Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Bad Shape, Yet the Living God: A Sermon on First Samuel 15:35-16:13

Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king."

But Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me."

The Lord said, "Take a heifer with you and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate."

Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, "Do you come in peace?"

Samuel replied, "Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me." Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord."

But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things human beings look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, "The Lord has not chosen this one either." Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, "Nor has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, "The Lord has not chosen these." So he asked Jesse, "Are these all the sons you have?"

"There is still the youngest," Jesse answered. "He is tending the sheep."

Samuel said, "Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives."

So he sent and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; this is the one."

So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came on David in power. Samuel then went to Ramah.

- - - - - - -

Israel is in bad shape.

The family of Father Abraham had been enslaved, beaten down and insulted, by Egypt, but Yahweh the God of Israel had heard their cries. Yahweh delivered them and brought them up out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Yahweh led them through the wilderness like it was a courting period between a husband and wife. Yahweh gave them Torah, the Law, to form and create and sustain a way of life that would set Israel apart from the nations as the people of God’s own choosing. Yahweh gave them a land, flowing with milk and honey, gave them rest from their enemies.

Yahweh had done all this for Israel his people, for whom Yahweh was God, Lord, Creator…and King.

Yet these people, knowing their history, knowing the story of Abraham’s calling and Jacob’s wrestling and Joseph’s faithfulness and Moses’ teaching and Joshua’s conquering and the judges’ delivering, all by the power and wisdom and love of King Yahweh of Israel—these people do the one thing unthinkable: they ask for a king.

In First Samuel chapter 8, Yahweh responds to Samuel’s dismay over this request: “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.”

Yet even as the people break his heart, God provides a king. He chooses Saul, and speaks to him through Samuel, but it is clear that Saul does not have what it takes. Three times he disobeys the word of the Lord; after just the first time, in chapter 13 Samuel tells Saul, “The Lord would have established your kingdom over Israel forever, but now your kingdom will not continue; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart; and the Lord has appointed him to be ruler over his people, because you have not kept what the Lord commanded you.”

Yet Saul remains king, disobeying twice more. And who is this man after God’s own heart? We are left in suspense. But we know that things are not looking good for Israel.

After the third and final act of disobedience, in chapter 15 Samuel tells Saul, “Because you have rejected the word of the Lord, he has also rejected you from being king.” And again, “The Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you. Moreover the Glory of Israel will not recant or change his mind; for he is not a mortal, that he should change his mind.”

Saul is ultimately and finally and decisively rejected by God as king over Israel. And here we arrive at our text, at our story. This rejection could not have sat well with the king, situated in power and feeling, understandably, the weight of the divine right of the monarchy. We can understand why Samuel and Saul don’t see each other again. The political and religious advisor is not a Yes Man—he is actually almost always a No Man. And things do not end well between the two. The word of rejection is pronounced, but again, nothing happens: Saul remains king; Samuel departs; no mention of this enigmatic Other who will replace Saul.

Israel is in bad shape. Samuel, the great and renowned priest-judge-prophet, has forever separated from the king. The king has received only criticism and negative press from the religious bloc. He’s not getting the job done. He can’t please anybody. And everything Samuel warned the people about regarding the dangers and pitfalls of a human king in place of Yahweh is coming true. Even God is grieved: “And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.” At this critical juncture, in this liminal moment as the seams begin to tear apart: What is Israel’s future? Where is God? Is there hope?

Our world is in bad shape.

Our world wakes up every morning only to more bad news: more plummeting markets; more political unrest; more failed education; more teenage pregnancies; more foreclosures; more violence; more divorce; more religious fundamentalism; more fear, uncertainty, insecurity, sin, chaos, evil, injustice, oppression, death.

For a time we thought we had solved those problems. For a time we thought we were making headway. For a time we thought that the all-mighty Market had addressed our economics, or that the new administration was the answer, or that science held the keys, or that democracy, or family, or sex, or career was the secret solution to all our problems.

But for now, we have been woken up. Our world is in bad shape—and our denial has been shaken out of us like a sleepwalker jarred awake by a stranger. We have not solved violence or money or marriage or children or death. We have not built up high enough walls to hedge in our security, leaving us untouched in our emotional or economic or religious gated communities. We are, and have realized we are, quite simply, mortal. We are finite. We are material and messy and fallen. We are not secure.

