Who’s Your King?

Posted: June 27, 2012 by Todd in Sermons
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I preached this sermon at Valley UMC on June 10, 2012.  The text was I Samuel 8:4-20.

One author who writes about leadership says this, Sabotage is the terrain of leadership.  Let me say that again, sabotage is the terrain of leadership.  In other words, leaders with a vision usually run into someone who’s trying to screw things up.  Leaders should learn to expect this. It’s a sign that they are doing the right thing as leaders, according to this author. (Edwin Friedman, Failure of Nerve)  Leaders inevitably are trying to get their people to change, to grow, to be more than what they are currently.  And people fear the loss they perceive that change will bring.  And so, predictably, those most resistant to change, put up road blocks for leaders – they cause problems in various ways – they do things to sabotage leaders.  Thus, sabotage is the terrain of leadership.  If you listen carefully to the story, this seems to be the advice God is  giving to Samuel, when he calls upon the Lord.  [more…]

Through his leadership as a judge, Samuel had tried to bring Israel closer to God, so that God could use the Israelites to set the world back on the right course.  They would be a light to the nations.  A beacon on a hill.  A guide for all those around displaying that the shalom of God could again rule the earth.  But Samuel wasn’t perfect and the people often didn’t buy into his vision anyways.  Unfortunately, Samuel’s sons had gained power and often used it to corrupt ends.  This little crack in Samuel’s reputation was all the sabotaging Israelites needed to make a big stink.  

They used this vulnerability to fuel a growing disease within themselves.  They had Jonesitis.  They had that “let’s keep up with the Jones’ mentality” and when they looked to their east and to the west, they saw nations with growing armies, clear leaders who called themselves kings, these nations were not ruled by an unnamable, invisible God.  They were ruled by mighty kings, with powerful armies, displays of power and lavish living.  From the outside, it seemed like things were going pretty good for these other nations.  And so they set out to sabotage their leader, exploiting his weaknesses – calling him old and blaming him for the actions of his sons.  “Give us a king to govern over us – like the other nations.”  

How would Samuel respond to the sabotage that had been foisted upon him?  He could strike back at the leaders of this rebellious group.  He could adopt an “if you can’t beat them join them” attitude and just cave to their demands.  But, no, Samuel did what strong leaders do in the face of sabotage – he stayed true to his mission – that of letting God rule – and so, he took his frustration to God in prayer.  God indeed shared his frustration – this God who created abundance, beauty, and truth in the garden for the sake of everyone.  God knew through countless experience that sabotage is the terrain of leadership.  And so he tried to comfort Samuel, “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.”

I’m not sure what advice or action Samuel might have expected to receive from God.  If it were me, I would have hoped for a good divine smiting of some kind – perhaps some locusts or a good old-fashioned plague.  Yet, in God’s surprising response, God seems to be holding fast to his long-term mission for the world – to bring the world back into right relationship with the living God, to return to the garden of abundance and beauty, to let shalom spread over the earth, to have an earth that is truly ruled by God.  And to do this, it appears that God has come to the conclusion once again that it must be done the hard way.  God seemed to say, “I really had something better in store for these people, but to get their, I need their cooperation.  If they want some despot to rule them like their neighbors, then let them have their desires.  “Eventually, they will taste its bitterness and return to me.”  And so, God tells Samuel to warn the people about the natural consequences of their desires.  And Samuel was all too happy to really lay it on thick for them.  

He tells the Israelites, “I hope you like chariots and war.  Have you ever heard of Big Government and bloated bureaucracies?  No, oh, we’ll you’re about to experience it.  A king is more than a mighty leader with whom you can identify – there’s going to be some restriction of your freedoms here.  I hope you don’t mind giving up a few things – {list “innocently”} you know like your vineyards, and your livestock, and your fields, and your grain, and your olive orchards, oh…and your sons and your daughters…..And I hope you don’t mind that all of this will go to lots of things might just seem like government waste, you know things like professional “courtiers” and “perfumers;” unidentified “officers” – you’ll pay for “cooks” and “bakers,” you know because one person couldn’t cook and bake.  Oh, and have you heard of the “military industrial complex” and the “draft,” well, you’re about to…kings don’t fight battles for you by magic.  You’ll be busy making chariots, turning your horses into a calvary, and seeing your sons go off into battle.  And all of this government largess costs money and we don’t operate with a federal deficit…so guess what, you’re paying….Sounds pretty good, eh?”

Surely, after this solemn warning and clear vision of pain, the people would back off and let Samuel continue to lead them in the ways of the Lord.  Now that they’ve seen the underside and ugly side of monarchy, this king thing will fade away.  After Samuel’s impassioned speech, the people take a good 3 seconds to carefully weigh the costs and benefits. “Ummm….No….about this king thing, we still want it.  {Dreamy Voice} It would be so great to be more like Assyria and Babylon.  Shouldn’t we start working on planning the king’s coronation ceremony?  Shouldn’t someone get online and order a jewel studded crown and throne for our king.  Make sure Assyria and Babylon hear about our plans.  I’m sorry, Samuel, were you trying to say something?  Don’t worry, we’ll make sure you’ve got tickets to the coronation.”

One theologian says, “I can think of no better description of hell than God giving me what I want all the time.”  We see this playing out in our Scripture.  Without mentioning the word, this is a passage about hell.  It’s not Dante’s vision of an elaborate hell at the center of the earth.  And the text reveals something interesting about hell that may seem counter-intuitive to our theological instincts.  It seems to say that God isn’t the one who condemns.  People freely choose hell on their own.  Samuel tries to warn them about the temperature in hell, but somehow, for the people, it comes off sounding like a sauna.  There’s no need to for coals, fire, and a devil with pitchfork.  {SLOW} Out of selfish desires, sabotaging people create hell on earth and its fires are hot and unquenchable.  Hell is sabotaged terrain.

So where’s the hope in this story?  Is all we get this warning from Samuel?  Here, I think we’ve got to look at the bigger picture of what God is doing in Scripture and in the world.  If you read the text carefully, you might come to the conclusion, as I have, that Samuel goes just a little bit further than God authorized him to in his solemn warning.  You see, God told Samuel to tell the people what a king would be like.  And he does this beautifully by describing the horrors that are sure to come.  But I wonder if his own annoyance led him to go one step further than what God instructed.  He ends his solemn warning with the divinely unauthorized thorn twist, “Because of your king, you will cry out … but {ahem, matter-of-factly} the Lord will not answer you in that day.”

I’m led to believe this is coming from the darker side of Samuel’s heart by reading this passage in the context of the rest of God’s unfolding story in Scripture.  Contrary to Samuel’s desires, God doesn’t give up on Israel, God hasn’t given up on creation and transforming this old world into what it can and should be.  The saboteurs desires don’t ultimately win.  Yet, it seems God has to let their natural consequences take over a bit so that people can taste the bitter hell they create.  Only then do they AND we reach that place of utter brokenness that turns hearts to God.  

We live in the aftermath of the Israelites decision to seek a king for their ruler.  Samuel’s description could fit our country and most countries in our modern world.  There are places of hell that surround us because people have been unfaithful to God’s vision for the world.  But God never told Samuel to say to the people, “in that day the Lord will not answer you.”  God has shown God’s self to continually be seeking ways into our hearts so that our lives might be ruled by the one true king.  Our temptation [may not be] to have a monarchical king rule over us, but we are tempted to opt for the quick fix and see the greener grass elsewhere without understanding the costs.  Our choice is really no different than the Israelites.  And so I ask you, “Who’s your king?”

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