A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, M0., on June 10, 2012.
1 Samuel 8:4-20
The Second Sunday After Pentecost
Today we launch our summer worship series that covers the wide arc spanning the years across Samuel and Saul, David and Solomon, the period of time historically known as the Years of the Davidic Monarchy. Samuel begins our saga as the human bridge linking two major eras in Hebrew history. He was the last of the Jewish judges that ruled over the tribes of Israel. But he was also the first of the prophets in that his rule shifted in this period of time when the people of Israel clamored for a king. In that sense, his role of living between these two eras of time is noteworthy for those of us who live in a time between that which was and that which is yet to be, between the nostalgia of the past and the uncertainty of the future.
We live in a time of dramatic change in almost every arena of life from politics to religion. It’s hard to find a headline during this campaign season in which candidates, politicians, and special interest groups are not demanding radical change in the way things are done in America. “Things have got to change,” they say. What we don’t agree on is what needs changing, how to change it, or even who should lead us through the change.
All this talk about the political landscape in our country could similarly be said in our churches as we feel the winds of change blowing us with uncertainty about where the church, the community of faith will be headed in the coming years. The way it used to be is no more; the way it will be is unsettling and uncertain, and we don’t know what to do about that. One thing is for certain … we won’t be going back to a longed-for previous era and we don’t like the fact that all the maps have changed and we’re caught in the crossfire of between the different cultures of the past and the future. And so we do our best even if our best ideas are wrong-headed.
In 1762, Jamaican sugar plantations were overrun by rats. One planter came up with what he thought was a solution. He introduced an aggressive Cuban ant that was supposed to attack rats. Well, the ants flourished, but it turned out that they didn’t much bother the rats. So now the plantations were infested with both rats and aggressive ants.
Someone else came up with the idea to bring in a species of large South American toads to control both the rats and the ants. The toad species flourished as well. In fact, it is now called the “cane toad” because there are so many on sugar cane farms. The toads did take care of the ants to a degree, but the rats continued to be a problem.
So yet another “genius” introduced the rather small Indian mongoose. Turns out, the mongoose favored the island’s native birds and reptiles better than the rats. A few decades after it was introduced, several native species were all but extinct. The mongoose also relished the islander’s chickens. And somewhere, you can hear someone observe: Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Here’s a fanciful explanation how the people of God came to demand a king:
Some people of Israel were sitting around one day three thousand or so years ago, and as people tend to do even still, they got to talking about their leaders. In those days, the government wasn’t very elaborate or structured. It basically consisted of the person most recently chosen to lead the people in the face of some crisis. At this particular time, that person was named Samuel.
Now Samuel had done a pretty good job. No one was complaining about that, exactly. The problem was with Samuel’s sons, to whom the old man had delegated certain responsibilities. The boys were corrupt, indecent, and untrustworthy. The prospect of those two succeeding their father was gave them cause to wonder so they said to one another, “Samuel’s getting old. He could drop dead at any moment,” someone said, “then what?”
Another piped up, “Yeah, then what? What are we going to do? We need to make some plans for the future.”
“We have to modernize!” yelled a fellow near the back. A man chimed in: “I travel a good deal, and I’ve seen how they do it in other places, places far more advanced. I’ll tell you what they do – they put one fellow in charge and give him great power. He rules. He leads them in battle. He has a great palace and authorizes all sorts of grand projects. That’s what we need – someone to really take charge.”
“What do they call this man?” someone asked. “A king!” the man answered enthusiastically.
“That’s what we need – a king!” the fellow near the back shouted. “Amen!” After all, (say it with me) it seemed like a good idea at the time.
That’s how the whole thing started. People who were there at the first meeting started to talk to other people, and those people to still others, and before long it was a groundswell. A king was the answer; it was obvious to everybody. Why should all the other nations have kings and the Israelites do without? Why, if Israel only had a king, it could take its rightful place among the great nations of the earth.
So a committee was selected to talk to Samuel, who was, it seems, the only person not in the loop. When the chief spokesman for the A King For Israel committee finished making their case, Samuel was dumbfounded. “A what?” he said. “You think you need a what?”
“A king,” said the spokesman, smiling and glancing side to side at the others, who shook their heads in agreement.
“So you think I’m no good, is that it?” Samuel asked.
