June 6, 2021

Keeping Up with the Neighbours: Give us a King! (1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20)

A Sermon Preached by Ms Leslie Spatt

1 Samuel 8:4-11, 16-20

A Sermon Preached by Leslie Spatt

Sunday 6th June 2021

This year in the Trinity (Ordinary Time) Season we are exploring the history books of the Old Testament as set out in the Revised Common Lectionary. We enter the story as Israel calls for the prophet/judge Samuel to provide them with a king to rule over them.

It might seem a bit strange, jumping into the Hebrew scriptures at what might be considered the middle of a story. But this particular bit of Samuel comes at a time when the political and social organisation aspects of Israel were in a period of uncertainty. Up to the time of Samuel, the people of Israel had been governed by elders, ‘judges’ like Samuel who had used the law given to them by God at Sinai as a basis for ruling; so that the people could live in a covenantal relationship with God, with the understanding that they would obey God’s laws and God would sustain and protect them. This form of covenantal government was a recognition that God was the ruler over all. But this was breaking down – some of the people in charge were not obeying the Law. The commitment to God was not being observed. The elders say to Samuel ‘your sons do not follow in your ways.’ They’re worried. A decision to ask for a king must have been quite radical – an admission that things weren’t right, that there were real problems of social organisation and a belief that a king would be the solution to their problems.

In one sense, you could say that Israel wanting to have a king is like a version of keeping up with the next door neighbours – everyone else around here has a Porsche in their driveway but we only have a beat-up old banger, so we need to go out and acquire a Porsche. Show our neighbours that we’re just as influential, wealthy and important as they are. Other nations had kings and they seemed to be doing OK.  ‘We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations.’ And the Lord points out to Samuel that the people of Israel – or at least their spokespersons, the elders of Israel – aren’t rejecting Samuel who had been leading them up to now, they are in fact rejecting the Lord, who should really be the only king ruling them. God’s a bit miffed……

But the request for a king wasn’t just about keeping up appearances or something political – there were other much more complicated factors in that request. Right from its beginning, Israel wasn’t supposed to be ‘like other nations’. They were God’s Chosen People. Chosen not because they were particularly good – they were often spectacularly awful, and disobedient in following what the Lord asked them to be and do. They were chosen so that in their obedience to the one God, they could be an example to other nations in how God’s rule would produce a properly ordered kingdom, and that God would be with them. As in the prophesy of Zechariah: ‘In those days ten men from nations of every language shall take hold of a Jew, grasping his garment and saying, ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ Israel was to be the Lord’s master plan and model for humanity.

Unfortunately the history of Israel showed that they were very capable of worshipping other gods, of following other ways and abandoning the One God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. And in wanting a king ‘like other nations’ they’re just carrying on with the same pattern of following other gods – in this case wanting a king – instead of relying on the protection and promises of the Lord.  Other nations seem to be more successful, perhaps. Or have an easier way of life when they don’t have all these laws to follow. The wish for a king wasn’t necessarily a political request, it’s just Israel doing what they’ve always done – gone off the rails, yet again.

Surprisingly, the Lord doesn’t thunder out threats and promise punishment against the people. The Lord simply asks Samuel to listen to their voice. To warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them. The king will take, and take, and take – and what will he give back to the people? Probably only the possibility of victory in battle, and what happens if the king loses? And when the people realise that …..ooops, we’ve got a bad deal here….. what will happen? ‘And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’ If there is any sort of punishment, it will be that the Lord will, effectively, just let the people endure the consequences of their own choice. You wanted this – now you’ve got it. Don’t come complaining to me. God doesn’t like the people’s request – but God won’t forbid it.

What’s perhaps surprising are two things: First, having heard the negative things a king will do to the social structure of the community, the people still want to have a king. ‘We want to be like other nations.’ The second is that there’s no mention that the Lord will ‘abandon’ the people.  There’s no threat of God going away forever. Time and time again we see throughout the Hebrew scriptures that in the history of the Chosen People of Israel, God never gives up in trying to bring the people back ‘home’.  Back into a Kingdom of Heaven, if you want, into a right relationship. Whatever the Chosen People do, they are still the chosen people, and God will stick with them in a covenantal union even if the covenant is fragile and frequently reaches breaking point. God stays faithful.

So – why are we reading and preaching about all this old stuff? Does it matter?  Why bother? Is there any sort of relevance for us countless years after Samuel, with just about everything changed from his time to ours? I wonder, like those elders who wanted a political, social king, do we think that God is somehow irrelevant in how we order and govern our lives and communities? Who and what should ultimately rule us?

We can see in this excerpt from Samuel something about what we can call ‘salvation history’. In the beginning, humanity having been created with the ability to make choices – free will – and having acquired the knowledge of good and evil, it was perhaps inevitable that humanity would become more and more separated from God by poor choices and the requirement to follow God’s quite difficult laws, following an easier or more pleasurable path. Effectively, by rejecting God as King and wanting a human one, this separation becomes even wider for the Chosen People. We have other means of becoming increasingly separated from God by what we call ‘sin’. And we need saving from separation and sin.

In using the term ‘salvation’ many might ask ‘what are we being “saved” for – or “saved” from’? Saved for ‘going to heaven’, or saved from ‘going to hell’? Personally I think that’s far too simplistic, reeks of a behaviour control system imposed by religious authorities on people, and really doesn’t mean much. How can one define heaven and hell anyway. Is salvation actually being saved from ourselves and our poor choices? If I might offer an alternate version of salvation it would be the belief that when we drift away from the Lord by choice or gradual erosion of values and faithfulness, we always have a pathway back to God. Salvation is the realisation that God is faithful to us even if we aren’t faithful to God. If I might offer an alternate version of salvation it would be the belief that when we drift away from the Lord by choice or gradual erosion of values and faithfulness, we always have a pathway back to God. Salvation is the realisation that God is faithful to us even if we aren’t faithful to God. And salvation is the assurance that God will never abandon us, and will welcome our return to our true home, which is being enfolded and held in God’s love.

Maybe we, like those in Zechariah’s prophecy, can also be people to show others how to connect with the salvation of God’s faithfulness, others who will say ‘Let us go with you, for we have heard that God is with you.’ We don’t need to be ‘like other nations’ who rely on earthly, temporary kings.  We only need to know God as our king.

Leslie Spatt 2021

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