How do you pass things down the generations? Yesterday we enjoyed a great fete – lots of people having fun. What made it notable is that a younger generation were organising. The people in their 60s and 70s handed over to those in their 40s – and it’s going well.
Doesn’t always though. A certain media empire wrestles with the question: Is it better to keep it in the family? At times the White House doesn’t seem keen to bring in expertise from outside.
Countless businesses have struggled with the same question. And it’s a tricky one. Maybe there just isn’t anyone who wants to take on the family farm. Or perhaps the younger generation are keen – but they want to do it their way, with their ideas, not the way grandpa did it. What might just work for a business isn’t best for a nation. Our reading today from 1st Samuel 8 considers, how will a good ruler be chosen?
Don’t do what Samuel did. His big mistake came before our reading, in v.1-3. He appointed his sons as judges, but they became corrupt. A familiar story from the lives of many leaders. What’s particularly strange though, is that Samuel started his career when his predecessor Eli made exactly the same mistake. As we heard last week, Eli the priest had sons who were corrupt so God sent a message to Samuel telling Eli that their conduct would not be tolerated any longer. So you might expect Samuel to have learnt – yet it seems he has no more control over his sons than Eli did.
Three times in today’s reading the word listen is used. It’s a passage all about listening and obedience. But this isn’t the listening of a well-trained sheepdog which follows its master’s whistle exactly. This is about people who don’t listen to God. Alarmingly, it’s also about a God who allows us a scary amount of freedom. As we continue our sermon series on prayer this is a salutary reminder that we worship a God who listens to us. He is a God who believes in our freedom, who might even allow us what we want, even if it’s not the best thing for us.
So it starts with Samuel, who had heard the message to Eli. He had seen what happened to Eli’s sons, and yet he failed to learn the lesson himself. He chose his successors from his own family.
The principle goes wider. It can be tempting for managers to promote people who agree with them, or who make them feel good – but flatterers are fickle and yes-men rarely have leadership qualities themselves. Some leaders choose lieutenants by repaying those who are owed a favour or do it on the basis of dead men’s shoes. Neither of those approaches leads to the best stewardship, nor to public service.
Those of us who act as leaders should choose our colleagues not for our own convenience, but remember that we have a wider responsibility.
In this light v.4-5 might seem reasonable. The people state the facts, somewhat baldly. ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways – appoint for us then a king to govern us like other nations.’ Clearly they cherish and admire Samuel even if their tact is lacking. But Samuel takes it personally, in v.6, Samuel was displeased.
How easy it is to take opposition to heart! How easy to confuse the role with the person. To imagine that if your idea is opposed that people don’t like you. Or to go off in a huff. But sometimes role and person must be separate.
For instance, the first women priests had a lot of opposition. Some said it was easier to cope when they realised that the opposition wasn’t directed at them as people – it was what they represented. Interestingly, in many cases once congregations had got used to the person they were also able to accept the role. It’s very important for everyone in whatever situation to be able to keep the distinction between person and role, so that it doesn’t get too personal.
Sometimes it’s God who’s actually being rejected. Just as it was for Samuel. In v.7b ‘The Lord said they have not rejected you, they have rejected me from being king over them’. Again, there’s a failure to listen. The Biblical book of Deuteronomy is clear: God is their king. That’s why early Israel didn’t have monarchs – they were ruled by God who made his will known through prophets and judges like Samuel. Asking for a king was actually a profound rejection of the Lord.
So isn’t it all the more surprising that God seems to give in? What does he say in v7: ‘Listen to their request!’ Might he not have refused? There is a frightening responsibility here – God gives us what we ask for. Sometimes I hear people talking about their past and saying that such a thing must have been God’s will because he allowed them to do it. Implying that if God hadn’t wanted it, it wouldn’t have happened.
That’s not the way God works. Our heavenly Father gives us free will. He gives us the opportunity to choose, for better or for worse. And it wouldn’t be a free choice if the consequences weren’t truly open.
