Weekly Preaching: June 6, 2021

June 2nd, 2021

1 Samuel 8:4-20. Saul, chosen, flawed, rejected, the Bible’s classic tragic figure. Big, strong, rich; he even had a frenzied experience of the Spirit (1 Sam 10:12). He was the beneficiary, or rather the unlucky one, of a theologically wacky process narrated in our text. “All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and said to him, ‘You are old’” (a frank but unflattering opening remark), “‘and your sons do not follow in your ways’” (similarly frank and unflattering).

“Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us” (they had tried this years earlier with Gideon, who wisely refused – perhaps like Frodo destroying instead of wielding the ring of power) “like other nations” (which was the one thing Israel was not supposed to be). “But the thing displeased Samuel” (another understatement – but why? Perhaps he was displeased that they were so frank and unflattering as to reject his sons. What does his desperate lunge to install his greedy sons tell us about his heart? Was he clinging to hopes they would turn out all right after all? Did he seek some validation through them? Was he, in old age, shortsighted regarding what was required in such tough times? How did the author of 1 Samuel get this peek into Samuel’s sentimental confusion? And how did he know Samuel’s displeasure was shared by God – who if anything felt more jilted than did Samuel?).

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘They have rejected me from being king over them.’” Francesca Aran Murphy's insight intrigues (in her Brazos commentary): God does not appear much in the story going forward. Has God withdrawn? Does it seem to wayward people God has withdrawn? We would all do as poorly as they did – or worse. Saying We need no government or army, God is our King would be a deeply pious riff, but the Midianites and Philistines wielded real swords and clubs. Dealing with them spontaneously, haphazardly, armed with nothing but a prayer made no sense. And the world was changing. The Bronze Age was yielding to the technologically superior Iron Age. Nomadic, tribal culture was yielding to urbanization and more centralized power all over the world. Israel was under siege, and would likely be squashed within a generation. The Bible’s radical vision of life with God never seems to mesh well with the demands of real societies trying to adjust and survive. The Prussian chancellor Bismarck famously said “You can’t run a government based on the Sermon on the Mount.”

How surprising then that the Lord, nursing feelings of rejection, told Samuel, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you” (1 Sam 8:7). To their veering away, God didn’t toss down thunderbolts; no, God let them have what they wanted. “God gave them up” (Romans 1). When people insist on their will instead of God’s, God “gives them up,” God lets them have their way. The name Saul means “asked for.” What rich irony!

But they aren’t abandoned to their own devices. There’s a warning (1 Samuel 8:9). Pastors warn – but who wants to hear warnings? Was Samuel’s tone accusatory? Or tender pleading? The warning is a laundry list of troubles (taxes, wars, demeaning labor). But the people only hardened their hearts, shouting “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that he may go out before us and fight our battles” (1 Sam 8:19-20). “Our” battles, not the Lord’s. It’s as if they want to return to Egypt, where the powerful extracted from everybody else!

Like Oedipus of Greek tragedy, Saul is doomed at the outset. He’s not flawed so much as the people who want him are flawed – and he’s caught in the nexus of their failure, a scapegoat of sorts. And yet… shock of all shocks, miracle of all miracles, God winds up using the very kingship God didn’t want the people to have, which emerged out of idolatrous and rebellious motives, and established his own son, Jesus, the Messiah on Israel’s throne forever. God is, once again, more amazing than our wildest imaginings. (By the way, my new book on biblical leadership, Weak Enough to Lead, explores the Saul story in more depth, with connections to leadership today.)

2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1 explores God’s craziness from a different angle. The lectionary weirdly lops a logically tight section off before it’s done – this lovely text we often read at funerals. The text explains itself, and should be read slowly, lingering over words and phrases – even in the sermon. Preaching at Oxford during the dark days of World War II, C.S. Lewis picked up on “The Weight of Glory” and spent what must have been fifteen startling, wonderful minutes preaching on that phrase – one of the truly great sermons in Christian history. Read it in preparation to preach, or just to expand your soul.

