has been governed by God. I know, that sounds absolutely radical. They didn’t have a formal government, no president, no congress, no house of representatives, and definitely – no kings like the other nations. They were a truly theocratic society. They had judges who would rule over small matters and prophets who would tell the people what God was speaking to them, and that was their radical governmental plan! And it worked, for example – when the Midianite Army came to attack the Israelites, God provided Gideon with a plan to drive them out. When the people asked Gideon to be their King he reminded them again – You do not need a King, God is your King!
But yet, years after Gideon and the provision God has provided for them. Years after God drove the people out of the land of Egypt and slavery and into the promised land, the people have forgotten the ways that God has provided for them, the ways that God has been their God and King throughout the ages. And here again, they demand a King. They demand a King like all the other nations – not a God but an earthly King.
President of Princeton Seminary, Dr. Barnes, a professor of mine and our Gilchrist speaker in 2017 said many times to us in classes – “we prefer the misery we know to the mystery we don’t know.” The course of the Bible tells us that truth, the Israelites crying out in the wilderness wanting to be taken back to the land of slavery because they were headed into unchartered territory. Here the people crying out that they want a King, because they can make sense of a King, they know how Kings operate, despite being ruled by the greatest King of all. But the people can’t make sense of God and so they rebel against the mystery of God. They prefer the misery that they can understand to the mystery that is God.
The people want to be like the other nations. The people do not want to live in the mystery or the unknown. Its hard to live in the unknown, we know that. We know that its hard to trust in God when the world has given us systems and devices that insure that we will be cared for.
But yet, that is what we are asked to do as the people of God, we trust in God, we trust in God’s care for God’s people, we trust in the mystery of God, we trust in the hope that God has provided for us.
Its this kind of trust in God, this listening for what God is asking us to do. Not what we want to do or what God would do, but what God is asking us, God’s people to do in God’s world. Its this trust that I think this passage gets at. God is telling the people, you can’t trust a King, you can only trust God. But yet, the people reject that, thinking they know better, thinking that they might find a good enough King.
Robert Barron writes these words, “A person’s plan might be bold, beautiful, magnanimous, and popular but still not be God’s plan. A person’s ambition might be admirable and selfless but still not be congruent with God’s ambition. Our lives are not about us. God’s plans for us are always greater, more expansive, and more life giving than our plans for ourselves.”
This is what God is inviting the Israelite people to enjoy. But they are afraid, afraid of what they do not know.
Henri Nouwen was a remarkable theologian. He lectured for years at Yale and Harvard, wrote dozens of books, influenced generations to come. He was a true world famous theologian. At the pinnacle of his career, after having served as a Professor at Yale and Harvard, Nouwen left that all. He left his life of world famous lectures, writing praise worthy books, and influencing generations to move to a small community called L’Arche Daybreak Community; a small community for people living with severe developmental disabilities. He spent the rest of his life serving in this community. But why? Why, when Nouwen could do almost anything – travel the world, write books, lecture at numerous prestigious universities, all things that seem to be serving God, why did he go to live at L’Arche Daybreak community? Nouwen says that when he truly prayed to God about what God wanted him to do with his life, he knew God spoke to him and said to go live with the people at L’Arche and care for the community there. And that he did.
What would it look like if we listened to what God was saying to us, not what the world was saying to us? What would God call us to do?
That’s not what the people do. We know the story – time and time again we see it in our world and throughout the biblical narrative. The people reject God, they ask for things that aren’t good for them, they make terrible decisions for the kingdom of God. Even though God has a beautiful and expansive plan for the people, we still reject God.
The people reject God, they rejected the unknown. And yet, God responds, “Listen to their voice”
He says listen to what the people are saying!
Its hard to listen to, knowing what is to come. Saul, the terrible corrupt King will rule next and it will be bad for Israel. Its like one of those moments in a movie when you want to shout out to the people on TV “no, no, don’t do it, don’t go in there!” but you know they will and you know it won’t be good.
Nonetheless, the people want a King and God is inclined to listen to God’s people.
But why, why does God do this? Why does God give the people what they cry out for knowing how bad it will be? Why does God respond to this demand in this way?
I was talking to my friend the other day, she is a mom to a precious 3 year old boy. We were talking about the joys and challenges of motherhood – She told me that one of the biggest challenges of being a mom to a 3 year old boy is watching him make mistakes and having to let him do so. Things like picking at the prickly bush outside their house, its not a good idea, the bush is prickly and it will hurt when you touch it, he touches it anyways and he cries because it hurts. Or running down a hill at full speed, she tells him it’s a bad idea and that he might fall but he does it anyways and he falls and cries. But of course, every time he does, when he falls or picks at the prickly bush, she picks him up and cares for his wounds. I’m sure many of you could tell me countless stories like these, the point is – caring as much as they do about their children, loving them still, their children are free to make the choices they make, they are free to be hurt by them, but the parent is always there to comfort and love them when the choice they made comes to hurt them.
That’s what I see here in the text from 1 Samuel. God knows that Kings will not be better rulers for the Israelites, God knows the people are rejecting God, God knows that this is a way that will lead to hurt and injustices, and division. But yet, it is what the people want, its what the people call out for and beg God for. And God, in all God’s loving kindness gives the people what they ask for.
Can you imagine the pain this must cause God, to watch God’s children make such wavering mistakes and mis-judgements?
As I wrestled with this text and what it could possibly mean, where the good news in this text lies. For so long this text has struck me as just a story, just a snippet in time of the history of the Israelite people, when Israel moved from a theocracy to a monarchy, not a text that had a sermon behind it. But then it dawned on me, the good news of this text. The good news is that God responds, not just by giving the people a King, but by sticking with the people even as they reject God.
The people reject God, they reject the mystery of God and instead settle for the misery that they know in a King. And yet, and yet, even when the people reject God, God moves with them. Through the disaster of Saul’s kingship, God does not reject the people. God anoints a King for them that rules in great power and justice, King David. And then when the Israeli monarchy fails again, God still moves with the people, still loves them. Finally sending for us a King in the most unexpected of ways – an earthly ruler to be with us and to show us God’s ways, not a King to rule over us but a Prince of Peace, to share with us the ways of God so that we may know the love of God.
In all God’s loving kindness, God responds to us over and over again. Responds to our cries, responds to our hurts, responds to us when we make mistakes, responds to us when we’ve dug our hole way too deep. God responds.
A few years ago I had the joy of going to hear Anne Lamott speak at Oven’s auditorium. She was delightfully whimsical and honest and perfectly herself. Towards the end of her talk kind of on a whim she made this amazing point. She asked the question “what is the difference between the statements ‘God loves and God is love?’” We say both all the time, God loves us, God loves you. But ‘God is love’ is the truest of these statements, all God can do is love, it is God’s very nature to love, love, love. To love us through our messes and brokenness, to love us in all our terribly misguided decisions, to love us when we’ve dug the hole too deep and we can’t get out ourselves, to love us when we choose terrible earthly rulers over God. It is God’s very being to love us anyways, and to love us through the mess.
God responds because God is love.
In the name of God our creator, redeemer and sustainer. Amen.