Things were a hot mess. No poetic best of times, worst of times. The nation was on the heels of victory at the edge of defeat. It’s the best of times that invite us to abandon faith in God. The truly oppressed, downtrodden, and forgotten? They seem to turn their hearts to the Lord, but let a little victory creep into your life...
Of course, their problem didn’t begin nationally. The failure was in the home. Samuel is old. It happens to most all of us, just ask the father of a 9-year-old! Just a few short verses, a few short years ago, Samuel traversed the land of Israel as their prevailing interpreter of the law. Now the circuit rider is retired. He gave the duties of judging - the duties he faithfully fulfilled - over to his sons Joel and Abijah. They were a huge disappointment.
They set up offices near the southern extremity of the country - in Beer-Sheba. From that southern property, they cultivated friendships as a fringe benefit of bribery. They exploited their position for personal gain. Like Eli and Gideon before him, Samuel finds his sons led astray by the power of position. But they were not the force that would shatter the nation.
The people turn back to Samuel, the last and possibly the best of Israel’s judges. In the midst of the injustice and the failures of his sons, the people remember how well Samuel has served them. So, they seek his help, one more time.
The elders arrive and, in the voice of people, they bring attention to Samuel of the utter failure of his sons. The children bring only disgrace to the legacy of their father. So, the people have a request. They want this old wise prophet and judge to do them one last thing. They need a king.
You see, they want to be like everybody else. Let me be clear. There are implications for this identification. It means, they no longer desire to be distinct in the world. It means they prefer a different modifier to their identity, different than being a covenantal people - a people who honor God in all their living. Like the nations scattered after the covenant with Noah, who sought to make a name for themselves. Like Adam and Eve, choosing the knowledge of good and evil rather than a relationship with the creator of the universe. They demand new governance.
The text says, “But the thing displeased Samuel.” One of my students said Samuel’s response was a bit more incredulous: YOU WANT A WHAT?!
Samuel knows that the people don’t need a king. They already have one, the Creator-Covenanting God who liberated their ancestors from Egyptian slavery. So Samuel holds up a finger, presses the send button and starts a new chat with God. Samuel prays. He’s learned over his long life that God is the one who is in charge.
So, no matter how displeased he is with the people, for whatever reason, Samuel turns away from his displeasure to converse with the One he has promised to please. And he listens. Old habits, maybe, but for Samuel there was nothing else to do. And Samuel gets a clear response.
But God doesn’t respond with famine or fires or fevers or harsh words. Just as God listened when the people cried out while wandering in the wilderness, God hears the prophet now. The people have run every which way. They have rejected God at every turn. But still they (we) dare to ask for divine favors.
Only one chapter back, we learn that, under Samuel’s leadership, the people were called to put away their idols and to turn to God so that they would be saved from the Philistines. They comply and God saves them. But already they have turned away. They want to be like everybody else - win a war, lose the next. Be enslaved, then enslave those you conquer.
They don’t seek hospitality and holiness; they settle for profit, power, and prestige. They don’t ask for an alternative of caring for all the earth, and the ones Christ will die for; they accept accommodating the will of the people in this moment of instant gratification.
Yet even so, God is faithful. God is willing to give the people everything they want, but God wants them to know what they are getting. So God instructs Samuel, “Warn them.”
So Samuel tells them, “This leader you’re asking for? They will build a military to keep your children at war, perpetuating assaults, domestic and international. They will take your daughters into their mansions as instruments to please them and their friends. They will take your means of working, your land, and your animals, the best of your best to ensure the affluence of their friends and supporters. You will be their slaves! And when the burden is too great - and it will be - and you cry out to God for relief, none will come. Did you hear me? None will come, because you have chosen this bondage for yourselves.”
But like they have every time before, the people don’t listen. They have made up their minds. They will be like other nations. They will have a king who will rule over them and fight their battles. They want to go down in history as a great people. They want to be like everybody else. So, Samuel turns back to God and relays the message.
Still God says, “Listen, if they want a king, I’ll give them a king.” So, Samuel sends everybody home. And history is about to change.
Today, we as the church, twenty-first century people of God, find ourselves caught in the very same crossroads between monarchy and covenant. Only one generation ago, under the leadership of a man of God, this country was called to put away her racism and enact the ideals of liberty and justice for all. In a way, that generation complied for a moment. And it appeared the world glimpsed a bit of the beloved community that resembled the kingdom of God.
But once again we are like everybody else. Creating tribes. Claiming power. Conquering enemies. From God we have turned away. We claim the title Christian, but we modify that claim with our true allegiances. What began with the golden calf has continued with faith in constitutional civil rights. We worship the freedom of democracy rather than the freedom of Christ. We talk more about how much we love America than about how much we love the God made known in Jesus. We modify our Christian identity by geography, gender, genetics, governing preferences, or trending Google status.
We don’t recognize the restrictions of our own slavery. The problem is that you can love a nation all you want, but it can never love you back. Her protection is only as long as you obey her laws and pay her taxes. She will support only those whose resources support her. And then only until a better source becomes available.
National freedom is not true freedom. The nation takes your sons and daughters for war and service but is unable or unwilling to demonstrate her gratitude by protecting them in their own neighborhoods. She takes your money and your livelihood all the while asking for more and in return holds us captive by capitalistic Ponzi schemes masking as market fluctuations and unsustainable minimal wages.
She claims to promote peace and justice but insists on building up an arsenal of assault rifles in our homes. As she strategizes to withdraw her strong arm of war from the borders of other nations, she engages troops in her own cities. She has yet to rise above the divisions of race and class and political party that divide her and rot her from the inside. And, in all this, America is just like everybody else. No different from any other nation.
So, whether you support the protests on the Capitol steps or the marches down main street, whether you find security through a social media status or fencing America’s border; whether you make a villain or a king of the present administration, if you do any of these because you believe that America offers hope of safety, security, freedom and a better life, then you have fallen for the American Idol.
And the truth is, American freedom is just like any other nation’s. It is not designed to provide liberty and justice for all. That covenant is the promise of the Creator God made known in Jesus. So, be careful what you trade that promise for.
When we trade our sorrows for political power, we get only that. “For both the church and the civic community, this episode makes clear that public questions are central to the story of God. It is difficult but unavoidable to ask: What does the reality of God require in terms of public power?”
The church can no longer afford to settle for political power. As this episode from Israel’s history narrates, the problem is not with the person, whether Saul or David, our candidate or theirs; the problem is the position that asserts power to men and women as if surrendering to God is merely an option. We are indeed just like everybody else - corrupt, cowardly, confused, and unChristlike.
Throughout the history of kings, some were good and some were bad. Such can be said of presidents. Who is our Samuel today, turning our attention to focus on God?
Because God listens to our petitions and responds, “You want a king? I’ll give you a king. I’ll come down in human form and show you what kingship really looks like.
Your kings supply armies for defense. I say, “turn the other cheek.”
Your kings build walls to keep immigrants and invaders out. I say, “Come unto me all you who labor and carry a heavy burden.”
Your king takes people and resources for their benefit and violence. I give life by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, healing the sick, caring for the widows and orphans.
Your king is willing to kill, cancel, or circumvent any that oppose him. I am willing to die a horrible painful death so that all can live forever.
People of every nation and tribe, we don’t need a king. We already have the KING OF KINGS who continually disturbs human power arrangements to demonstrate the possibility of hospitality, honesty, and hope for all the world that Christ died for.
May our desires to be like everybody else be transformed into longing to imitate Jesus, the one before whom every knee will bow in recognition of who is truly King.