Therefore Samuel had to explain to the people what a king would do. The grass seems greener on the other side. Sometimes people need to know what the alternative actually involves. They have to be brought back to the real world. Occasionally we might look at an unhappy present and imagine a future ideal. Dreaming like that isn’t harmful – it can inspire us – provided that we face that fact that choices have to be made between real-life situations. And perfection is rarely possible. Maybe next time you meet someone complaining about something, it might be worth asking them: ‘what’s your solution?’
And that’s what the prophet does in verses 10-17. He tells what the king will do. The king will take the best for himself. He will take a whopping 10% for his people. Shows how much things have changed, that in those days an oppressive rate of tax was 10%! But then again, it was only for the armed forces and the king. No welfare state back then!
Yet the people do not listen. ‘No but we are determined to have a king over us. There are two reasons: We want to be like other nations. Not an informal coalition of tribes, relying on the worship of one God. Not living radically as a witness to the Gentiles. We want to grow. We want identity. Boundaries. Power. More land. Empire. We want a king.
Israel was meant to change the world. Instead they ended up being changed by it. Rather than listen to God and share that good news with the world, they listened to the world and asked God that they might be the same. The same challenge faces Christians today. Will we be witnesses? Or will we be conformed? Are we light in the world, pointing the way to Christ? Or do we seek to be like the other nations, taking our values from the world? What do we really value, and why?
And then their second reason ‘so that our king may govern us and go about before us and fight out battles.’ Perhaps we can sympathise with this. They did face real threats of invasion. Rule by God must have seemed a bit of a gamble. Is God really there? Does it make a difference in battle? And if God chooses the leaders by giving them his Spirit, well who will he send? Will they be up to it? At least with a king you know where you stand. You can see him!
It’s about trust, isn’t it? Following God is step into the unknown, a leap of faith. Faced by an alternative radical lifestyle, and the seeming uncertainty of God as King, the people opted for the allure of the nation state and the security of a human king. The irony was, they were less secure. For no human king would be up to the challenges the nation of Israel would face. Many were tried and found wanting. Only those who depended on God made the grade. Only he could ultimately save.
So God says again ‘Listen to them’. They are set in their way so he will allow them what they want. Yet the amazing thing about the way this story turns out is that God did not give up on them. Yes, the kings of Israel often did do exactly what Samuel had said. But there were also kings who ruled wisely: David, Hezekiah, Josiah. Maybe the institution was flawed from the start, but God in his grace was able to use the monarchy for good. It’s a reminder to us that, even when we mess up, God does not give up on us. He can take our mistakes and turn them round. If there’s anything in your life that you wished never happened, a mistake you made, bring it to God, see what he can do.
For God can even turn our mistakes into blessings. The change God brings is so great that even our errors and sins can be transformed and become something good. Look at the beginning and end of the Bible.
The Bible begins with two naked people in a garden. When they do wrong they cover their shame with clothes. Their descendants try and build a city which reaches to the skies, but their pride is punished when God divides their languages so they cannot understand one another.
What then would we expect at the end of the Bible? All being put right, a return to the golden age, of nakedness in a garden?
The Bible ends with a great multitude, from every tribe and language, clad in white robes as a glorious city descends from heaven. God has not put the clock back. He has taken human sin, and its consequences and totally transformed everything. The path we have taken cannot be untrodden, instead it is planted with flowers.
That’s exactly what God does with the idea of having a King. It becomes a model for Jesus. The one who would lead and serve perfectly. The one who now reigns with God.
Jesus was sent to be a King. Jesus too was rejected, the people did not want him as their Lord. We heard that in the gospel reading. And so they crucified him. Yet God turned that rejection into redemption. Jesus’ death in our place, on account of our sins, opened the way for all humanity to return to God. His love really is that awesome.
And so, to conclude. Our readings today challenge us – to whom do we listen? Do we listen to God and try to share that sensitively with the world around? Or do we take our values from the world around and hope that God won’t mind? Do we take responsibility for our decisions – for that responsibility is given by God and respected by him.
Recognising that we all make mistakes, can we see the hand of God in redeeming them? Will we allow God to transform our lives, not by putting the clock back, but by taking the hand we have dealt ourselves, and with it creating something beautiful and wonderful?