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God at Work: God Responds

God at Work  •  Sermon  •  Submitted   •  19:18
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Give us a king, who will take care of us. Give us a president, who will fix it all. Give us a pastor, who can hold and represent our spiritual longings. Give us a parent, who can keep us safe and healthy. Give us a partner, who can journey in love with us. Give us any and all of these things — and we’ll be set. Except, we’re not. Except, we still long for more. May our prayer today be different: Give us yourself, God. Give us wholeness in a way nothing else can. Give us forgiveness and cleansing, in a way we can never do for ourselves. Give us meaning, connected with the great purposes of God’s restoration of all things.

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The New Revised Standard Version Israel Demands a King

Israel Demands a King

8 When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. 2 The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. 3 Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” 6 But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the LORD, 7 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. 8 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. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

You’ve gotta give the people what they want.
Sometimes, this means stepping back, throwing your hands up and saying, “ok, have it your way.”
I have a stubborn streak in me and at times, I know people do just this with me: let him do it the way he wants — then I’ll show him the right way.
I was mowing my lawn this week and remembering how long I’ve been mowing lawns. My dad taught me how to mow our front and back lawns when I was in late elementary school, so that would be around 30 years ago. I’ve been mowing lawns for 30 years! Wow.
Anyway, early on, I remember one particular training session with my father. The grass was pretty thick, perhaps growing at the rate it is right now at this point in the Spring. It was thick and I was determined to push through and mow it down short through sheer willpower. The funny thing, though, was that the lawn mower kept getting jammed up with wet clippings and I couldn’t really make progress. I’d get to the end of one row and spray more clippings all over the deck or the garden bed. It was a mess. But I knew the right way to do it, so I pushed on.
Now, we didn’t have a huge yard at my home growing up, so it shouldn’t really have taken very long to mow. But I struggled with it the way I wanted it done for a good while and my Dad finally came out to give me some advice. I suppose he’d given me the right of way for long enough, given me what I wanted in my stubbornness, but finally decided to step in and help.
That day, my dad taught me the half-cutting technique. Instead of trying to mow down the whole lane of grass with the full blade of the mower, you moved aside by half the blade and mowed down half of the grass, thus decreasing the load on the mower and making it easier to cut dense grass. (I thought of this early story while mowing very thick grass, using both the half cut technique and actually raising up the mower for one pass and then remowing at a lower level again. You learn so much over 30 years of mowing lawns!)
I’m grateful for my dad. And I’m grateful that he let me have it the way I wanted it, at least for a while. I failed. And I needed to understand what wasn’t working in order to grow. So, he let me do it my way.
The point here is that there are so many times that we ask God for something or some circumstance. We think we know what we want or need and expect God to just give it to us. Heal me, help me, change this person, give me clarity.
Don’t get me wrong, God wants good things for us. God loves us. Remember when Jesus teaches about how God provides what God’s people needs — when a child asks their father for a fish, would he give them a serpent? No! God loves us and gives us what we need and desire.
And, sometimes, we have to receive what we’ve been desiring for so long to also realize it’s not the end game, not the best thing.
This is something of what is going on with the people of God wrestling with Samuel, the judge of Israel, as they long for a king.
Throughout the history of ancient Israel, there is an accumulation of longings that the people bring before God. They long for liberation and a home land, they long for power and standing in the ancient world, they long for a king who would put their nation on par with their neighbors, they long for the Messiah who would set all things to rights. The longings are central to the people’s interactions with God. And in this particular moment, while God has been faithful to establish the people of Israel in their promised land, the people long for a leader, a king. They have seen the inadequacies of the priestly leaders, Eli, Samuel, and their sons, and they are ready, at least they think, for a change.
The New Revised Standard Version Israel Demands a King

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5 and said to him, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”