And now—just as before, but in newly acquired acute awareness—we know the world is in bad shape. We know it because it hits closer to home than newspaper headlines or talking heads or even bank accounts. We know that the church is not immune. The church in America in particular is suffering—disjointed and disunified, scattered and scarred, much too powerful or utterly powerless. We have lost our voice, and we don’t know if we even want it back. We are losing members here and casting out sinners there, remaining the same yet making nonsensical changes all the while. We do not know who we are or who we ought to be in this place so hostile to us. We sense that Jesus left the building a long time ago.

And we wonder, in this time so tumultuous and dark, with people deep in the trenches of doubt and fear, if the church has anything at all to speak to a world in such bad shape. What is the world’s future? Our future? Where is God? Is there hope?

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.’ ”

How long will you grieve over Saul? God himself was just grieving! Yet time has passed, and neither that time, nor political realities, nor human machinations, nor the people’s fear will stymie or suppress the forward-moving vision of the living God for his people Israel. Perhaps we might imagine some faithful Israelites, lamenting the disastrous request for a human king to replace Yahweh, singing with Psalm 20:

“Now I know that the Lord will help his anointed; he will answer him from his holy heaven with mighty victories by his right hand. Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord our God. They will collapse and fall, but we shall rise and stand upright. Give victory to the king, O Lord; answer us when we call.”

Perhaps such prayers were heard in Israel in this time; perhaps some recognized that the only true king is Yahweh, that the success of his anointed human king comes only by the mighty hand and outstretched arm of the one true God. Perhaps.

But this text does not speak of any human initiative. None have cried out as in the Exodus; none have wrestled with God like Jacob; none have argued and debated with God like Moses or Abraham. There is only time, and silence, and worsening conditions—and God seemingly nowhere to be found.

Yet the word of the Lord comes to Samuel saying, How long will you grieve over Saul? Israel knows the phrase “How long?” They ask their God how long injustice will fester in the earth, how long the tyrant will reign, how long the godless will triumph. How long, O Lord!

Yet here God himself asks the question to a man: How long? How long will you grieve? How long will you sit on your laurels, lamenting my mistake or inaction or absence as if I am dead? The God of Israel is not the God of the dead but of the living! This God will not see his people perish! This God will not see the kingdom lost! This God will not see a failed and rejected king squash his purposes! This God will set a new course, will right the ship. This God has a plan. And he takes the initiative for the sake of his people.

Samuel obeys, and goes to Bethlehem, and prepares the men to be consecrated for the sacrifice. He meets Jesse and sees his oldest son, and surely this is the Lord’s anointed. Yet Israel’s God is not flattered by the surface: Yahweh looks at the heart. So the sons parade before Samuel, up to the seventh son, the complete Hebrew number. Yet the unnamed king remains to be seen. If he is there, he is outside completion, outside the boundaries, outside Israel’s wildest expectations.

And indeed he is outside—literally! The eighth son is tending the sheep in the field. We wait with the hesitant family, wondering what this political mover-and-shaker is about to do to the youngest, to the boy outside of anyone’s line of sight.

Finally he comes, and the Lord tells Samuel, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.” And the boy is anointed in the presence of his brothers, this eighth son of Jesse, this mysterious outsider from Bethlehem, this tender of sheep, this man after God’s own heart, this better one than Saul—Samuel anoints him and the Spirit of the Lord rushes upon him in power, and finally—finally—we hear his name.


Nine books into Israel’s Scriptures, more than a fourth of the way through, and until this very moment we have yet to hear the name of David. So important, so vital, so central to Israel and to Israel’s future, we have waited with bated breath and anxious anticipation for this moment, this event, this anointing, the promise of a future for God’s people even in the compromised form of life called monarchy. This David will do great things, conquering enemies and uniting kingdoms and receiving covenant and beginning the great psalmic tradition, loving God with all his heart. This David is Israel’s future and Israel’s hope. This David is God’s gift to his people in a time when hope was waning and memories of the old Exodus God were being held up to the light—the old negatives sent back for reprinting…

Did he really part the waters? Did he really defeat Egypt? Did he really provide the manna? Did he really give the Law? Did he really bring us into this land? Surely not. Surely Saul’s failure is proof enough of that. Surely Samuel’s exile is proof enough of that. Surely this time of silence, of absence, of Israel’s chaotic bad shape is proof enough. Those memories are playing tricks on us. We’ve been remembering wrong all along.

