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 Who Needs Enemies

Sermon - 6/10/12
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

1 Samuel 8:1-22

I want to take you through a journey over the next few weeks in a text that we typically don't spend a lot of time in, and that's the first book of Samuel. It chronicles a critical period of transition in the history of Israel as a nation going from a time of a confederacy of tribes to a monarchy united under a King. It opens with a dilemma, first the dilemma of Eli (a judge) who's sons are corrupt, so Samuel comes along as the young child (I think many of us remember that story). And now we have the same dilemma all over again, Samuel's sons are corrupt, there doesn't appear to be a future judge.

So I'm going to begin with verse 4 of chapter 8:

When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel.2The name of his firstborn son was Joel, and the name of his second, Abijah; they were judges in Beer-sheba. 3Yet his sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

4 Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, 5and said to him, ‘You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.’6But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.’ Samuel prayed to the Lord, 7and 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. 8Just as they have done to me, from the day I brought them up out of Egypt to this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so also they are doing to you. 9Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.’

10 So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11He said, ‘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; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. 18And 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.’

19 But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, 20so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’ 21When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. 22The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them.’ Samuel then said to the people of Israel, ‘Each of you return home.’


Funny ending to the story, isn't it?

So, if you get our weekly E-mail, or you came in this morning and you looked at your bulletin, and you looked at the sermon title, "With a Government Like This, Who Needs Enemies?", you might have thought to yourself: "I know this is an election year, but are you really going to take the side of Ron Paul?" :) And you know me, how I hate and fastidiously avoid any commentary on political matters :) So I assure you, with all honest, my only interest this morning in politics is that of 3,000 years ago as it pertains to this text, and the establishment of the first King.

So, what's the disclaimer, you know, you find at the beginning of novels and sometimes movies: any similarities to actual living people is purely coincidental an unintentional :)

Now, of course we're talking about ancient history here, and the establishment of Israel with a centralized government. So how could that possibly be relevant to anything today? If you read cartoons, if you've been following Stone Soup (locally produced by Jan Elliot), the Grandmother has just returned home from Haiti and she wants to educate her granddaughter Holly on the benefits of Title IX, which of course ended discrimination based on gender in public schools. And particularly in school sports, which of course was passed in 1972. And Holly says: "Did they even have cars in 1972?" That's ancient history :) Wasn't that the year Nixon went to China to build the wall? :)

I know it wasn't Nixon, that was the Russians in 1961. You laugh, but the truth, I've told this story before, when I went to Germany in 1968 to live in Berlin, West Berlin, literally, the night before I got on my plane, I discovered that the Berlin Wall was not a wall that divided Berlin East and West, it was a wall that encircles the city, and West Berlin is in the middle of East Germany! I was going to live in a communist nation and I didn't know that until the day before I left! It was quite a rude shock :) I'm not criticizing the inadequacy of the public education I received, I was probably just asleep during geography. I'm rather suggesting that there is so much in our history of which we are woefully ignorant, that in fact has enormous implications for us today. And what is true for national and world history, Title IX and the Cold War, that is just part of my lifetime. I know I'm old :)

It's even more true of Biblical history, for such has enormous implications for our faith. And so the importance of being informed. So, case in point as it relates just to the establishment of Israel as a nation with a very specific history: On our trip to Delaware, Judy and I visiting her family, took us on the day we left to Philadelphia to the Franklin Institute to see an exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Got to see these jars in which these scrolls over 2,000 years old were found in 1945.

And artifacts from that community around the Dead Sea that are found there and on display in this wonderful exhibit. You get to see the scrolls, but they don't allow photography of the scrolls themselves, but I tell you, it's something really quite remarkable to look at a copy of the Psalms, very legible (if you can read Hebrew). And to know that comes from the time of Jesus -- Jesus might have physically laid eyes on that very scroll, for all we know. It comes from that period. It moves you.

Well, the thing that really touched me in that exhibit was this one particular little rock with an engraving in it, that comes from the period of the Davidic monarchy. The inscription under it says "This Blackstone fragment is the most important find". Huh, the most important find. "Unearthed in 1993, from Israel's Biblical iron-age, because it's reference to the House of David bears out allusions to David and his dynasty in the Bible".

