Sermon: June 2, 2024 Proper 4

Over the next 11 weeks all of our Old Testament readings will be taken from the books of First and Second Samuel, so I thought it might be helpful to step back this morning and take some time to look at the bigger picture.

What are these two books, which many scholars say should really be one book, about?

What was going on with the people of Israel before, during and after the stories written down in the books of Samuel were written?

Are there larger messages in these books and if so, what might some of these messages be?

Do these books have any lessons for us today?

If you remember Israel’s earlier history, God calls Abraham and Sarah to leave their native land in order to become the parents of a new people chosen by God to show God’s values and promises to all the world.

God gives the elderly couple a son, who also has a son, who has many sons one of whom brings these descendants of Abraham and Sarah to Egypt during a time of famine, thereby enabling the Israelite tribe to survive.

Eventually this Israelite tribe becomes enslaved in Egypt and God rescues them from their suffering leading them to a new land, a promised land, but only after forming them into a people and teaching them the values and ways by which they are to live.

During their travels from Egypt into this promised land, the Israelites are led by two strong leaders: Moses and Joshua.

Once the various tribal families that make up the Israelite people settle in this new land, the land of Cana, they don’t immediately become a nation.

Instead, they live in numerous tribal units bound together by ethnic origin and religious beliefs and only come together when invaded by other encroaching tribes.

We see this part of the Israelite story in the books of Joshua and Judges.

When needed, God raises up Judges, or military heroes, who lead the tribes together into battle to defeat any invading tribes.

The Judges defended the people’s place in the land.

There was no recognized central structure.

Leadership was intermittent, local, and dependent on the character of the leader.

Religious observance was also intermittent.

There were some religious shrines recognized by all, such as the shrine at Shiloh where Eli and Samuel served as priests, but no religious center recognized by all.

In the book of Judges, we can see a crisis developing.

The attacks by these foreign tribes are becoming stronger and better organized, in particular the attacks by the Philistines.

The Israelite people are afraid and desperate.

As 1 Samuel begins and unfolds, we see the people demanding stronger leadership, they demand a king.

By the beginning of the first book of Kings, the book that follows 2 Samuel, Israel was a full-scale monarchy with an integrated national government and a widely recognized capital city.

Not long after that, religious worship was centralized in the new temple.

First and Second Samuel tell the story of the tumultuous time of transition between tribal governance and centralized monarchy.

But it isn’t simply a history of politics or sociology. It is also a story about the individuals who created and were caught up in the political and sociological change.

Some of the most memorable stories in all of Scripture come from the books of Samuel: the call of Samuel (today’s reading), David’s battle with Goliath, and David’s seizure of Bathsheba as his wife are just a few of these memorable stories.

And through these stories of these remarkable individuals, we are encouraged to engage with the questions that have confronted humans since the beginning of the human race:

What does it mean to be human?

To whom do we owe allegiance?

Where do we belong?

How do we account for the beauty and the tragedy, the healing and the violence, and the good and the bad of human life?

How is human power to be used?

We have modern answers to these questions.

Science says that humans are driven by deep-seeded drives that allow our species to survive.

Psychology says that we are not always rational but are instead frequently possessed by passions that express our longing for belonging and acceptance by others.

We are what we desire.

Economics says that for humans it is production, possessions, and consumption that are of the greatest importance.

The books of Samuel depict all of these aspects of being human, but ultimately portray the mystery of humanity.

It is a book that portrays a species full of surprise and contradiction that can’t be defined by any one of our modern definitions.

So, the books of 1 and 2 Samuel portray the full range of what it means to be human—the good, the bad and the ugly.

But ultimately humans are not the main characters of the stories told in the pages of these books.

The main character of First and Second Samuel is Yahweh, the God of Israel, the God of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rachel, Jacob and Rebecca, the Judges, Hannah, Eli, Samuel, Jonathan, Saul, David, Jesus, the Apostles, the disciples, and us.

In these two books, history is the stage on which God reveals God’s very self.

This God is in charge of everything but does not control everything.

Instead, this God uses the Divine power to animate and sustain human freedom.

This God works through people: fragile, fallible, and misguided people who are also capable of initiating healing, hope, and transformation.

Throughout these two books, God chooses what is fragile and imperfect to accomplish God’s purposes in human history.

In other words, God chooses us.

God does not act on the affairs of the world like a puppet master controlling their puppets.

Instead, God acts in and through the affairs of the world, in and through the people and their choices.

Even when God’s people make poor choices, this God will not let go.

The God of the history described in these two books is a promise-maker who will not forsake these promises even when the people forsake theirs.

The God revealed in First and Second Samuel is a powerful God, but this God’s power is unlike human power.

Humans in these stories are continually corrupted by the power they gain, God is not.

Throughout these books we are shown that God’s purposes and values are different from ours and we learn that God will meet us where we are.

So, what does any of this have to do with us?

Well, I think a whole lot.

We too are living in extremely tumultuous times.

Our two main candidates for our next presidential election are both controversial.

Both are older than any other candidates throughout our nation’s history.

One is a convicted felon who has yet to be sentenced.

Support for authoritarian leadership is rising throughout the world because people are afraid.

We are living in a time of tremendous political, social, technological, and environmental change.

Our future is uncertain, and people want certainty.

They want to return to a time when they weren’t so afraid, when things felt more certain, and they are looking for leaders who will tell them what to do and how to do it.

Not so different from the Israelite rejection of Samuel because they want a king.

These stories from Samuel remind us that by and large humans don’t use power well, especially power that is absolute.

Human power not centered on God is almost always dangerous.

Human power not governed by love and limited by ethical checks and balances will almost always run amok.

And these two books remind us that we will fail.

We will raise up leaders who are ultimately bad for us.

We will hand over power to people who will not be able to handle it.

We will claim that human-made systems are ordained by God when they actually do not reflect God’s purposes or values at all.

The Israelite people did this with the monarchy, we do it today with capitalism.

We are reminded yet again when we read these books that every human system is imperfect.

Every human system may serve humans for a time but will ultimately become corrupted.

Our inability to use power well means that any human-created system will eventually need to be reformed and in the end changed altogether.

And we are reminded that God, the God who reveals the Divine Self in history, is always meeting us where we are.

This God sticks with us no matter how many times we fail.

We may be faithless, but God is not.

God is a promise-maker and keeper.

The monarchy of Israel eventually proves to be an unfaithful institution, even though it provided what Israel needed for a time.

But God did not leave Israel.

God raised up more prophets to sustain the Israelites in their exile in Babylon.

God became incarnate in Jesus.

God’s spirit works in fragile and short-sighted people like you and me.

I don’t know what will happen in the next few months, years, decades, or centuries.

I don’t know if we humans collectively will make choices that help us to live into God’s purposes: to love God with all our heart and soul and to love our neighbor as ourselves, or if we will make choices for human power.

I do know that whatever we choose God will be with us, seeking to animate and inspire us to work for God’s purposes, to create a world in which we truly love our neighbor as our selves and recognize that power belongs only with God.

And God will continue to raise up people who will challenge us to work for this world. Maybe we could all learn from Eli, the faithful and faithless priest from our reading from Samuel for this morning, and simply start and end each day with this simple prayer:

“Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Amen.