Henri Nouwen also went deep on the way momentary affliction prepares for glory in his story about fraternal twins chatting in the womb. The sister announces to her brother, ‘I believe there is life after birth.’ He protested: ‘No, no, this is all there is. This is a dark and cozy place, and we have nothing to do but cling to the cord that feeds us.’ But she insisted: ‘There must be something more than this dark place. There must be something else, a place with light, where there is freedom to move.’ She couldn’t convince him. Later, she added, ‘I have something else to say, and I’m afraid you won’t like that either, but I think there is a Mother.’ Her brother became furious. ‘A Mother!?’ he shouted. ‘What are you talking about? I have never seen a mother, and neither have you. Who put that idea in your head? As I told you, this place is all we have. Why do you always want more? This is not such a bad place, after all. We have all we need, so let’s be content.’ Hurt deeply, she didn’t say anything for a long time. But she couldn’t let go of her thoughts, and with no one else to talk to, finally she said, ‘Don’t you feel those squeezes once in a while? They’re quite unpleasant and sometimes even painful.’ ‘So?’ he replied. ‘Well,’ the sister said, ‘I think that these squeezes are there to get us ready for another place, much more beautiful than this, where we will see our Mother face to face. Don’t you think that’s exciting?’ The brother didn’t answer. He was fed up with the foolish talk.

Mark 3:20-35. Roman Catholics might be right in their interpretation that Jesus was Mary’s only child. For us Protestants, the plain reading of Mark 3:31 and 6:3 is that Jesus had four brothers and at least two sisters. If Jesus is one with us in our human struggles, I find comfort that he had siblings to tangle with. And I’m even more moved by the fact that at least James, his brother, became a leader of the Church after Jesus’ resurrection; if anyone could have raised his hand and said He’s just a guy, I’d know, he used to steal my toys, it would be his brother.

Here’s a fascinating moment: in Mark 3:21, Jesus’ family (which members of his family aren’t specified) hear about a crowd jammed into a house to hear him. “When they heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, ‘He is out of his mind.’” Jesus’ impoverished family had to be puzzled by his fame, and especially his bizarre interactions with the demonic world. If families today don’t understand the complexities of mental health issues, they are in good company. St. Francis’s own family thought he’d lost his wits – and Pope Francis’s mom was devastated when she learned he was entering the priesthood instead of medicine.

We know that the first Christians faced daunting conflicts with family. It cost you business back then, and lots of believers were shunned and ridiculed. They must have found solace in hearing that Jesus himself left his family befuddled. We might ask if our belief and commitments to Christ are serious enough to raise even an eyebrow from family members.

Later, there’s another crowd. Jesus’ mother and brothers must have arrived a little later than the others, for they are outside, on the periphery. Someone reports this to Jesus – suspecting he’d asked to have them ushered in to the front row. But Jesus replied “Who are my mother and my brothers?” And then gesturing toward the crowd circled around him, he said “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother” (Mark 3:33-35).

Jesus came, not to bind families more strongly together and make them happy. He actually divided families. Jesus’ ultimate mission was to create a new family, a little scary to those in happy families or who cling to the dream of one, strangely hopeful to those in broken families, and a vital joy for all of us. Pete Scazzero, in his great program Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, speaks of church as “re-familying.” You’re adopted into this new family, not related by blood (unless you count Jesus’ blood!) but by faith. We speak of a church “family,” and that’s our vision. Mind you, families have their dysfunctions, and their squabbles. But you stick with family – as God invites us to stick with church.

And the “unforgivable sin”? Wise pastors suggest to anyone who’s fretting over maybe having committed it that, if you are genuinely worried about this, you probably have not done so. Joel Marcus explains such sin would be “a total, malignant opposition to Jesus that twists all the evidence of his life-giving power into evidence that he is demonically possessed. Those guilty of such blasphemy would not be overly concerned about having committed it.” I’d turn this and ask Why worry so much over Did I commit that one that’s unforgivable? What then about the mass of quite forgivable sins I’ve committed – and been forgiven?

This post originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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