Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
Trinity Church, Mt. Airy, NC
June 10, 2018 Proper B 10:30 AM
ויאמרו אליו הנה אתה זקנת ובניך לא הלכו בדרכיך עתה שימה לנו מלך לשפטנו ככל הגוים
And they said to him, “Look, you’re getting old, and your sons haven’t been walking in your ways. So, now, appoint us a king to rule us like all the nations. (2 Samuel 8:5)
“We want a new god!” the elders of Israel demanded of Samuel when they assembled themselves at Ramah to confront the elderly old judge. Oh, they actually said “Give us a king,” but Samuel and the elders of Israel lived in the ancient near east where all the kings called themselves gods, sons of one god or another. They had come to impeach the old prophet, to throw him out of office after he did one last thing for them: anoint a king for Israel, a son of God, a living, breathing god to rule over them.
The old prophet had seen the end of his days approaching and had appointed his own sons, Joel and Abijah, as judges over Israel. But the boys couldn’t be bothered to devote themselves to the job or to live in the midst of Israel, at Ramah. Instead, they lived in luxury at the trading crossroads of Beersheba far to the south where they could do big business. The boys were no doubt glad to have the added prestige of claiming the title “judge,” the highest title any Israelite could bear; but their interests focused on making money not doing justice. What were they, shepherds? Farmers? No major highways crisscrossed of Samuel’s Ramah where the old man insisted on living, there in the central mountains of Palestine; and the nearest large city was Jebus, filled to the brim with Canaanite enemies of the Israelites. So, if people wanted or needed a judge, they could just make the three-days’-journey to Beersheba to get their complaints handled or their hash settled. And being the big businessmen that they were, they didn’t mind charging any supplicants that did show up a hefty fee for their judicial services.
But the elders of Israel didn’t come to Ramah to demand that Samuel appoint honest judges to rule over them or to plead that the old prophet take up the mantle of leadership again; they came to demand that he give them a king. And just in case Samuel didn’t know what kind of king they wanted, they specified that they wanted a “king to rule us like all the nations.” Maybe if they had left out the stipulation “like all the nations,” there might have been some room for interpretation. Perhaps Samuel could imagine that they were just asking for a super judge or a change in title; but they couldn’t have been clearer: “Appoint a king for us to rule us like all the nations.” Maybe he should appoint a king like the king of Byblos, seated enthroned upon the cherubim. Maybe he should give them a king like pharaoh, the son of the Sun god Ra, the divine king over Upper and Lower Egypt. But there was no mistaking their meaning. Give us a divine king. Give us a new god, old man. You’re old, your sons are corrupt, and your old God hasn’t done much for us lately. Help us join the modern world. Give us a divine son to rule over us!
So, Samuel, convinced this king-business was a pretty bad idea, brought the matter before the LORD of Host, expecting, no doubt that the LORD of Hosts would also think appointing a god-king was a loser plan; but the LORD’s answer shocked him. In essence, the LORD said to his prophet, Yes, it’s a terrible idea. Do it!
But the LORD said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in everything they said to you. For they have not rejected you but, rather, have rejected me from ruling over you.” (2 Samuel 8:7)
Don’t get all paranoid, Samuel. It’s not all about you. The elders of Israel weren’t just tired of Samuel or fed up with his corrupt sons, they were tired of a God that had brought them out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm only to leave them stranded here outside the walls of the great Canaanite city-states, living the lives of small farmers with no real army, no economy, and seemingly no future in the face of the great powers that greedily eyed the strategic bridge of Palestine. They were tired of having to fight Aramean war lords and Hapiru bandits. They saw the Philistine confederation on the coast growing into a regional power. The elders of Israel wanted a god that could stop the slide into weakness and helplessness, a god that would make a nation that no longer needed to cower before marauders from the Transjordan or cringe before the Sea Peoples. And they needed this new god to give them a divine son to lead them to greatness. What good did it do them to live in this promised land without the promise of wealth and power? Give us a king, Samuel. Give us a god-king that will rule us like all the nations, a divine monarch that will whip us into shape and make us great.
