a sermon on 1 Samuel 8:4-20
I spent a good part of the day yesterday with about thirty clerks of session from all across the Presbytery of New York City. These good folks are the people who, like Lisa here among us, keep the official records of our congregations and assist in a lot of other very important tasks to support the ministry and mission that happen in the ninety-six Presbyterian churches across our city. As we went around the room introducing ourselves and sharing what we were looking forward to doing this summer, there was a recurring theme in even these brief two-minute introductions. At least half of the clerks in the room talked about how they were looking to start training someone to take over for them. In some sense, they were very concerned about succession planning—about figuring out who would pick up their responsibilities when they could no longer do them themselves, about making sure that the hard work that they had begun would continue, about laying the groundwork for a smooth transition to the next generation.
Our reading from 1 Samuel this morning begins with a very similar state of affairs, with the elders of Israel approaching the prophet and leader Samuel to ask him to put a new succession plan in place by appointing a king over them. The people had been led for several generations by judges like Samuel, leaders with the power to guide decisions and sort out disputes but whose authority did not extend to raising up an army, imposing taxes, or building a nation-state that looked like Israel’s imposing neighbors. While they had these substantial limitations, these judges still used their power to establish family dynasties based on bloodline more than righteousness. Like his predecessor Eli before him, Samuel’s sons didn’t quite take after their father, and instead of trying to find yet another family to take up the role of judge, the other leaders around him wanted to take a more traditional approach and appoint a king to succeed him.
Samuel was frustrated by all this, but when he took that frustration to God, God reminded him that this wasn’t about him:
They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.
They were just repeating a longstanding pattern, after all—ever since leaving Egypt, the Israelites had found lots to complain about and rarely seemed to be happy with what God had given them, whether it was leadership, food, or guidance. So Samuel reluctantly did as God told him, warning the people about what their request for a king would bring to them: all the conflict and strife that would follow them, all that would be required of their families and property, all that would be taken away from them and placed in the service of the king. And most of all, he warned them that God would not listen when they inevitably complained about it!
But still they did not listen.
No! 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.
Their complaints were all about succession planning—and being like everyone else.
If I have learned anything from reading and studying the Bible over the years, it is that God rarely if ever wants us to be like everyone else. Every time the Israelites cried out to God to be like everyone else, with military might, giant territories, and powerful leaders, God made it clear that God had other plans for them. After all, we know a good bit about the history of the empires of Egypt and Assyria and Babylon and Persia, but their cultural and religious legacy is tiny now compared to that of the tiny nation of Israel. Every time people came to Jesus as they did in our reading from Mark this morning asking him to honor his family and behave like the rest of the world, he responded with something like he did here:
Who are my mother and my brothers? Here are my mother and my brothers [sitting around me]! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.
After all, the human ties that bind us are far more easily broken than the ties that bind us to God. And every time we think that we have figured out how to claim God’s grace and mercy only for ourselves, we are reminded of how God in Jesus Christ offered that grace and mercy in ways that reached beyond the wildest imaginations of those around him. After all, he dined with tax collectors and sinners, touched those who were deemed untouchable around him, and proclaimed a new and different kingdom of justice, peace, and love.
Rather than taking up the ways of the world, God instead insists that we are called to trust God to show us a new and different and better way, prioritizing justice for all over the privilege of a few, preferring mercy over retribution, living in love rather than stewing in hate, living in the radical possibilities of grace when we prefer the seeming simplicity of the law, insisting on reconciliation when we just want to stay apart, and seeking new life when we would rather be happy with the status quo. God calls us to seek these divine ways rather than the human way, to place our focus and trust and hope in God alone.
It is not easy to place all our hopes and prayers for succession planning—or anything else, for that matter!—on God alone. Whether we’re trying to figure out how we might organize ourselves for this or the next generation, how to relate to our families and friends, or how to respond to those in need in our lives and our world, we do not easily keep our focus on how God remains at the center of our lives and our world.
The difficulty of this is no surprise, really. Placing God at the center and trusting that God really is sovereign raises a lot of questions for us. In our nation where we have thoughtfully disconnected church and state, how do we relate our civic responsibilities with our faith commitments? In our church where we can so easily become focused on keeping the doors open and maintaining our connection to the past, how is God inviting us to recenter and refocus on living out God’s call to new life in our world? And in our lives where it can be difficult to see God guiding us in the day-to-day, how can we connect the challenges of our lives to the limited ways that we can see God in our midst?
Our Reformed tradition, in its great emphasis on the sovereignty of God, responds to these age-old questions with continual reaffirmations of the limitations of human power and authority and the new way that God is setting before us in the world. It points us back to all those scriptures that insist that God’s ways are very different from our own. It insists that we recognize the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, who showed “power in the form of a servant, wisdom in the folly of the cross, and goodness in receiving sinful men and women.” (Confession of 1967, 9.15) And it invites us to give up our confidence in any power we might claim for ourselves so that our hope and trust rest squarely in God alone.
Now let me be clear: placing our hope and trust in God does not excuse us from action in our world, nor does it take away from the pain and hurt we may experience when things are difficult. It does not mean that we do not plan for the days ahead or can be excused from responsibility for the work we are called to do. Instead, placing our hope and trust in God gives us a grounding for our lives of mission and ministry in the world, a starting point for living out the hope that God will make things different and use us in that work. Our Confession of 1967 puts our task well:
The life, death, resurrection, and promised coming of Jesus Christ has set the pattern for the church’s mission. His human life involves the church in the common life of all people. His service to men and women commits the church to work for every form of human well-being. His suffering makes the church sensitive to all human suffering so that it sees the face of Christ in the faces of persons in every kind of need. His crucifixion discloses to the church God’s judgment on the inhumanity that marks human relations, and the awful consequences of the church’s own complicity in injustice. In the power of the risen Christ and the hope of his coming, the church sees the promise of God’s renewal of human life in society and of God’s victory over all wrong. The church follows this pattern in the form of its life and in the method of its action. So to live and serve is to confess Christ as Lord. (9.32-.33)
So may we confess that Jesus Christ is Lord in our words and our actions, with confidence that God has a succession plan set out for us that invites us to join in God’s work of making all things new, so that we might proclaim the eternal reign of our God in all that we say and do, each and every day. Thanks be to God! Amen.