June 7, 2015

by Rev. Dr. Amy Ruth Schacht

I Samuel 8:4-11, 13, 17-21,22a

Be Careful What You Pray For

   Today we’re dipping into the Hebrew Scriptures – Our own Old Testament, to explore our history as part of God’s chosen people. We’re taking a look at the prophet Samuel. Does anyone remember anything about Samuel’s childhood? He was the longed for son of Hannah, who was so grateful she gave him to the priesthood. He apprenticed with the prophet Eli, and he heard God calling in the night. He ended up having to tell Eli that his sons were so awful and corrupt, they would not be the next priests; instead, Samuel would be. Okay, fast forward a generation, and that’s where our story picks up – Ironically, with the elders of the land telling Samuel his own sons are so awful and corrupt, they could not possibly be the next priests. No, these probably wealthy and powerful leaders among the Israelites, they wanted a king, just like their neighbors.

   Listen for a word from God, from I Samuel, the 8th chapter:

   “Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and said to Samuel, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’” Samuel does not take well to being told he’s old and it’s time to put him out to pasture. Nor is he thrilled to hear they want to trade him in, not just for a younger model, but one that will impress the neighbors – A shiny, new, king. He feels mightily betrayed and rejected. “Samuel prayed to the Lord – “ And he was probably hoping the Lord will say something like, “Over my dead body will those people have any king but me!” But instead, the Lord seems to have already given in: “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. Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to the this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also are they doing to you.”

  In other words, “Dear Samuel, it’s the same-old same-old: These people – they love to complain and reject and point out all the ways I am letting them down, and all the ways you, as my ambassador, are letting them down. I tell you what – Let’s try something new – Let’s give the people what they are asking for, and see how they like it. I suspect they don’t realize what they are in for.”

   Samuel tried to warn them – He said to them, “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. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take one tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And 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.”

   Pretty bleak picture, isn’t it – You would think such a dire warning would have them begging God to take them back – But maybe Samuel laid it on a little too thick, and they figured he was exaggerating just how bad it would be –

   “But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel, they said, “No!” but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.”

   And instead of refusing to give the people what was clearly not going to be good for them – Instead of trying to protect them from themselves, God said, “Do as they ask! And give them a king!” And that king was Saul. We’ll learn in the upcoming weeks how that worked out for them.

   Show of hands – Yes, the lessons of history teach us how to avoid repeating the mistakes of history. Okay. Now: Show of hands: We are great at learning those lessons, so history almost never repeats. I didn’t think I was alone here – History does repeat, and we don’t seem to learn. So why study the chosen people’s series of bad choices all these thousands of years later?

   We study history, and our own people’s stories and relationships with God in order to, as Lord Acton puts it, illumine our own soul. These short-sighted, proud elders reach across space and time to show us something true about ourselves. But more importantly, something true about God.

   Because we have made our own fair share of bad decisions; we’ve been on the wrong side of history, and in our personal lives, well, anyone here ever make a decision that seemed like the right choice in that moment, but years or even decades later, you realize maybe not have been the best path?

   Surely the lesson of today’s scripture is clear: The people have been warned – DO NOT PURSUE A KING – It takes little foreshadowing for us to know it is not going to turn out well. We too have been warned away from all sorts of things that we go ahead and pursue. But, then what?

   When we’ve strayed, where is God?

   Samuel would have us believe that if we insist on making our own beds, then we’re going to have to lie in them. He tells them flat out – Ignore my warnings, and God will abandon you.

&nbps;  But thankfully, that is not true – It wasn’t true then, and it’s not true now. Yes, could the elders have saved themselves a whole heaping helping of heartache if they had just had a little patience to see how God’s way would work out? Yes. Did God cause all that heartache to teach them a lesson and punish them for insisting they knew best? No – The miseries their king brought were just the natural consequences. But God is still with them.

   And when we find we’ve strayed from a path of wholeness, when we’ve tried other options other than trusting in God, when we’ve taken matters into our own hands and made a mess of things – When we’re in that place, it can surely feel like it’s all up to us to clean up the mess we’ve made. And maybe we even think that the pain we’re suffering is part of God’s punishment for not listening in the first place. We did this to ourselves – had the affair, married too young, dropped out of school, used alcohol to smooth out the harsh edges, gone the easy way of turning a blind eye, gone against what we believed, ignored the signs our kid was in trouble, or that our parents needed help – And now we’re on our own.

   Except, that isn’t how God works. God does not reject the chosen people because they’ve pledged allegiance to a king. God does not abandon them in their time of trouble, even if the trouble was of their own making. Make no mistake, God doesn’t rescue them from the natural outcomes of their decisions.

&nbps;  But here’s what this passage reminds us: God might give us exactly what we pray for, even when we don’t realize just how – and just how badly – that might turn out. Because our God is like that – Willing to let us go our own way, let us experience firsthand the consequences of getting our own way. But even when we don’t listen, even when our worries and anxieties and fears and impatience blind us to better options, even then, God does not give up on us. We’ll still suffer from bad decisions, but God will be with us, on our side, trying ever again to draw us back to the path of wholeness. It just isn’t easy –

&nbps;  Ever hear the quip, Lord, give me patience, and give it to me right now? I heard a fantastic rebuttal: Don’t pray for patience, or God will give you exactly what you’ve asked for: And you’ll end up with a whole heaping helping of opportunities perfectly designed to make your lose your patience, so you can practice.

   The point is this: We will stray; we all do; it’s part of being a human being. But God always has a Plan B. We are never too far from grace that we can’t be drawn back in. Sure, the chosen people get their king, and sure, it does get ugly, but God is always right there, always offering another way, always holding the people close, whether they want to be close to their Maker or not. And this can give us strength and hope for the living of our own lives, in Christ.