“A Peculiar People”
“A Peculiar People”
1 Samuel 8:4-20; 11:14-15
Dr. Bobby Hulme-Lippert
June 6, 2021
On more than a few occasions, these past 14 months have made me think, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone who could just tell us plainly, clearly, and regularly… “Here is what you need to do. Here is how to do it. Here is what not to do.”
Because I have found that these past 14 months have been filled with all kinds of decisions to make amid all kinds of uncertainties – and I know I am hardly alone.
Depending on where you work or volunteer or your family situation, we’ve had questions like…
- To open or not to open – or do something in the middle? And if open, what protocols? And if those protocols, how to implement?
- To attend school this way or that? And if that way, then what implications?
- To follow those health protocols or those health protocols?
- To travel there or not?
- To trust that news source on this one on how to deal with this?
- Reschedule the wedding or memorial service or do it live and livestream and then how to do that and who gets to come and who doesn’t and… ?
- To attend the event or not?
And rarely has the answer always been obvious or easy. Or if it has, then implementing our answer has not been obvious or easy. And over time these decisions become tiring – and wouldn’t it be nice if someone could just do the answering for us some of the time? Or whatever the load is we are carrying, just take and fix it?
I for one am very sympathetic to the elders of Israel in our passage from 1 Samuel 8 when they come to the prophet Samuel and say, “Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.”
“Give us a leader who can bear the burden of leadership in these challenging times, who can deal with all the problems – just like all the other nations have.”
First, a bit of context about this request by the elders:
At this time in Israel’s history, the people of God are under this form of governance where they depend on God as their king. And from time to time when Israel needs a particularly strong earthly leader, God raises up a person – a judge or prophet. Like
Deborah. Or Sampson. Or Samuel in our passage. And that person will lead for the needed season.
Inherent to this form of government is this covenant with God – They trust Yahweh above any other form of government or systems or military might.
“We belong to our God and our God will provide.”
This makes the people of Israel a peculiar people among the nations.…and God promises back in Genesis that other nations will pray to be blessed like them when other nations see what this looks like.
Well, in 1 Samuel 8 we are hitting a point in the story where Samuel, one of those prophets that weas raised up at just the right time, he has done a great job, but he is getting older and his two sons have begun taking some of the power and using it for their own ends. Accepting bribes. Distorting justice.
And so the elders of the community see a moment of leadership transition coming, and there is cause for alarm.
On top of that, this scene is taking place near the beginning of the Iron Age. An age when militaries were beginning to use steel weaponry – far more formidable than bronze. And that’s rather intimating when you are a nation with no reliable, standing military like everybody around you who has a king and a king’s army.
Bottom line: Israel faces significant leadership questions internally…powerful enemies externally. It is a highly anxious moment.
As Old Testament scholar, John Goldingay, points out it is at this anxious point that the elders should be doing one, critical thing:
They should be fasting, praying, and confessing (and gathering the community to do likewise) as they have done in past seasons when they needed God to come through as their king.
This is to say, this is when they should be entering into a time of deeper dependence on God. And this really is a basic truth for God’s people throughout time.
We think of Jesus when he was in the wilderness for 40 days at the outset of his ministry. He’s extremely hungry, and when Satan tempts him to meet that hunger with immediate relief, “Just turn these stones around you into bread”. Jesus replies, “One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
“I trust not in the quick fix of stones-to-bread, but upon a deeper dependence on God.”
The elders are to be leading the way in renewed dependence and trust in God their king – this is central to what makes the people of God wonderfully peculiar.
Instead – “Just give us a king like everybody else.” Someone to take care of all of the problems; the quick-fix at-hand who can give us a sense of stability.
In the 2019 book Uproar: Calm Leadership in Anxious Times Peter Steinke writes that in times of acute transition and anxiety, like the times we have been in these recent months and even years, such times “prepare us to sell our soul to some miraculous cure or larger-than-life figure…we become prone to seek rescuers with puffed up promises and rich remedies.”
The more anxious and uncertain the times, the more we look for a hero. Someone to get us out. Someone to give us the answer. Someone with the miracle. Someone with a cure. Someone with an easy-to-digest bumper sticker description of how to think. How to be.
“Give us a king. Give us the quick, obvious fix that everyone else has.”
I was reading an article by a pastor at Second Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa – a church in Reformed Church of America. And in the article, he laments his denomination’s “cultural capitulation.” This moment where he sees his denomination, essentially, trying to do things “like everybody else.”
The issue at hand for his denomination is that they may very well split. No surprise, there are significant social, political, and theological divides in the denomination.
And this pastor talks about this report that arrived to the floor of their denomination’s annual gathering in 2020 which provided recommendations on what to do amid these significant divisions and differences.
Before sharing those recommendations in his article, this pastor first reminds the reader that his is a denomination – much like the PCUSA – where the church structures “assume things like jointly-held authority, trust, long term relationships, mutuality, while still respecting boundaries and differences.”
Our Book of Order puts that sentiment this way: “The polity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presupposes the fellowship of women, men, and children united in covenant relationship with one another and with God through Jesus Christ. The organization rests on the fellowship and is not designed to work without trust and love.”
The whole of our jointly-held governance with people of all kinds of backgrounds, politics, ages, race and ethnicity…the whole of it is premised on a covenant in which we trust God and trust one another. And love is the glue of that trust.
So the author reminds his reader of this peculiar kind of governance we share, this peculiar way we share life together.
And then he shares the recommendations that his denomination has made for dealing with the fact that anymore there are such significant differences and divisions among the various congregations in their denomination:
- The report suggests ‘affinity groups’ that have clusters of churches put together in terms of their theological leanings instead of putting them together in terms of geographical location. This allows churches that think and act alike to be more readily in community.
- They suggest the global mission arm of their church be made into a separate entity entirely so that there is not all this friction with international ministry partnerships. They do their thing. We do ours.
- Finally, it suggests a ‘grace-filled separation’ where each congregation can have its own property and its own money and none of it is shared by the denomination as a whole or shared in any kind of mutuality with other congregations in the same vicinity. Yours is yours. Mine is mine.
And then the pastor offers this assessment: “I’m not suggesting that there are better options. I’m simply observing that if we want to see what cultural capitulation looks like, here it is. The recommendations of the report accurately express what makes sense, what is accepted, and what it really looks like to be church today…in a society where all we hear is how polarized and deeply divided we are, is there anything more indicative of our cultural capitulation than for a church to be polarized and to divide?”
When he sees the church saying “Just let us be with our kind of people” what he hears is the echo of that ancient cry, “just let us have a king like everybody else.”
“Just let us organize ourselves like everybody else already does in so many facets of society. It’s just easier. It’s natural. It feels better.”
So, God relents. God lets the people organize themselves into a monarchy – they will have a king…but not before fair warning. Scholars suggest the gravity of this warning given through Samuel is meant to have the people back off of their request.
Samuel tells the people, “Ok, you can have a king (and perhaps that will provide a sense of security), but just know a king is going to take everything.
- Your sons and daughters and land will be for the king.
- Your taxes and food, for the king.
- The very thing you see as your easy out, your hero, your escape, your way to fix this right now…this will be the thing that enslaves you.”
And I wonder if we wouldn’t imagine a similar kind of warning today: “Ok, you have an affinity group churches. You can gather with people who look like you, and vote like you, and watch the same news as you. But…
- the more distance you have from the other side and the less you know the other side, the more you will judge them.
- The more you judge, the more you will hate.
- The more you hate, the more you will see one another as less than human.
- The less human they become, the more willing you will be to hurt them – with words, and more. And the more all of that grows, the more the fires of hate and anger will consume you. Which is to say…the natural, obvious, easy fix will be the thing that consumes you.”
God’s warning in our passage fails to awaken the people to just what they are asking for. In fact, when Samuel gets a response from his warning, it comes not just from the elders but now from all of the people – indicating to us that at this point the leadership has the backing of the people on this.
No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” And Saul is anointed as King shortly thereafter.
Yes, the people did very much discover themselves enslaved to the demands of their future kings, the prophetic warning was very true.
But here is the really strange – even peculiar – thing about all this: Even though the people have traded in that which makes them peculiar, God does not give up on them.
You keep reading the story and you will see that God sticks with the people of Israel. God ends up working with and through King Saul and then King David – and others beyond.
This is to say – the people choose wrongly, and still, God is faithful to work right through the wrong thing.
I imagine we may be tempted to think like some of the folks that the Apostle Paul encountered in the early church. He writes about them in the book of Romans when he says,
“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?”
“Shall we keep having kings or dividing into our preferred enclaves or doing really whatever we want because God is faithful and forgiving and will work through it all no matter what? Let’s do our thing that grace may abound all the more.”
To which Paul abruptly writes in the very next sentence: “By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?”
God’s faithfulness amid our impoverished decisions in no way justifies those kinds of decisions. We are still called to be a peculiar people. A light to the world. This is not just a call – but a gift.
And in our day and age, I am convinced one of the chief ways we give witness to this peculiarity is by gathering and serving and worshipping alongside people with whom we would never find ourselves in the same place or same mission – except for Jesus.
Is by gathering with growing trust and love for and with people across the kind of boundaries that usually divide in the rest of our society.
This is our prophetic peculiarity for such a time as this.
And yet, I cannot deny the logical end of our passage in 1 Samuel 8…even when we cannot help ourselves and we cry out “Just let us do it like everybody else. Those people are too much. Too difficult. Too wrong.” Even as there will be suffering that comes out of that separation, still God will meet us where we are and somehow still God will work with that.
“The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Ours is a God who humbles God’s self time and again to meet us where they are in our wrong-headedness – and love us.
May we know the gift of our God’s steadfast nearness this day.
And in these anxious times, in these times where questions abound, in these times where so many reach for quick-fixes and the safety of like-mindedness and even wrong-headedness altogether…may we show forth our God’s peculiar love by being a people who likewise go and dwell among them – and love. Amen