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May 31, 2015 - 1 Samuel 8.4-20

“Like Everybody Else”

1 Samuel 8.4-20

May 31, 2015

4Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and 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.” 6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and 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. 8Just 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. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.” 10So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He 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; 12and 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. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And 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.” 19But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

 

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the Rev. Jerry Falwell was invited to dinner at the White House. He gladly accepted the invitation. One of Mr. Falwell’s critics wondered how Falwell, a Bible-believing fundamentalist Christian with a strong belief against remarriage after divorce, dealt with the problem of President Reagan’s divorce and remarriage.
    “Never discussed it,” said Mr. Falwell. “It would have been tasteless to bring up such a subject when with the President.”
    Yes, it would have been inappropriate. And yes, when preachers desire to be close to the powerful, sometimes we have to make adjustments in our theology. We are here this morning because we are Christians, because we are all seeking to serve God and follow God’s way, but when it comes to a collision with the accepted standards of our society – the surrounding cultural mores – well, sometimes we have to make adjustments.
 

Israel was a people formed out of a gathering of nomads through the call of God. God made Israel into his own people, a new nation formed on the basis of nothing more than God’s law, God’s gracious choice. This meant that Israel was to rely upon God for their survival as a people, their hope for the future, even as they had to rely on God to bring them through the exodus out of Egyptian slavery.
    But years had passed. Israel was now no longer a gaggle of wandering, nomadic tribes. They had settled in the promised land, built homes and cities. The Philistines threatened them. How could they best protect what they had accumulated? Someone had the idea of crowning a king – someone who might get things organized, form an army, protect Israel. “We want to be like other peoples,” they said to Samuel. “We want a king of our own.”
   

In today’s scripture, The prophet Samuel is now old and the people come before him, clamoring for a king. The monarchy is a metaphor here for power, authority, materialism, and all that. Scholars believe that this story arose in a time of great social transformation when Israel was moving from a tribal society to a monarchical social arrangement. The text says that the immediate issue here is the Philistine threat. In the face of the threat of invasion, Israel is glad to give over its dependence upon Yahweh to the king and his protectorate.

The tension in the tale is in this desire to be “like the nations.” Israel wants to be like the other nations who have armies, chariots, and kings for protection, not prophets, prayers, and covenants. The text is difficult for us contemporary preachers to interpret, not because it is so old but because we have lived so long with monarchical-type arrangements, relying on government programs, the military, and the constitution to protect us, that we can hardly imagine what it was like for the tribes of Israel to rely solely on Yahweh.
    The story is surely meant to provoke tension in our settled arrangements with the powers that be – to make each of us ask, in whom do I trust for my protection? Which god is the real object of my worship?
   

Samuel warns them of the dire consequences of such a move. The king will demand high taxes, draft their sons and daughters in royal programs of expansion and defense. “You will end up as slaves,” Samuel predicts.
    What’s wrong with God’s people wanting to be like other nations? Must God’s people always be so different? What harm in a little monarchy?
    And you know from whence these questions arise. We’ve come a long way since that distant day when Samuel warned the Israelites against their nationalistic ambitions, their lust to “be like the other nations.” Sometimes we have had to make some adjustments, and adjustments we have gladly made.
    Who is our “king”? To whom are we willing to sacrifice our children? Whose values would we be willing to defend to the death? Alas, those of us who are citizens of the kingdom of God have, like those Israelites, said to God, “We want to be like everybody else.” And we are.

