Samuel was the little boy who heard God’s voice calling to him in the night, the son of Hannah who took over Eli’s job in the temple because Eli’s own sons were corrupt and unfit for the task. But by the time you get to today’s text, the little boy has grown old. Samuel has his own sons now, and what a disappointment, they are no better than Eli’s. Samuel finds himself in the same place as his predecessor. Slowly aging, almost too old to continue, his own sons are not worthy replacements, and he knows it. The people know it too, and they are starting to get anxious. Who will lead them? Who will help them speak to God?
The elders of Israel call a private emergency meeting, but a person like Samuel has ears all over the nation. When the elders show up on his doorstep, Samuel is not surprised. “You are old,” they say, “and your sons do not follow your ways.”
Well, Samuel wasn’t expecting them to be quite that abrupt about it, but he had been expecting it. He smiles gently at their bluntness, their obvious discomfort. He waits patiently for them to ask who should succeed him. He’s been thinking it over for a very, very long time. He has tried to imagine how he must have appeared in Eli’s eyes, a very small boy who heard God in his dreams. Now as an old man he tries to see the world through Eli eyes, alert to some unsuspecting young man with priestly vision.
The elders clear their throats and Samuel’s attention is brought back to the present. “Now,” they continue, “appoint us a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
Samuel blinks. Rubs his ears. He has been having a little trouble with the hearing lately. But no, he heard correctly. Never, ever had he anticipated this. That the people would want a King. That they would ask to be like the other nations. The whole point of being Israel was to be different! Didn’t they remember their ancestors—how God delivered them from the Pharaoh—and now they want a slave-driver? These people want to pay taxes? “Good grief, where did I lead them astray?” Samuel worries. He knew things were not exactly looking good, what with his sons on the loose, but never, never, never had he expected to see a Reverse of the Exodus in his lifetime. He wants to tell the elders off, tell ‘em to go throw themselves into the Red Sea! And not to expect God to part it for them this time.
But instead of saying that, Samuel does the one thing that has kept him sane all these years. He falls to his knees and he prays.
Only God’s answer is more startling than the elders’ demand. “Give them what they want,” is essentially the answer from heaven, and Samuel listens in stunned silence. “It is not you they have rejected, Samuel, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.”
So this is nothing new, Samuel realizes. Not really. It is the repetitive history of Israel to reject God; the elders have invented a new way to do the same ole thing. “Samuel,” God continues, “Listen to them, but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”
Armed now with a concrete task from the Lord, Samuel rises slowly, dusts off the dirt from his knees, looks the elders’ in the eye, and lays it to them straight. He warns them about a king, oh does he warn them. The longer he talks, the more he feels the preacher-fire roaring in his belly, the gleam of wisdom sparkles in his eye, his voice quivers with confidence, the very Spirit of God seems to move through his lips. All eyes are on him, all ears tuned to his speech, and he knows he’s got them hooked. No need to mention that God would allow them a King if they insist, because there will be no insisting after he gets through. They’ll be raising their hands and lining the aisles for repentance.
Only Samuel finishes preaching and the elders do not flinch. “No! We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” The warnings do not work. Samuel reports back to the Lord in shame, but surprisingly, God doesn’t seem alarmed. “Listen to them,” God says, “and give them their king.”
Samuel cannot bear it. “Everyone go back to your own town,” he says and shuts the door in their faces, as if to reject their rejection. And I imagine Samuel sat in the silence of their departure for a long, long while, trying his best to grapple with his nation’s desire to abandon God, and his God’s willingness to let them.
The elders might have caught Samuel off-guard at first, but really, their request was not surprising. For all of Israelite history, the people are always looking for ways out of trusting God—whether it be a Golden Calf or a Long List of Wilderness Complaints, or Woe-Crying of Ten Spies—the people always found a reason why God could no longer be trusted to lead them and they always had a substitute close on hand. This time, they fancied a king.
But God’s response is the one Samuel cannot come to terms with. “Give them what they want,” is essentially the answer, and you can tell from the story Samuel isn’t quite willing to accept that’s what God really has to say about the matter. God doesn’t protest, not really. Why doesn’t he put up a fight? Is God fed-up, ready to throw in the towel?
Or, could it be that God is big enough to interact with human desires and human choices, even when we diverge from his plans and his will? Could it be that God respects people? Even when we deserve no such thing, he makes room for our wills? Could God’s interaction with Israel—his self-emptying deference to their desires—have something radical to teach about sacrificial love? Is this just a small hint of the gut-wrenching self-giving of the divine that will come into full view at the crucifixion? This is no passive victimhood; it is deliberate surrender. And giving them space to make their own choice doesn’t change anything about God, it only alters the relationship between them, and a relationship is not something God is willing to manipulate in his favor. Samuel can hardly stomach it, but God lets the people choose. God is determined to maintain a relationship of integrity, rather than coercion.
Amazingly, God does not seem threatened by the people’s rejection. God is not desperate for acceptance, which admittedly seems rather different from the imposing, jealous God we read about elsewhere in the Old Testament. It can be tough to reconcile the images of the crucified God with the warring God, and I would never suggest to you that we should just smooth out the differences or pretend that the difficult stories don’t exist. But I would say we must elevate the voice of stories of like these, otherwise they’ll get lost in the mix. This is a story of a powerful King who allows himself to be dethroned, and the most powerful story we have in Christianity is of a King on a cross, and these are the stories that define us, shape us as Christians. They are the interpretive lens through which we read the rest of Scripture, the interpretive lens through which we read our lives. These are the stories that give context to commandments like the one we find in Ephesians, “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.”
But somehow, somewhere someone always finds a way to make Christianity about taking up power instead of laying power down. Lately I’ve been coming across more disturbing news reports than I can bear. Every week I hear of yet another “pastor” in this country preaching a sermon that we should kill homosexuals or kick atheists out of America or bully those who are different. The article I read yesterday was about a pastor who wants to hang the president.
I’ve always thought theology—our understanding of God—was extremely important because people tend to act like their God. Anne Lammott says “you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” If God himself could make space for differences of opinion, what right do humans have to demand violence in the name of God?
But the thing about God granting us freedom is that those pastors get to stay on a warpath—no lightening bolt to strike them down, no violence from heaven in exchange for their violence on earth. And so I am stuck, sharing the same title, “pastor,” but trying to do something drastically different. We are all stuck, sharing the same title, “Christian,” with all the haters who seem to know nothing of the Christ but claim my religion all the same.
Like Samuel, I want to slam the door in their faces and reject their rejection of Christ. But God in his wisdom, or in his self-giving foolishness, lets people be, lets them choose. I can’t stomach it somedays. But God refuses to be threatened by their rejection. Great evil is perpetrated in the name of God every century and God does very little to defend his name other than to remain unequivocally on the side of the oppressed and to join them in prison, in the slums, hanging on a cross. I can hate the haters or I can love the lonely. It’s unlikely I’ll have the energy for both. God allows himself to be dethroned and evil men rise up to rule and speak “on God’s behalf.” God moves among the sidelines and talks with children and smiles at prostitutes and hugs the lepers.
It is a hard thing to watch. Samuel knew that well enough. The name of God was sure to get smeared by the mistakes of future kings. It was hard to thing to watch. But there was beauty in it too. Compassion. Love. Miracle. Sacrifice. A very quiet power. Help us, God, to trust your quiet ways, to live your selfless love. Amen.