Samuel isn’t keen on this idea. He knew the potential consequences of such an act. If the people had a king, what purpose would he have in their life together? What purpose would God have? Wasn’t YHWH supposed to be king? Wasn’t their devotion meant for God alone?
Isn’t the lawn mower powerful enough to plow through the dense grass? It should be, so lets force it.
Samuel goes to God in prayer and brings this request for a king. Samuel knows something isn’t right here and seeks the counsel of the Lord.
Here is God’s response:
The New Revised Standard Version (Israel Demands a King)
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. 8 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. 9 Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
God says, alright, have it your way. Give the people what they want.
I can see that you’re struggling with this and you think there’s a better way to do it — go for it. Try it out. Be forewarned that this isn’t going to go the way you think, but have your way.
We deal with this kind of thinking a lot these days. Think about the context of COVID-19 vaccines. We’re at a point where if you want to be vaccinated and you’re 12 years or older, you can be vaccinated. It’s a scientific fact that these vaccines work to stem the spread of the virus. The people have asked for a vaccine and they’ve got it. But then we have a whole crowd in our world who is reluctant (at best) to get these vaccines. I don’t want to be too on the nose here, but it feels like the people who resist are like the people who are asking for a king — they think that it will be better if they get things done the way they like, thank you very much.
And the reality is, our leaders and our communities have to yield to that sentiment, to some degree. The people are going to get what they want — you don’t want a vaccine, ok then, but also, there’s a warning — you could still get very seriously ill if you don’t.
Ok, you want a king, fine. But just a warning, kings turn into tyrants really quick, so know what you’re getting yourself into.
The passage continues on with Samuel’s warning:
The New Revised Standard Version Israel Demands a King

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the LORD to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; 12 and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15 He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16 He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17 He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18 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.”

What’s at play here is a very important thing for us to know about God: God responds. While we often picture God as unmovable, static, unchanging, what we see revealed in this passage is God’s willingness to respond to the people’s requests. God relents to the people’s cries — ok, you can have a king, and just so you know, this is how it is going to go.
Now, certainly, there are many good kings in the Israelite line. David, Solomon, Josiah, Asa, Jehosaphat, Hezekiah. Good kings who had faults, but who attempted to be faithful.
But they also have a long line of real stinkers. Kings who took advantage of the people. Solomon, for instance, was full of wisdom, but he also accumulated a ton of wealth at the expense of many of his people.
So why does God relent? Why does God respond this way?
Is it because, if we whine long enough, God gets tired and just gives in? I don’t really think so.
Is it because God wants to test the people and show them they are wrong? You might be able to see that here, but I don’t really even think that’s what’s going on. The tone God takes with Samuel is one of warning, of relenting but also continuing to care about the outcome.
My dad didn’t step in right away with my lawn mowing learning because honestly, what I was doing wasn’t really going to hurt the grass or the deck or the lawnmower. It just wasn’t going to be very affective. But I had to learn this.
We hold as belief that God loves God’s creation and intends for its flourishing. We believe that God desires relationship with us and desires the response of our lives in devotion.
Perhaps we need a king to know that a king isn’t going to cut it. Perhaps we need a charismatic leader, just in order to see that their promises don’t hold much water. Perhaps we need to be confronted with the underbelly of political corruption to finally see that the kings of the world, the rulers of the day, they may have some good intentions, but they are not Lord, not God, not the Messiah.
It is in God’s response to the people that they are shown an opportunity to cleave more fully to God’s presence.
You see, God is at work through this all. I’m struck by the possibility that it may not really matter the means by which the people of Israel are led or how their nation is structured or who sits on the throne. At least, it might not matter much to God. Kings come and go. The question is really about who the people offer their hearts to, their devotion and fullness of being to. Give it to the king, perhaps your fealty will yield some benefit, and maybe it will outweigh the cost.
The faithfulness required of the people in Samuel’s time and the faithfulness required of us is not contingent upon who sits on the throne. The faithfulness of God’s people is about devotion to the Lord, first and foremost.
We struggle here, and for good reason.
Give us a king, who will take care of us.
Give us a president, who will fix it all.
Give us a pastor, who can hold and represent our spiritual longings.
Give us a parent, who can keep us safe and healthy.
Give us a partner, who can journey in love with us.
Give us any and all of these things — and we’ll be set.
Except, we’re not. Except, we still long for more.
May our prayer today be different: Give us yourself, God. Give us wholeness in a way nothing else can. Give us forgiveness and cleansing, in a way we can never do for ourselves. Give us meaning, connected with the great purposes of God’s restoration of all things.
May we get what we want and may our wants, desires, longings, be formed unto the deepest desire for God’s heart in us.
Amen.
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