July 29, 2012
I Samuel 8:1-22
“Everybody Else Is”
Rev. Dr. David A. Davis
I have read that quantifiable research has shown how difficult it is to maintain a successful family business into the second and third generation. Apparently that challenge of the generativity of leadership has biblical roots. The shine of garden life didn’t last long once the focus of the story shifted to Cain and Abel. Whatever that was that happened with the sons of Noah after the flood, it involved a curse from their father. Jacob and Esau, you will remember, had issues right from the start. Gideon had seventy sons by many wives, plus a concubine. When he died, at what the text describes as “a good old age” all hell broke loose among the Israelites, including one would presume, among his sons. Eli, who played an important role in the Lord calling Samuel, well, the bible comes right and labels his sons as scoundrels. “They had no regard for the Lord”, it says. So no one, including the elders of Israel, should have been particularly surprised when it became clear that the sons of Samuel weren’t going to carry the ball so well when it came to their role of being judges over Israel. They didn’t follow in their father’s ways. They turned aside after gain, they took bribes and perverted justice.
Samuel wasn’t happy when the elders came to him, when they asked for king. The verses of scripture do not make it clear as to whether Samuel was unhappy because his sons were called out and it was all true, or whether his unhappiness was related to a complex geo-political theological analysis right then and there in antiquity as meaning came screaming in their request for a king (a king other than the Lord). Meaning leaping off the page like when Joshua exhorted the people saying “choose this day whom you will serve….as for me and my house, we will service the Lord.” A clarion call plain as day, as when the prophet Elijah came near all the people and asked “how long will you go limping with two different opinions, if God be God follow him, but if Baal, then follow him!” It doesn’t seem quite that clear here in the 8th chapter of I Samuel. Maybe Samuel was just ticked because they called him old. What the text does say is that the thing displeased him, the demand for a king.
In a time of prayer the Lord offers comfort to Samuel’s hurt feelings, “they aren’t rejecting you, they are rejecting me. They are only doing to you what they have done to me since the day I brought them out of Egypt.” And the Lord tells Samuel to paint a picture for the elders, a picture of the “ways of the king.” Samuel’s warning is a long list of how everything, every decision, every command, every effort, every asset, every piece of property, every service will be intended to benefit and honor the king and only the king. “You’re going to cry out one day about this king whom you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer.” And, as you have heard, the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel.
My sense is that interpreters and preachers make the mistake of reaching for a grand theory here. Taking this portion of Hebrew scripture and fashioning it into a 21st century application to faith and culture as if it offers a distinct portrayal for us today of a life in God and life in the world. Some try to extrapolate from the ancient text and offer conclusions related to best forms of government, and funding government, and the relationship of God and political leadership. That reach across such historical-cultural divides would require a whole lot more time and effort than one sermon or two. Given the way God is tossed around the contemporary political landscape in our day, such an endeavor frankly just seems like a bad idea. Vast conclusions about monarchy or democracy or tax policy or even making that choice between God’s way and the ways of the king seem so simple minded, clear cut, black and white, and easy. That’s a long way go when you start from when the elders of Israel came to Samuel, when they knew Samuel’s own sons weren’t cutting.
The Old Testament itself offers a mixed opinion on kingship. By the time God promises to make David a dynasty in II Samuel, the whole concept sounds a bit better as the voice of the Lord speaks to the prophet Nathan. One cannot simply reduce the elders’ request for a king as turning from God and leaning in the direction of military power and an ungodly thirst for violence and destructive conquering. That approach is mitigated by the violence and destructive conquering that is all through the biblical narratives often on the God-side of the equation. And here in this morning’s passage itself, at the end the Lord grants their request for a king. God gives in? God hears their cry? God sets a king over them. Your brain will start to hurt if you’re trying to figure out if God changes God’s mind, or if God is just messing with them for the next several dynasties, or if it is all one long prologue of centuries to finally show kingship ultimately defined in the suffering servant of Jesus the Messiah, Jesus the king.
