This was the first of my summer sermon series (delivered on June 10th, the second Sunday after Pentecost) through part of Israel’s early kingdom-era history. I’ll try to keep this blog updated with these sermons, teachings, and reflections throughout the season.
We’ve all gone through it – there’s a period of darkness, a storm, a “long dark night of the soul,” a rough season. (For example, many Anglicans today are going through or coming out of a particularly difficult church situation.) Whatever it is, specifically, the process is painful, confusing, and messy. And yet, God worked through those situations to pull us through, to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us a hope and a future.
That’s exactly where the people of Israel are when we get to the book of 1 Samuel. The exodus from Egypt is a distant memory, and generation after generation of ad-hoc rulers, known as Judges, have been of worse and worse character and faith, to this point where the people are sick of it, and want stability. And so they turn to the latest of these Judges, Samuel, who turns out to be a faithful Judge and Prophet.
We know that Samuel was a faithful leader from the story in chapter 7, where Israel is being invaded and he helps rally the armies and stops the invaders, and God is glorified for this victory. So it’s particularly ironic that in light of this good example of leadership that Israel now demands a king! Samuel is understandably upset… having a humanly-determined system like a monarchy seems like it would undermine the existing theocracy, where God is their king.
Nevertheless, God decides to work with His people rather than against them, and meets their demand for a king. But he does it in his own way: he warns them about the problems they’ll face, and he uses prophets to anoint the first king (rather than let the tribal elders choose/fight among themselves). This is especially evident in chapter 9 when Samuel seeks out Saul in the smallest family in the smallest tribe of Israel – not a great leader who’s already well known throughout the land.
How Saul is made king is also an interesting story. Because God is doing things his way, and not the peoples’ way, it ends up happening in stages. Saul is first anointed prince (under God’s kingship) by Samuel in 10:1 essentially in private. The public declaration comes later in 10:24, though not everyone accepts God’s choice of king yet. Finally, in 11:15, after some military victories, Israel unanimously accepts Saul’s kingship, and the kingdom is renewed. There are two important things to note here in these final verses of the chapter: Peace Offerings were offered, indicating reconciliation with those who previously opposed him as king. Also, Saul was made “king before the Lord,” indicating that the old theocracy wasn’t abandoned after all! God gave his people a king, but he gave them his kind of a king, not just a king “like all the other nations.”
This is a pattern of God’s work that shows up a couple different times in the biblical history: Samuel, the last Judge after an increasingly dark and quiet period, prepares the way for the new kingship of David, just as John the Baptist, the last Prophet after an increasingly dark and quiet period, prepares the way for the new kingship of Jesus.
This is also a pattern that we can see God following in our own times. The story of the present Anglican Realignment movement in which we found ourselves today is very much one of God raising up new leaders in new ways that seem to threatened the established order, yet at the same time honor the historic body of the Church. For example, Bishop Bill was consecrated a bishop mainly by African bishops, rather than the leading bishops here in the States. It’s not the traditional way of doing things, and it made for some confusing and messy situations in terms of ecclesiastical jurisdiction and all that legal stuff, but at the end of the day, God was making the best of a bad situation – He worked through our mess to move his people into a new situation where hopefully we can do something better.
This is a valuable lesson, I think. Much of our culture has this tendency to throw things out when they’re broken. It’s part of being rich, and living in a rich nation where lots of stuff is readily available. If your cell phone breaks, you take the SIM card out, get a new phone, put the card in, and you’re back in business. If your favorite book is wearing out, it’s no big deal to throw it away and buy a replacement copy. When the computer or the TV or the DVD player gets obsolete, you can just buy a new one. This isn’t always a bad thing, nor am I saying that God never does new things – his mercies are new every morning! – but what I am saying is that oftentimes we go overboard with this. When applied to our church lives, it’s almost always a bad thing: something happens that we don’t like, and so we leave and join a new church. And when that church is unsatisfactory we leave and find yet another new church, and so on and so forth, until we finally give up and start our own church, and thus a new denomination is formed!
When the system of the Judges started falling apart, the Israelites did the exact same thing – they decided to throw it out and do something new. The irony is especially poignant, remembering that the Judge they had at that time was actually a really good one. But what God did at that point is really encouraging: he worked with their demands on his own terms such that they got what they wanted, but He still preserved what He wanted. I think this is encouraging especially because when we’re in the midst of our messes, there’s often a lot of pain, confusion, or otherwise distracting things going on that make it really hard for us to see the whole picture. And out of that we’re prone to make some really misguided requests to God. But when we do that, God doesn’t sit and laugh at us; he doesn’t ignore us; he works with us, granting us the good in what we ask, and working his will in the midst of that. One of the collects in the Book of Common Prayer that can be used at the end of the Prayers of the People really gets at this idea:
Heavenly Father, you have promised to hear what we ask in the Name of your Son:
Accept and fulfill our petitions, we pray, not as we ask in our ignorance, nor as we deserve in our sinfulness,
but as you know and love us in your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
So so we can say (as Morning Prayer was closed that day), “Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine: Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus forever and ever!”