I didn’t preach this Sunday, so there’s no sermon today. Instead, here’s a classic from way back in 2012. I think I preached this at a Mennonite church in Ohio, but I don’t remember where.
One of the great themes of Israel’s history — one of the great themes of human history — is the choice between the the divine and the earthly. This is easily seen when it comes to idolatry in worship. Israel is constantly tempted to worship the gods of its neighbors, or worship natural creatures or worship objects made by human hands; and Israel repeatedly falls to that temptation.
It’s important to remember, though, that idolatry isn’t something that just happens in worship or on holidays or on sabbaths or on Sundays. God is not confined to the temple or the church. God is God everywhere and all the time.
And the Israelites’ first allegiance, before all other allegiances, was to be to God… every minute of every hour of every day regardless of where they were or what they were doing.
And what is happening here is not just a request for a king, but the facing of a choice: will Israel remain unique among the nations, ruled by God and God’s chosen, or will it become like other nations ruled over by a human king?
Let me back up a bit in this story, because I think most of us probably think of Israel as a nation that is sometimes a kingdom — after all, we know the names: Saul and David and Solomon and so on — and sometimes living in exile under some empire or another: Assyria, perhaps, or Babylon. We tend to think of Israel as having a king chosen by God or having some other king forced upon them by an oppressor.
But, as this story brings to light, there was Israel before there was Saul.
For generations, Israel has been ruled by people we call ‘judges’. You might recognize a few of the names – Deborah, Gideon, Samson – but others are probably, at best, forgotten: Othniel, Ehud, Shamgar, Tola, Jair and so on. These, too, were rulers of Israel.
Israel repeatedly goes through this cycle: they would turn to other gods, they would fall under the rule of some foreign king, they would remember God and cry out and God would call forth someone to lead them to freedom. This someone was a judge. And the judge might simply liberate the Israelites and be done, or the judge might liberate the Israelites and rule over them for a time. And when the judge died, that was it: children did not take over, there were no dynasties, Israel returned to being a people with no king or chieftain but God.
And, of course, in due time, the cycle would repeat itself.
Samuel is the last judge of Israel. And he is the last judge of Israel in a time when the idea of the judge is losing credibility. Before Samuel, there was a priest named Eli who, more or less, ruled Israel. And while Eli wasn’t so bad as a priest, his sons “had no regard for the Lord or for the duties of the priests to the people.” God ends up killing Eli and his sons and installs Samuel as judge over Israel.
And when Samuel grows old – despite having known what happened with Eli and his sons – he appoints his own sons as judges over Israel. And they, like Eli’s sons, are not good leaders: they “did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.”
Eli and Samuel have themselves planted a seed of kingship.
And now we return to where we came in. The people of Israel are faced with a choice: will they continue to be set aside as a nation ruled by God and God’s chosen or will they become like other nations ruled by a human hand?
And the answer is obvious: Israel wants a king.
There are moments in scripture… where you can hear the heavy sigh of the divine:
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.”
The people, in short, are just committing another kind of idolatry. It’s a sin that God seems to have grown used to.
So Samuel gives a warning to the people: A king will be terrible, he will take all of the best of Israel for himself and he will fulfill his own desires and you will end up as his slaves and you will cry out to God because of this king – who you chose – and you’re going to be stuck with him.
It’s a little bit ‘throw up your hands’, isn’t it: “That’s how you want to live your life? Fine. But don’t say I didn’t warn you and don’t come crying to me.”
And Israel chooses a government not of God, but of human hands. Call it ‘political idolatry’.
It’s not a new thing for Israel.
And it’s not just an old thing for us.
I’m a member of the United Church of Christ. I was born and raised in that denomination and that, as it took me a long time to learn, isn’t a terribly common thing. We’re still a pretty young denomination – fity-five this year – so the older folks in our denomination came from one of our predecessor denominations. And even among the younger folks, most people come from somewhere else. They were raised as Presbyterians or Methodists or Catholics or what have you.