Some days the lesson from scripture is a lot less grandiose, the takeaway a lot less meta, mega, or wow, the meaning a lot less global and a lot more local. Local in terms of your life and mine. Preachers like me can reach for the “aha” in a grand scheme and miss the unexciting, run of the mill, everyday quality of an ancient story that might, in fact, have a whole lot to do with you.
The people refused to listen to Samuel’s warning about the “ways of the king.” They said, “No! 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.” We want to have a king so that we can be like other nations and we can have someone to govern us, go before us, and do the heavy lifting. We demand a king so we can be like everyone else and so someone else can take the lead. Yes, a king, please, because everyone else has one and we need someone to fight our battles. Because everyone else is. You can do that for me, can’t you? When it comes to our life in this kingdom, can you take care of that for us? That’s how everyone else is doing it.
All parents have to wrestle with when to stop fighting the kid’s battles for them. All families seek the wisdom to know when to stop enabling one another’s struggles. Colleges and universities make it very clear in how they communicate that the student has to step up and be responsible (except for the billing address). On the other hand, every company and every employee knows that outsourcing is way of life, and that it terms of cost, efficiency, economy of scale, it’s not always a bad thing. In communities like this one, you can hire someone to do just about anything for you. The debate in New Jersey for years about affordable housing has included the practice of wealthier municipalities paying poor districts to take care of their portion of required lower income units. So much of what divides us in the discussions of the public square have to do with who does what for whom? Doing the work, fighting the battle, would you take care of this for me please? Everyone else is.
As the Olympic Opening ceremony approached odds makers in Great Britain were setting lines and taking bets on the final torch lighter. During that endless parade of nations on Friday night, we kept seeing the young person carrying what looked like a bronze clam shell, or an oversized ash tray. Maybe the announcers said what they were for but we missed it. Then as time came for the torch to be lit, there was no one person, no former Olympian, no gold winner selected, no single torch lighter. A couple hundred medal winners from Great Britain symbolically handed the light to a small group of young, nameless athletes who one day might be Olympians. The group then set off to light the torch. Arrived where all of those pieces carried with each nation were arrayed in what look like a sculpture garden; now part of the torch. The flames of every nation together, lit by the future, not the past, with no one person singled out. No one to do the lighting for all.
The elders of Israel said to Samuel. “No! 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.” I don’t think it is any more complex than this; you can’t outsource your servanthood in the kingdom of God. In a world where no one has enough time, and the demands are so real, and communication has resulted in such a cacophony of noise in your life, you can’t hire a religious professional to take care of God and your relationship with God for you. In a world where children are so at risk and abuse happens in what ought to be the safest places, you can’t relegate your responsibility to work for and protect and serve the most vulnerable around you. In a world where horrifying gun violence breaks out in a theater as people are killed like its one of those disgusting video games, you can’t assume someone else is going to preserve the peace and work to end the violence that surrounds you. At a time when self identified Christian leaders rise to speak and interpret events and claim to give voice to biblical definition of this or that, you can’t sit back and wait for someone else to communicate your experience, your knowledge, your encounter with the gospel of Jesus to those who are around you. In a world where we are reminded of the fragile nature of life just about every day, you can’t delegate your joy, or sublet your kindness, or just assume someone else in your life will pick up the holiness of God’s presence and God’s work and God’s will for you.
When it comes to your life in the kingdom of God; you don’t have a priest to approach God for you, or a preacher to tell you everything you should believe, or a scholar to do all your thinking, or a deacon to be the hands of Jesus for you, or a chorister to offer your praise, or a saint to say your prayers, or a wealthy aunt to take care of your generosity, or a child to wonder at mystery for you, or a king to fight your battles.
Bearing the very light of God’s future…in your life, with your life, through your life.
© 2012, Property of Nassau Presbyterian Church
Contact the church to obtain reprint permission.