A sermon by Randy Hyde, pastor of Pulaski Heights Baptist Church in Little Rock, Ark.
1 Samuel 8:4-22; Colossians 1:9-14
October 6, 2013
They came from all over to the village of Ramah. The elders of Israel, who dwelt in such places as Bethshemesh, Kiriath-jearim, Mizpah, Beth-car, Jeshanah, Ekron, and Gath, not to mention Beer-sheba. Slowly they descended, one-by-one from the various villages of the hill country to the home of Samuel, the priest and judge of Israel, who lived in Ramah. The old judge, gracious as ever, invited them into his home and offered them tea. They sat in his living room and after a period of time, during which they talked of various and sundry things, they finally got around to telling him the purpose of their visit.
It isn’t working anymore, they informed him, it just isn’t working. First, there was Eli, Samuel’s mentor – yea, Samuel’s father figure – who stayed in office long after his effectiveness, not to mention his eyesight, had left him. They reminded Samuel of what happened, though that was one thing of which Samuel definitely did not need to be reminded. Years before, when Eli was told his evil sons had died in battle against the Philistines, the 98 year-old priest fell over backwards in shock and broke his neck. His sons may have been evil, but still, they were his sons. On that very day, the day Eli joined his sons in eternity, his daughter-in-law died while giving birth. It was, to say the least, a tragic day in the house of Eli, the priest and judge of Israel.
How could Samuel possibly forget that? He served Eli and loved him like a father. Now, years later, proving that too often history does indeed repeat itself, Samuel’s sons have become corrupted too, just like the sons of Eli. They “took bribes and perverted justice,” we are told, and all of Israel was going to you-know-where in a handbasket. It was time for a change.
You don’t have to be old for it to happen to you, to be told that your services are no longer needed, to be informed it is time for a change. Last Sunday morning, just as I was sitting down with my first cup of coffee to go over my sermon, I heard the unmistakable sound from my iPad. I have an ESPN app – yes, I can’t deny it, I am a true sports fan – that does the “dun-a-duh, dun-a-duh.” I knew it was breaking news, so I checked to see what had happened. Early that morning, Lane Kiffin, after an embarrassing blow-out loss to Arizona State, had been fired as the football coach at the University of Southern California. He had been in that position just a little over two years, having gone there after only one season as coach at Tennessee. Kiffin is 38 years old, but the life-span of a losing football coach knows no age.
It is fairly rare for a coach to lose his job at this point in the season, but it happened early last Sunday morning. The USC athletic director met with Kiffin in the airport when the team arrived back in Los Angeles, and gave him the devastating news. He didn’t even let the young coach get home first.
Samuel wasn’t being fired. The elders of Israel didn’t have the authority to do that. After all, Samuel was a man of God, and had a holy appointment to his office. And besides, he still had some work to do. But when people come to you as a committee and say it’s time for a change, well… it’s time for a change.
From their perspective, the old and established system of governance, putting the leadership of Israel in the hands of a priest-judge, had outlived its usefulness. Over the last few years, the Philistines had slain more than 34,000 of their youngest and brightest and best, which to them said that they had somehow fallen out of favor with God (everything in those days was cause-and-effect… if Israel is defeated in battle, it is because God has turned his back on them). And now that Samuel is approaching that time when his effectiveness will be diminished, as had happened with Eli, there is no evidence that God is raising up a worthy successor. As a result, the elders of Israel are getting nervous. It is for certain that they would never put up with the shenanigans of Joel and Abijah, the sons of Samuel, who, we will remind you, took bribes and perverted justice. It is time for Israel to have a king.
Please understand that Israel in the eleventh century B.C. was not a unified nation with an effective central government like what we have here in the U.S. (pregnant pause, to let that sink in). That would come later under the leadership of David, the man after God’s own heart. Instead, at this time, Israel was a loosely organized group of primitive tribes, all of whom had ideas of their own. The only thing that bound them together was a common heritage and belief in the God who, centuries before, had brought their people out of Egypt. And their devotion to God was hardly uniform. The people who inhabited the tribes of Israel had gone through many periods of time when they had gone after other gods. And believe me, there were plenty of other gods to go after. But now that the ark of the covenant had been returned, after having been in the wretched hands of the Philistines for seven months, it was time for the people to be brought together and reunited.
How would that occur? There was only one way, as far as the elders could see it. They needed the guidance of a king. All the other countries around them had kings, why not Israel? So the elders of the tribes of Israel came to Ramah to convince Samuel they needed a king to govern them. It was the only way.
Samuel, to say the least, was not pleased. Not only were the names of his sons impugned, but the idea that his leadership abilities were slipping was not easy news to receive. That kind of news never is.