 

Carl Henry wrote “Whoever considers the politico-economic status quo sacred or normative, or uncritically resigns himself to it, needs to reread the Bible.”[1]
 

Jim Wallis, pastor and founder of the Sojourners Community in Washington, D.C., told a story that typified his conservative Christian boyhood. He was a member of a church that taught it was a sin to go to movies. But things were changing in the church and young Wallis, then a teenager, scanned the newspaper each week in the hope of finding a movie that would be tame enough to test the ban against attending movies.
    When The Sound of Music came to town, Jim was sure that he had at last found an appropriate movie, even for very conservative Christians. He invited a girl from his church youth group to go to the movie with him. When it came time for them to leave home, Wallis’s father stood in the door and, with tears in his eyes, begged the two young people not to turn their back on the church’s teaching and go to the movie. They went anyway.
    “The ban against movies was a trivialization of the Christian faith, to be sure,” said Wallis later. “But looking back over the years, when you see how much we Christians have compromised in our support of war, in our callousness toward the poor, in our worship of wealth and power, I wonder if perhaps my father was more right than I knew. Is there anything for which the contemporary church would stand in the door for or against today?”

 

Today’s scripture from 1 Samuel reminds us of a debate between Jesus and his critics in which he pronounced that we should “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mk 12:17).


    One thing about kings – they often require great sacrifice. One of my friends went through a dramatic religious conversion; it was so dramatic that he sold all he had and moved his family to a remote area of the South to work with poor people there. I told his story one day to a Sunday school class.
    “How old are his children?” was the first question I was asked after telling his story. I said that they were teenagers. “Well, then what he did was terrible,” said the questioner. The class agreed.
    It’s fine for this man to have this conversion, to give his whole life in service to the gospel, but it is unfair for him to drag his family into it with him.
    Be well assured that each of us is sacrificing our children to some king or other. The question before us is not if we shall give ourselves and our children in service to a king, but rather, which king is worthy of your ultimate allegiance and sacrifice. That’s the question being raised by the prophet Samuel, and that’s the question this old text raises to each of us today. Our royal crisis is not one of persecution but of seduction. We can identify with the dilemma of those Israelites who stood before Samuel, just begging to give themselves and their allegiance over to this king. The surrounding social order presumes to be a fixed reality to which we have only one duty: to adjust and adapt to what the controllers of curriculum, and government, and media tell us is possible and permissible. We therefore become seduced into thinking that our most pressing task is not to witness to the intrusion of a different king and an alternative kingdom but rather how we can adjust ourselves to look as much like everybody else as possible.

The Roman historian Tacitus described Emperor Nero’s persecution of Christians: “In their very deaths they were made the subjects of sport: for they were covered with the hides of wild beasts, and torn to death by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set fire to, and when the day waned, burned to serve for the evening lights.”[2]

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant mainline decisively won the battle for cultural preeminence — triumphing in public battles such as the Scopes Trial and leaving fundamentalists to retreat into a subculture. So the mainline’s comeuppance is met with uncharitable satisfaction in some conservative circles — call it William Jennings Bryan’s revenge. The language of “decline,” however, is imprecise. The mainline has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture. “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive,” says historian George Marsden, “if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture.”[3]

For much of the post-World War II period, saying you were a Christian was another way of saying you weren’t a Jew (those being the two available options). This left a large number of Americans identifying with a religious tradition they did not practice. The assumption of faith has gradually — now more rapidly — fallen away. There may or may not be a decline in Christian practice. But we are certainly seeing the collapse of casual Christianity and of religious belief as a civic assumption.[4]

 

    If you don’t know who owns you and your children, to whom you are ultimately accountable, you are no match for the dominant ideology of “go along to get along.” Sunday morning becomes Rotary or Kiwanis. The gospel becomes the American strategy of self-help. The kingdom becomes just one more helpful volunteer organization designed to meet only our needs.
    My fear is that the church and my preaching have been more helpful in aiding you in your adjustments to the royal status quo than to resistance.  Genuine Christianity has ALWAYS been counter cultural.  Today’s text is supposed to make us profoundly uneasy with our easy alliance with the present powers that be – to make each of us pause and ponder the question: who is your king?
 

 

[1] – Carl Henry, “Biblical Authority and the Social Crisis” in Authority and Interpretation: A Baptist Perspective

[2] http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-end-of-casual-christianity/2015/05/25/75e6b06c-009f-11e5-833c-a2de05b6b2a4_story.html

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.