But I was born and raised in it. So I grew up in a culture where democracy is everywhere and the wisdom of crowds in trusted and every issue was settled with prayer and study and discussion and debate and, eventually, a vote. I was taught that God works – often very slowly – through crowds.
I can tell you that I sympathize with the Israelites. Sometimes a king would be nice. Sometimes I envy those churches where the pastor is just in charge. I like the idea of someone just being able to pick a hymnal, rather than having – true story – eight years of discussion to reach a decision. I like the idea of the pastor just being able to say that there will be no American flag in the chancel rather than – again, true story – “send it out for cleaning” and have it “be lost”.
There are certain advantages to having a king… when the king is good.
I also grew up in a household where politics was important. I suspect that the political life of our church – and by that I mean the liveliness of debate, not necessarily particular positions – fed our involvement in secular politics and vice versa. And I still consider politics important. I still follow debates and conventions and commercials and polls. I still stay up on election night following the returns and reacting to the calling of states like sports fans react to the calling of fouls. I love it. And I believe that this community life – arguments and debates and votes and protests – can really make the world a better place.
But it is easy — and I think we’ve been seeing this in American politics the last few years and were probably seeing it long before I was born; horrible pamphlets against John Adams by Americans for Washington — to lose sight of God and become convinced that the most important thing ever in the history of the world is party or platform or candidate or ideology. It is easy to let ourselves put all our faith and hope in creaturely politics and forget about – or at best give lip service to – the one to whom our ultimate allegiance is supposed to belong.
And that’s not just true in national politics or state politics or local politics. It’s true in office politics and church politics and all of those creaturely, human systems that we’ve created to get through the day-to-day.
Idolatry, it turns out, is easy in all of the areas of our lives. It is a simple thing to try to put the earthly above the divine.
So we, like Israel, are always faced with this question: do we chose divine leadership or human leadership? God or a king?
Well, we’re in a church, so we know the answer, right? When faced with the choice between God and pretty much anything else, the correct answer is… God. That’s right.
God or ice cream? God.
God or a new car? God.
God or untold riches? God.
God or a king? God.
But it isn’t easy.
When Israel chooses to have a king, they are saying that God will not be king over them and God’s chosen won’t necessarily rule over them. But God’s chosen don’t disappear. Samuel doesn’t leave. Saul can take counsel from Samuel. And David can take counsel from Nathan. And the kings who come after also have prophets, chosen by God, to counsel them… whether they want it or not. Kings may make their proclamations, and God…
Well, as the UCC is fond of saying, God is still speaking.
God speaks through prophets. God speaks through apostles. God speaks through a pastor from Atlanta and a woman who won’t sit at the back of the bus and people marching on the national mall. God speaks through protestors in front of statehouses and crowds chanting along streets and people standing in silence on college campuses. God speaks through letters to the editor and blog posts and tweets. God speaks in the strong voice of the great orator and in the small voice of the child who stands up for what is good. God speaks in the misery of the cross and the glory of the resurrection.
Where there is love, God speaks.
Where there is mercy, God speaks.
Where there is a desire for justice, God speaks.
Where the low are lifted up and the high are humbled, God speaks.
Kings were chosen long ago. And we keep choosing them today.
We might call them presidents or prime ministers or bosses or supervisors or what have you, but they are still there: power structures that we created with human beings — and all the difficulties that entails — sitting atop them. And some are good and some are bad. And more often some are simply better and some are worse.
But we are not without God. And we are not without God’s chosen. We still have our Samuels and our Nathans. And the beauty of how God works, is that God can choose anyone at anytime or even everyone at every time… and God can choose us to speak or to listen.
And if we listen – if we open our ears… if we ask and we seek and knock – then we can hear God’s call to peace and grace and love and life abundant. And if we wish, we can follow that call. And if we follow that call, we can speak to all those kings and call them to come with us.
And that is good news.