To tell the truth, the elders of Israel had grown tired of the LORD of Hosts. Not only were the priests and prophets old, the whole business of serving this God had gotten old, a God who demands justice, not greatness, a God who feels sorry for the poor but doesn’t show us the way to riches, a merciful God who heals the sick and restores sinners but isn’t all that zealous in punishing enemies. We’ve served this God, Samuel, and where are we? All the nations are greater than we are. So, maybe it’s time to be more like those nations we envy.
Am I still talking about Israel in the Iron Age or have I slipped up and gone to meddling? For I’m seeing a lack of enthusiasm for Samuel’s God in my own country and in my own time as well. The God who asks us to love our neighbors, to feed the hungry, and to clothe the naked seems out of step with the “gimme” society we’ve developed. Profit, not mercy, is the modern way; and the God who only requires God’s people to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with God, seems completely out of date. Our society values power and profit. There must be a god for such things and a strongman to be the son of such a god, who can show us the way to what the world calls greatness.
If Samuel expected God to rain down fire and brimstone on those faithless elders who wanted a god-king, he must have been flabbergasted when God told him to do exactly what the elders asked him to do. The great and powerful gods of the nations would never have stood for such insolence from their human subjects, but the Lord GOD didn’t even put up a fight to keep the throne. Marduk defeated the mighty Tiamat, and the god-kings of Babylon could have never imagined Marduk letting step aside for another god or for another ruler to take his place. Would Egypt’s almighty Ra let some upstart elders cast him from his seat of power by choosing, say, a son of Amun or Hathor? Or in Syria-Palestine, what would happen if those self-same elders had approached the kings of Jebus or Gaza or Ebla with such a foolish proposition? But the God of Israel in unfathomable love told Samuel to grant the elders’ request, to do the awful thing if they insisted.
God does not rule through fear and anger. After all the warnings of the prophets, after all the laws of the lawgiver, the God of Hosts will not finally compel a single soul to enter the kingdom. Only Israel could choose the god they would serve, and if they chose the Baals, if they chose Mot or Yamm, if they chose Osiris or Ea, then God would not compel them. If we want a god-king, a strongman, a Mussolini or a Putin to rule us like all the nations, then God in God’s love will not stand in the way of our foolishness.
The good news, however, is not that God lets us make mistakes, grievous mistakes, but that God loved the elders of Israel even as they sought to dethrone the Lord. God in God’s freedom chooses to love us still, to love us enough to make us free, even when we use that freedom to worship our idols. God doesn’t love us as marionettes but as free people. But even that love doesn’t finish the story. What makes the news surpassingly good is that God insists on being our God even when we in our fearful freedom choose other gods, other lords, other god-kings, new bullies to make us like all the other nations. So, Samuel’s God does not call down fire and brimstone on the elders or curse their offspring forever, as we would expect the gods Moloch or Zeus to do. God will not desert Israel even as they choose the road of rejection and futility, and he will not let the prophet Samuel stomp off in protest at their folly. Samuel must go with these people. They are still his people, even as they are still God’s people. Samuel must anoint the new god-king, for that old God that Israel rejected has not rejected Jacob. God’s love for Israel and for us not only includes our freedom but God’s freedom as well, God’s freedom to choose us and to long for us and to accept us. For our awful freedom also includes the freedom to think again, to repent, to use our freedom to choose freedom, to choose our God again, to choose mercy over power, to choose righteousness over deceit, to choose love over bigotry. God can choose to wait for the elders of Israel and to wait for us, to love us from whatever distance we choose to put between us, and to choose to embrace us when we choose finally to be embraced again. At that sad encounter at Nebi Samwel, Ramah, Samuel and we both glimpse that awful freedom God gives us and that gracious freedom God reserves for God. We glimpse an infinite love for us that the gods of the nations, the gods of power and profit, Enlil and Pan, Isis and Anat, will never be able to have, that infinite freedom God has to choose us when we will not choose God and to love us forever.
 מֶ֛לֶךְ לְשָׁפְטֵ֖נוּ כְּכָל־הַגֹּויִֽם.