The spokesman reached out and touched Samuel reassuringly on the shoulder. “No, no, that’s not it at all. Samuel, you’ve been great – for a man of your era. We think you do a super job. It’s just that the new millennium is right around the corner, and we have to get with the times. With the proper restructuring, the new millennium could be our golden age. Having a king is the trend of the future. All the most powerful nations have them.”
Unconvinced, Samuel harrumphed.
“Truly, Samuel,” the spokesman said in a pleading voice. “You’ve got to believe me. It’s nothing personal.”
As discouraged as he had ever been, Samuel turned to God in prayer. “Lord,” he prayed, “the people have come to me, as you know, and they have rejected me, the one you chose to lead them. They say they want a king; that they want to be like other nations.”
Samuel then fell silent, at a loss for words. Minutes passed. And then he heard a small sound, a swish, swish, swish like someone sweeping the floor several rooms away. And Samuel listened, because he recognized it as the still, small voice of God. He listened until the sounds formed into intelligible words.
“Listen to what the people say in all that they say to you,” the divine voice said.
Samuel’s jaw dropped. “Listen to them. Give them what they are asking for. And while you’re at it, stop feeling sorry for yourself. They aren’t rejecting you. They are rejecting me.”
Samuel recognized God’s voice immediately as the divine voice went on: “This really isn’t about you, Samuel. It is between me and my people. So do what I say, and give them the king they are asking for. Only before you do that, lay it out plainly just what this will mean – what it is going to cost. Then if they still want a king, well, a king they shall have.”
So Samuel went back to the people and he laid it all out. Having a king means giving away your power to someone who will not necessarily use it wisely or well, or even for good. And that person isn’t likely to give the power back to you when you decide you want it back. Having a king means taxes. That palace and those grand projects – they cost money, your money. A king will always be ready to take your best, whatever it might be – sons, daughters, animals, crops – for his use. The day will come when you will complain bitterly to God about your kings.
But the people were insistent. “We want to have a king! We want to be like other nations!” they cried. To the people, it seemed like such a good idea at the time.
And as God had directed Samuel, their wish was granted and Saul was named as Israel’s first king. What can we learn from this story? This is a story we ought to know better than we do, because people generally are still prone to this particular sort of thinking. We think the remedy to our problems is some newfangled technique, some new structure, some new leader with all the answers and the resources. We pay too little attention to the ways that new techniques and structures, while sometimes helping to clarify the old message, can also obscure it. And we pay too little attention to the fact that buying into dependency on other human beings usually turns out badly, blinding us to the strengths in ourselves, making us deaf to other voices and worst of all, making us forget our moment-to-moment dependence on God.
The question we need to ask is not, “What new system or what special individual can save us?” but rather, “What does it mean to be the children of God, witnessing to the faithfulness of God in every possible way?”
Our God is faithful, of course, and no telling of this story would be adequate without mentioning that even when the people insisted on a king, and later experienced exactly what Samuel had predicted, God continued to offer the possibility of redemption through confession and repentance. And just a few generations later when the people of Israel were carried off into exile, as just punishment for their willful disobedience, there were tears on the cheeks of the Divine Judge. And God did restore the people, through the return from captivity, and later expanded the people through the extension of salvation to all who believe in Jesus Christ.
To put it simply, our bad choices – even those we make willfully, after being warned – cannot and will not deter God from his purpose and plan, which is to call a people for himself, a people to be his own and to experience his blessing so that they might become a blessing to others.
When I was young, I was out in the backyard and a pesky yellow jacket started circling me. My grandmother urged me to stand still, perfectly still. I was not inclined to do so. I found myself thinking, I need a newspaper or a flyswatter or the bug spray. But my grandmother kept insisting, “Just stay still,” as I flinched one way and another. Finally, in a panic I decided to fight back. I took a swat at the yellow jacket. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
As we sat on the back porch my Grandmother took some clay mud near the water to put on the places where I had been stung and I realized I should have trusted her. Sooner or later, we all learn the same thing about trusting God.
 Thanks to Jim Benedict “Best Laid Plans,” Union Bridge Church of the Brethren, for this fanciful rendition of the text, 6/14/09
Intentional interim minister at Countryside Community Church of Omaha, Nebraska, the Christian partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative, a partnership with the American Muslim Institute and Temple Israel. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).