Yet God acts through Samuel to appoint and anoint the man by whom he will bind himself everlastingly to the house of Israel. David is the living God’s initiative for the preservation of his people.

What does this tell us about God?

It tells us that, even in times of insecurity and uncertainty, the God of Israel is sovereign over the nations, working in unexpected and surprising ways for his people.

It tells us that, when the powers of chaos threaten to overwhelm the cosmos, the God of Israel speaks, and behold: there is light.

It tells us that, when the sea stands in the path and there is no way around, the God of Israel parts the waters and the people walk through on dry ground.

It tells us that, when the people’s blasphemous desire for a king other than God becomes the disaster they should’ve known it would be, the God of Israel finds a way.

In the face of no future, no hope, no life, the God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” acts in sovereign initiative for the sake of the world and his people. For “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” can separate Israel from the love of Yahweh their God, the one who chooses and anoints David as the promised new king of Israel.

What this text does not say, however, is that everything happens for a reason. It does not say that God has a plan for your life. It does not say that God has foreordained every detail and every moment and every step and every mistake of your life. Nor does it say that God purposed or caused Saul to disobey. In fact, we even have the words that the Lord was sorry that he made Saul king over Israel, that literally he repented of his action.

We are not used to a God who is sorry. We are not used to a God who repents. But Israel’s memory in Scripture is uninterested in what makes us comfortable. Yahweh is a God who gets his hands dirty in the mess and muck of our world, even in the dirty human project of Israel’s politics. Yet even as this God repents, we find him also in the midst of preparing newness and life to burst out of these pangs of childbirth.

So today. That God is sovereign over the nations is part and parcel of our faith. That God’s good will is in no way threatened by the scheming of politicians or politicos, senators or generals, is a central feature of what it means to be a people whose king is the Lord and Creator of all. Yet we must remember that the message we carry and the word we speak to the world cannot be one that lays at God’s feet the mess we made. It is possible that we live under God’s judgment; it is possible this is a great reminder intended to wake us up from our deep slumber.

But it is also possible that, just as Israel wrongly asked for a king and just as Saul wrongly disobeyed yet God acted anew in spite of them, so our bad shape and our chaos stem from our own lack of faith and our own disobedience—and yet God will be faithful once again. God will be faithful once again. We know this. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercy never comes to an end: they are new every morning.” We know this.

If we are in bad shape we have a voice because Israel gives us the words to speak: The God who is sovereign over all has not abandoned us and will not, “for I have provided for myself a king among Jesse’s sons.” Our king has failed and thus our faith falters, but still God speaks into the darkness of chaos, still God parts the waters, and we see the true King exalted above the heavens and our faith is renewed. The sovereign King lives, and even death cannot contain him.

So with Israel, we have one response alone: shouts of praise and deep gladness. There are times to deal with the nitty gritty of life, to point out the exceptions, to cry out against what seems like only absence. But now—now—we wait and watch in patience for the new thing God will do. We live and work in hope and anticipation for the God who raises the dead to bring about new creation in the here and now, to invade our broken and reeling world with the good news of God’s reign, God’s kingship, even in the darkest places, especially in the darkest places. Because that is where God is most likely to be found in times such as these.

I conclude with these words from a prayer by Walter Brueggemann:

“You are there in watchfulness as we fall asleep; You are there in alertness when we awaken…and we are glad. …Now, at the dawn, our eyes are fixed on you in gladness. We ask only that your faithfulness permeate every troubled place we are able to name, that your mercy move against the hurts to make new, that your steadfastness hold firmly what is too fragile on its own. And we begin the day in joy, in hope, and in deep gladness.”


[Images courtesy of the Digital Image Archive, Pitts Theology Library, Candler School of Theology, Emory University.]

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