None of us wants to think we are not as strong and capable as we once have been. It’s like that day when your adult children come to you and ask for your car keys, and it’s not because they want to borrow the car. They want to take it from you because they think you are now a danger behind the wheel. It’s not unlike the day your boss comes in and tells you it’s time to clean out your desk. There will be a nice dinner in your honor, perhaps, and maybe even a gold watch to commemorate your years of service. But it’s time, it’s time. You see the sunset? It’s waiting for you. No one looks forward to that day.
I will never forget the conversation I had with my parents a decade ago. I had had to make a hasty trip back to Paragould, my hometown, to visit my dad who, yet again, was in the hospital. I told my parents that, given my job, it was difficult for me to get away and come check on them every time something like this happened. And it was starting to happen with alarming frequency. Immediately, they knew what I was implying. My dad said with strong conviction, “Son, we’re not leaving our home.”
As many of you know, it didn’t happen right away, but it eventually did happen. It comes to most of us to have to deal with aging parents one way or the other. It is not easy, to say the least. In fact, it can be more painful than death. Trust me, I’m knowledgeable on that subject.
The elders of Israel have come to give Samuel the message that it was time for a change. But rather than stand in his own living room and argue with them, being a man of God, Samuel took the matter to the Lord to see if God agreed with his visitors. And much to his dismay, this is what he heard the Lord saying to him: “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.”
When you hear those words, can you also hear God sigh? Can you see God’s slumping shoulders? It’s almost as if God is resigned to the fact that his people are never going to do what he wants them to do. God must have a lot of patience to put up with people like that.
Samuel told the people that having a king wouldn’t be easy, and that life as they have known it will cease to exist. If they thought the occasional raid by the Philistines was difficult, listen to what it will be like with a king on the throne… The new king will conscript their sons into his army. Not only will he take their sons into battle, he will take their daughters too, for he will need perfumers and bakers and cooks. The king will take their land and require that they give an overabundance of their crops to supply his tables. It takes a lot to run a kingdom, and the people of Israel need to prepare themselves for it. It will be a new day, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is they will have to fend for themselves without God to help them.
“…you will cry out because of your king,” Samuel tells them straight from the mouth of God, “…but the LORD will not answer you in that day.”
If the people of Israel persist in wanting a king, they shall have one. But God will turn his back on them and leave them at the mercy of the one they will choose to lead them. They cannot have their God and a king at the same time, for God has always been their king. They must choose. It will not be both/and but either/or. They may want to be “like other nations,” but God did not bring his people together to be like other nations. He wanted them exclusively to be his, and their desire to have a king is to turn their backs on the One who has brought them together. Their request is idolatry of the highest order.
Israel doesn’t need a king, they need Joshua. “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord!” (24:15).
But we know the story, don’t we? Saul, who was head-and-shoulders above all the other young men of the kingdom, is chosen as Israel’s first king.
He had promise; he really did. “There is no one like him among all the people.” That’s what Samuel said when he presented Saul as the new king, sounding almost as if this whole king-thing was his idea. And all the people shouted, “Long live the king!” Unfortunately, their wish came true. Saul lived a long life, but it was filled with tragedy and heartache, and ultimately, weakness. God permitted Saul to be king, but God never, ever approved. Never.
This story, recorded in the book of Samuel, is written centuries later. That means it is being recorded with a great deal of hindsight, as all histories are, of course. The writer is making a case for why Israel has now been taken into exile. It was not because of just one thing, but centuries full of the abuse of Israel’s relationship with God. So, in a way, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy, so to speak. The elders of Israel tell Samuel they want to be like other nations, and that is exactly what they became… just like other nations. King after king, except for the few like David and those who had his spirit, abused the power of their office and led Israel down the winding path to political destruction. And it was all because they wanted to be like everybody else.
Living alternatively is not easy. I once remarked that our church is a bit of an alternative in a place that doesn’t much appreciate the alternative. That is, being true to one’s faith and mission sometimes calls for a willingness to be different, if being different is called for. Who embodied that more truly than Jesus of Nazareth? He saw what religion had become in his native land, and he knew better than any what it was that God required of his people. The nation that wanted to be like other nations had lost sight of what it meant to “do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with (one’s) God” (Micah 6:8).
Centuries before, when Moses was still leading these stubborn, rebelliousness people in the wilderness, the Lord declared that he had called them to be a “peculiar treasure.” That is, they would be peculiarly and exclusively his. We claim that same heritage now because of the One who made it possible for us to do so. But claiming a spiritual heritage, and living in light of it, are not always the same thing.
As individuals, as a church, one of our greatest temptations is to want to be like everybody else. It is time for us to take up our peculiarity and live in the promise of God’s divine grace. It was not Israel’s desire, for they wanted to be like other nations. But if we will seek to be more like the One whose name we celebrate, the One who came to show us the way of the kingdom, we will indeed know who is King.
Help us, O Lord, to be who we are. But may our identity as your people be found in following your will, not in trying to be like everybody else. Find us faithful to your purpose, is our prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen.