For the past number of weeks, we’ve been exploring together how the Bible fits together into one big story. And before we get into our text for today, I want to pause for a moment to share some of the reason that we’re doing this. It’s important to be familiar with the big story of scripture, because the biblical story is our story. It’s our family history. It is the story that we are continuing to live out. It is the story of God’s relationship with his world and his people.
We’ve been talking about the power of stories in our small group and so I apologize to those in my group if any of this is something you are hearing twice! Stories are a powerful way of making meaning in our lives. Stories are how we ground ourselves, how we communicate identity, purpose, meaning. They play a huge role in how we interpret our past, make sense of our present and imagine our future. Maybe you’ve heard this little parable from Henri Nouwen about twins talking to each other in the womb. One of the twins believes that there is life after birth, that she will get to meet her mother, that the unpleasant and painful squeezes that she and her twin feel every once and a while are preparing them to be delivered into a new life. The brother twin doesn’t believe this at all. He simply believes he is in a dark and cozy place where there is nothing to do but to cling to the cord that feeds him.
These two different stories that these twins embrace about their lives have huge shaping power. You can imagine how the twin thinking that she will be born soon would be doing lots of kicking and moving to get ready for what is next, how she might endure the pain of the squeezes with a hope that it’s accomplishing something, preparing her for what is next, how she might have an ear to pay attention to the voice of her mother, how that would bring her joy. The brother on the other hand doesn’t have a lot of vision or imagination for anything outside of his immediate reality and remaining alive and comfortable. He doesn’t listen for his mother as he doesn’t believe she is there. The stories these two twins embrace make a huge difference in terms of how they experience their present.
Without a story in which to find our place, we can easily become lost and disoriented. And in many ways, that’s a bit of where we are at culturally—disoriented and lost without a story to ground us, and give us direction and vision in community. Meaning-making and figuring out story and identity are often left up to us as individuals to forge on our own. Which is an overwhelming task! Some lyrics from a band called Fleet foxes communicates a bit of this:
I was raised up believing
I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake, unique among snowflakes
Unique in each way you can see
And now, after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery
Serving something beyond me
But I don’t, I don’t know what that will be
I’ll get back to you someday soon you will see
You can hear the longing to find place and meaning in something larger, being a part of something bigger instead of simply being beautifully unique, but also adrift and alone, vulnerable to being blown about by the slightest breeze.
Simone Weil says that “to be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul”.
One of the many gifts of scripture is that it roots us in a story that began before creation, a story in which we can find belonging, that gives us guidance as we ask questions about who we are, who we belong to, what we are here to do and where we are going. Questions whose answers we often hold unconsciously, but which shape all our actions, decisions, how we interpret events and a million other small decisions throughout our day. So we as a church have taken up a pretty hefty task here as we have been seeking this last little while in telling the story of scripture as a whole, so we can get a sense of how scripture fits together as a whole and to claim the story of the Bible as our story, our family history, the story we are continuing to live out today of God’s story of love for his people.
As a bit of a recap, so far we’ve explored how God created the world to be beautiful and a hospitable place for life and for his people. We then saw how humans rebelled against God which broke and twisted humans relationships with God, creation and each other. We looked at how God chose Abraham to reveal himself to and through whom to bless all the nations. We then saw how God gave Abraham’s descendants a land to call their own again with the purpose of being a light and drawing others into relationship with God.
In our text today, Abraham’s descendants, the nation of Israel, has been in the land for hundreds of years. They had been under Moses’ leadership, then Joshua’s, and then went through a long rough stretch of history where they were led by a series of Judges, all the while following a cyclical pattern of rebelling against God, being militarily threatened by the surrounding nations, crying out to God for help and then God providing rescue. Israel is still a small nation who are relatively new to the land, and relatively new to farming, which was what the nations around here did. They were often looking for guidance and help in farming which involved them getting tied up in Baal worship. Baal was a god who was supposed to be in charge of fertility and making crops grow well. In order to ensure fertility of their family, animals, and crops, a person would have sex with a cult prostitute at the local Baal shrine. The purpose of this was to inspire Baal to act likewise on the person’s behalf and give them fertility in all areas of life. Imagine what kind of impact this type of worship would have on sexuality, marriages, families, not to mention the sex workers at the temple, both male and female adolescents and adults. Imagine the impact of regularly using another person’s body (or having your own body used) as a means to an end, rather than as a mutual, joyful intimate sharing of oneself with another and a celebration of the other in the context of faithfulness. Is it any wonder that God’s heart would burn in anger at this abuse of human beings, and human sexuality? Israel was constantly being threatened by but also mixing with the Philistines, a nation who lived mostly by the sea who worshipped Baal. This is also a time in the history of this area where there isn’t a huge military power dominating the area, so in some ways, it is the perfect opportunity for a little nation such as Israel to grow in power and prominence.
It’s into this situation that we read this conversation between the elders of Israel and Samuel about who is going to be Israel’s leader after Samuel dies. I’d like to draw our attention to a key thing to this conversation. Remember that one of the big reasons that God calls Israel as a nation is so that other people can come to know who God is and what it looks like to be in relationship with him through them. They are to be unique in that way. They are blessed to be a blessing and to be a light to the nations. But notice the reason here that Israel asks for a king. It’s not so they can have someone to keep them centred on God, to make sure they are being faithful witnesses. It’s not to have someone to help them in resisting the draw to ensure successful farming through Baal temple worship, so that they can instead rely on God, the Creator and Designer of seeds, crops, weather patterns and cattle and human sexuality and fertility. No, Israel wants a king so they can be like the nations.
The desire for a king isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Elsewhere in scripture, kings are described as having the responsibility to maintain justice and righteousness in the land by ensuring that God’s law was known and followed. Kings were to be faithful to God and to reveal his character, and lead the people in obedience to God. But this is not the reason at this point that the elders of Israel give for wanting a king. It’s not so they can be led in following God. It is so they can be like the nations. So they can have someone to win battles for them, to give them security and power so they can be like the nations they fear, and dominate the nations they fear. I’m going to suggest that this is the reason God says to Samuel, “it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.” They want a king not so they can grow in love and trust of God, but so they can find their identity, power and security in being like the nations.
One of the ways that family stories function is to act as a mirror. Hearing this story, holding it up and gazing into it we see and hear our spiritual ancestors. Do you see any family resemblance? Can you see any hints of your own reflection in this story? What have been the desires of your heart lately? What’s been the motivation behind your desire? To grow in joy and obedience in God? To take on the unique role of serving in a world that’s about power? To take on the sometimes vulnerable and quiet task of prayer in a world about getting things done? To honour and protect human sexuality in words, action and heart in a world that’s about exploiting it? Or, living surrounded by the nations, have you been desiring to be like them? To believe that money and power are for satisfying and protecting yourself? That suffering has no value or meaning? Have you been leaning towards believing what the nations say is important? To do what they do, to say what they say, to believe what they believe? What has been at the heart of your desire? Remember that desiring a king wasn’t necessarily wrong. It was the motivation behind that desire. God always cuts straight to the heart.
Along with warnings for what a king will do, God does give the nation of Israel what they say they want. He gives them a king. As the generations pass with a few exceptions, the kings are a bit too good at delivering on Israel’s expressed desire to be like the nations. For a while Israel is in a position of power and security in the land, but their kings tax them heavily, worship the surrounding gods and forget God’s ways so eventually, God’s people are taken over by other nations and are taken into exile. It’s out of this place that Israel cries out again with a longing for a deliverer, for a king. This is the place that we are left at the end of the Old Testament.
And again God hears his people and he gives them what they want again, but this time he gives them what he created them to want, what perhaps they don’t even know they want, what all the other kings, even David, could only be a shadow of. He comes himself to be their king again. But he is not a king like the kings the other nations have. He doesn’t come with military strength or with a military agenda. He doesn’t reestablish the nation of Israel as a world power. His way of wielding power explodes the definitions of power that his people hold onto. He is a king so unlike the ones that God warned his people about in this passage. He doesn’t exploit his people, use their children and their work for the upbuilding of his own comfort and security. He doesn’t build up armies. He doesn’t make his people his slaves. He doesn’t tax them or take their money. This king did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. His imagination for restoration and wholeness went way beyond the nation of Israel’s borders being secured.
As we journey through the season of Lent, we remember that Israel again rejects God as their king when he comes to them. Yet thought the mysterious wisdom of God, it is through this very rejection, that God accomplishes his purpose defeating sin and death and anything and everything that could ever come in the way of his love for his people.
Let’s take on this story as our own with all it’s pain, all it’s hope, all it’s warning. As we ground ourselves in the story of scripture, may the Holy Spirit do his work to empower us to live with our eyes open. Seeing how we bear resemblance to our spiritual ancestors. Paying attention to the warning these stories provide and asking God to give us his desires. But mostly and definitely most importantly, may it draw us into the love of our God and Servant King who remains faithful to his people despite repeated rejections big and small, who gives us not what we think we want, but what our hearts truly desire. He gives us himself.