*Sermon of Sunday, June 10, 2018. Scripture is ageless, speaking to every age, although it is still how the prophetic word can at times speak powerfully to a particular time in which we as “church” are called to serve and to witness as a community. Sometimes it will “ouch” when its inescapable word calls us to wrestle with its relevance, but such stretching and accountability prospers our walk. -Vinson
I Samuel 8:4-20 & 11:14-15 New Revised Standard Version
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 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.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 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. 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. 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.” So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 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; 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. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 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.” But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 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.”
Samuel said to the people, “Come, let us go to Gilgal and there renew the kingship.” 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.
As I read from First Samuel, I found myself pulling off the bookshelf a book that I first read in seminary. Dense reading, yet it made such an impression that I keep the now yellow-paged book still, to remind me as I look at the intersections of Christ and the culture in which we live.
In this post-World War II book, Christ and Culture, H. Richard Niebuhr sketched out a Likert scale of Christianity, as evidenced in scripture and in church history over the centuries. On one end, it describes those who see themselves needing to live completely apart and separate from society — and on the other — those for whom there is no difference between them and society. Neibuhr doesn’t tell the reader where one should stand, but invites us to wrestle with why we have chosen a particular spot upon which to erect the cross of Jesus Christ in the life of our community.
Toward the end of the book, Neibuhr clearly denotes the humility we must surely share in, [page 235], writing that
“we have not found and shall not find – until Christ comes again – a Christian in history whose faith so ruled his life that every thought was brought into subjection to it and every moment and place was for him in the Kingdom of God. Each one has encountered the mountain he could not move, the demon he could not exorcise…. Sometimes the faith in His goodness and power stops short at the sight of evil-doers…”
and those who run so rampant in our society: self aggrandizing, sitting in judgment, and absolutely certain that they have a patent on what is right….. for everyone ELSE…
WHY I BRING THIS UP
Every day, we are bombarded by news and events that can be described at best as unsettling. More and more, it appears that we, as a society, as a planet, are edging toward our own “Samuel moment.”
Samuel sees that Israel is at a crossroads. Now in his later years, the elders of Israel have gathered around him saying: “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for- us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”
I don’t think for a minute that the issue was really about Samuel’s sons, even though they, like the sons of Eli, had veered away from honoring God in their behavior. That was just a cover, for their desire to be like the other nations. As the conversation progresses, this becomes more clear as they refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, saying: ”…we are determined to have a king over us, 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.” God was not in the picture.
Samuel takes it a bit personally, but God’s sees it isn’t about Samuel, saying: “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. 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.”
God sees the heart of the problem. In the words of Neibuhr, and please hear them clearly: “Wherever faith stops, there decision in faith stops, as well as reasoning in faith; there faith ends and reasoning in unbelief begins.”
The words that were later written in Proverbs 3:3-6, are nowhere in their perspective, “Do not let loyalty and faithfulness forsake you; bind them around your neck, write them on the tablet of your heart. So you will find favor and good repute in the sight of God and of people. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths.”
Instead, they choose to lean on their own insight.
Instead of living differently, the people wanted to blend in, and to cease living prophetically.
God’s response when Samuel approaches God with their request is to correctly identify this as a rejection of God. if the people were to persist and pursue this course of action the consequences would not be happy ones:
[An earthly king] will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers.
He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers.
He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work.
He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
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.
But, there is something in people – a sense of vanity, perhaps? — that they will choose their own oppression, in their search of material gain and presumed access to power. The Bible and recorded history are replete with examples of how poorly that works out. Our own age is witness to such.
God knows this, but the people will not hear.
Instead, they enthrone a king.
Not THE king, the God of Israel. No, a king of their own making. What the elders had done was to enmesh themselves in what the world around them was up to and they began to believe that there were better alternatives than what God had offered them in how they were to live and behave.
The temptation for us in hearing this archaic story of Samuel, may be to simply say “so what?” Yet at the heart of this confrontation – this demand for a king – is a lesson for the church in our own age.
During a two-year span when I was sorting out my direction in life, having quit my first profession, I flew down to spend time with my mother’s family in Florida. One of my uncles handed me a copy of a book he much admired and said it would inspire me. I read the first chapter and that was as far as my stomach could tolerate.
Entitled “Looking Out for Number 1” it embodied the philosophical perspective of the influential atheist Ayn Rand, whose philosophy has been embraced by many who claim the name of Christ. Its pages directly conflicted with my faith, placing the individual’s needs and wants above other considerations. At its core, it is a book on how to be selfish.
In a small way, looking back, it was one of numerous moments that eventually would lead me into the ministry, as I rejected such a perspective.
Little did I know that such thinking, was rapidly taking root in the United States, with the self at the center and morality tossed aside in search of materialistic gain. God twisted into a contemporary golden calf, in the perversion of scripture that is now referred to as “The Prosperity Gospel.”
No small wonder that we now have a society where road rage is all-too-common and the reality of people fighting at Black Friday sales.
Folks demanding to exert their rights to the exclusion of others and the increasing disappearance of any semblance of respect; blaming others for things which once would simply have been deemed sad accidents.
Political discourse, or at least what passes for it now, dominated by vitriol and debasement of individuals.
Personal happiness and success associated only with what one owns.
Reliance on self-esteem, self-image and self-love to define us. Our personal story the most important story and others are simply there as stepping stones or obstacles to one’s own achievement.
This is even an issue for some in the overemphasis of the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, to the point where it looks at life through the lens of what meets one’s own needs – not the needs of others, and perhaps pause in the words of the twelfth chapter of Romans, wherein Paul writes:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another.”
So how do we deal with all these pressures, growing in our society? Perhaps even growing within ourselves?
To live in the world and yet somehow not find ourselves at the feet of the golden calf?
To see clearly that tension which Niebuhr laid bare…. holding up a mirror in which to see ourselves for where we are, who we are, whether Christ can be seen in that reflection – creating community?
We start with such honesty, with ourselves, with God. Every day.
For if we are to live so that Jesus can be seen through us, then we will treat seriously the words of scripture and hear prophets both within and yes – beyond what we might see as the Christian community – critiquing the spirit of our age and the kings we enthrone – be they a Saul or be they ourselves. Then we shall come to hear more fully, the word of Jesus:
“Who are my mother and my brothers?” And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Pastor’s Note: If you are interested in wading into H. Richard Niebubr’s Christ and Culture, which was authored in 1951, it is still in print. As an aside, many are much more familiar with the prayer written by his brother, Reinhold Niebuhr, a fellow theologian in 1943 for a church service in a New England village, eventually finding a wider circulation among deployed servicemen. The brothers Niebuhr devoted their lives to the causes of social justice, racial equality, and religious freedom amid a world spiraling into and out of economic depression and war. This prayer, with its appeal for grace, courage, and wisdom soon became famous the world over, with the first portion being adopted as the official prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next.