We’re backing up a little bit in the story of Samuel this week—I fiddled a little bit with our scheduled readings from the lectionary, because I think this one is important enough to go back to.
We’re in chapter 8, where Samuel, who was called by God as a prophet and a judge, has grown older. He appointed his own sons as his successors, but the verses just before our reading tell us that they “took bribes and perverted justice.” The people were tired of this. Something had to change. And that’s where we pick up the story.
Scripture: 1 Samuel 8:4-20
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 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.’ But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 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. 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. 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.’
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 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; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 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.’
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’
Something had to change. Samuel was old now, and his sons had turned out to be just as bad as Eli’s had been. The old system of tribal theocracy, where “everyone did what was right in their own eyes,” wasn’t working anymore. The neighboring empires, who had taken turns attempting to invade, were dealing with their own internal conflicts. The elders, the people—everyone knew something had to give. They couldn’t move forward like this.
But what happened here was not fate. Ancient Israel was not always destined to have a king, to be a kingdom like their neighbors. In fact, God envisioned just the opposite—a kingdom where God ruled and the people followed, and the neighboring kingdoms took notice. Israel was never meant to follow the lead of the empires around them. They were meant to shine like a city on a hill which could not be hidden—a small corner of the world where justice and mercy, where compassion and hope, where braveness and kindness are the rules, not the exception.
So this demand for a king made in their own image was simply a failure of imagination. “What we have isn’t working,” they said, “so give us that.” They couldn’t see beyond the two options they already knew.
The Rev. Alphonetta Wines compares this scene to the questioning and hard-heartedness of the first generation of the Exodus, who grumbled at Moses and almost turned back to Egypt. She says: “Israel was supposed to be unique because God would be its leader. Granted, the Israelites were wise enough to realize that Samuel’s sons did not qualify. They knew that something had to change. Yet, just as years earlier when an entire generation died in the wilderness because it could not imagine a life of freedom, this generation was unable to envision a nation led by God.”
So in the very next chapter, Samuel goes on to anoint Saul. (And if you were here last week to hear Pastor Charlsie, you already know how badly that ended.)
Just one king hit most of the notes in Samuel’s warning; and the rest, well—with a couple of notable exceptions, the rest wouldn’t be much better.
God gives them what they demand. God lets them make their own bad decision, and then deal with the consequences—but as we’ll see in the rest of the Old Testament, God does not abandon them to their own devices. God is still their God, and they are still God’s people; now, they just have an extra layer of human nature to deal with.
To our modern ears, the demand for a king sounds like a recipe for disaster. We seem to have figured out that one person with absolute power is never, ever a good idea.
And yet, we have the same problems.
Listen to this quote from Dr. Karla Suomala, a Hebrew Bible scholar. It was written in the summer of 2012—six years ago.
“It’s hard to find a headline…in which candidates, politicians, and special interest groups are not demanding ‘radical’ change in the way things are done in America. Things have got to change, they say. What they don’t agree on is what needs to change, how to change it, or even who should effect the change. In this passage, we hear echoes of perhaps a similarly divisive political climate in Israel. Things have got to change! The system is broken, we hear people telling Samuel, their aging statesman.”
Take a deep breath—I’m not going to argue any one particular issue today. I have some feelings, and I know y’all do, too. But that’s not going to happen today.
What I do want us to notice, though, is the way that our media, our political system, and even our daily lives at work and at play, consistently offer us two bad choices and insist that those are our only options.
And I want us to be able to do more than notice, but to stand up and say ‘no.’
Because as Christians, we are the ones who are called to imagine the best world we possibly can, and fight for it.
It’s what we do every time we show up to fill backpacks with food—we imagine a world where no child has to go hungry.
It’s what we do every time we open the clothes closet—we imagine a world where everyone has clean clothes that fit them, where nothing is wasted and generosity is the norm.
It’s what we do every time we gather to worship—we imagine a world in which the risen Jesus is Lord of all, where the one who healed the sick and fed the crowds and called out evil is the one whom we are called to be like.
But it’s hard to keep that imagination up when we have to make snap decisions. It’s hard to look that far ahead when you have to decide which witty comeback you’re going to offer to the person who just insulted you. It’s hard to fit the kingdom of God, in all its beauty and glory and complexity, into a meme you can share on social media.
It’s so much simpler to choose from the options you’re given. Multiple-choice is always a whole lot easier than an essay question.
And yet, that kingdom imagination is what God calls us to. It’s what God hoped for with the ancient Israelites, and much later, it’s what Paul meant when he said we are to be ‘in the world, but not of the world.’
Y’all. You were never called to be ‘normal,’ to be just like the people around you, to choose from the two bad options that someone else presents to you.
I know this because I once thought ‘how weird could following Jesus possibly get?’ Now, I’m a 28-year-old female pastor who’s wearing polka dots and Chucks in the pulpit. Normal is so far outside my realm of possibility, I’m not even sure I would recognize it if it came around.
So this is your invitation to stop playing it small, to stop quieting your voice, to stop shushing the Holy Spirit within you, to stop running away from that beauty, that hope, that energy, intelligence, imagination, and love God has gifted you with, and run let it flow through you instead.
Wear the polka dots. Tell the stories. Laugh out loud. Let your stubbornness be your resistance. Let your bravery be tender and kind, and when the questions come, write an essay in the margins and find a better way. Tell the truth. Remember that our God, the one whose mercies are new for us every morning, is the one who can do immeasurably more than we could ever ask or imagine.
So let’s leave ‘normal’ as a setting on the dryer—and instead, be the people who hold the light high as we walk together towards God’s kingdom of love.