What I find striking about this is two things: First, it is evidence of the centralized government that collaborates many of the Biblical accounts, right? Second, this exhibit is a product not of an educational institution, not of a historical society or a Biblical society, it is produced by the government of Israel. Now, do you think the Israeli government spends millions of dollars to send ancient artifacts for proving the existence of a Jewish nation on Palestinian soil over 3,000 years ago, specifically on a tour of the United States, just out of the goodness of their hearts and to satisfy our curiosity? And I raise that question as a very strong supporter of Israel's right to exist as a Jewish nation, a right increasingly under attack, even as I'm also keenly aware of the way in which the government uses archaeology for political propaganda at the expense of Palestinian people to achieve their equally legitimate aspirations for nationhood.

Now, all of that is just a preface to say that these ancient stories, such as this one in first Samuel, matter to us. And the matter a great deal, even if we're not always conscious as to why. So this story in particular in first Samuel, probably less familiar to us than many of the stories of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, or of the Exodus under Moses (which establishes the identity of the Hebrew people), or the stories of David which established the identity of a unified Jewish nation, is a most remarkable story for it simultaneously tells the story of the origins of the Kingship in the biblical history of Israel, as it also critiques it. And that, in turn, has some huge implications for us as we think about the whole concept of the Kingdom of God that is so prevalent in the teachings of Jesus. And even the identity of Jesus as the Messiah.

For at the heart of this story is a critique of some of our most deeply held assumptions of what it means to worship the King, "all glorious above" (to cite an old hymn from the 19th century). In that covenant made in the wilderness under Moses, between God and the former slaves in Egypt, God says: "You shall not be like other nations. For I will be your King, you will be my people". You don't need another King, in other words. You will live according to the justice I establish. And so the Mosaic covenant includes a code of laws beginning with the 10 Commandments that govern every aspect of social relations and life as a community of God's people.

And for the next 10 to 12 generations, Israel existed not as a nation but as a Confederacy of tribes ruled by judges who administered the law of God's justice. Some of those names are familiar to us, like Gideon, Samson comes from that period, remarkably -- Deborah, a female judge. Each tribe, semi-autonomous, no federal bureaucracy. No federal taxes to pay (sound good?). No army to feed. And if some foreign nation threatened their existence, a militia is formed for their defense and then when the threat is dealt with then they absolve and go back to their farms and vineyards.

Now, archeological evidence from this period indicates a relatively peaceful time. There is no sign of any great destruction, and wealth is fairly evenly distributed. It's not to say it's a time of utopia, because of the stories we read in Judges, we know there are plenty of problems and failures. But somewhere around 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus, something changed. The balance of power shifted in the Middle East. And it was brought about by technology. That sounds kind of funny, doesn't it? To think of technology 3,000 years ago. What was that technology? The iron-age. Blacksmiths were the ancient equivalent of nuclear scientists, creating new instruments and implements of war, of mass destruction. And you see, the Philistines had blacksmiths, the Hebrews did not. And so the old voluntary militias weren't going to cut it anymore. So the fearful public clamors for a King, who would not only unite the nation but would lead them into battle and protect them from their enemies.

And this notion of a King as a shield and defender would then become the image for the Messiah -- the Savior of the nation who would lead the people to glorious victory and therefore everlasting peace. "Onward Christians soldiers, marching as to war" (I know you know that one, even though we don't sing it). This image of the victorious King in battle is at the heart of the Messianic expectation. In other words, no King, no Messiah.

And Christ, of course, we must always remember, is not the last name of Jesus. Christ is the Greek word for Messiah. And so without that concept of Messiah, Jesus would simply be another Jewish prophet. So I hope you're beginning to get some of the significance and relevance here. And what's so striking, shocking, is that this text strikes at the very basis of that Messianic image. It calls into question the very nature of Kings. God permits the establishment of the office, but God does not appear to be very enthusiastic about it. And that raises a very thorny question: does God give-in to human desire? The people say 'We want a King', so God says "OK, give them a King". Ponder that one for awhile, let me know, I'm not going to preach on that, that's another topic, I just wanted to give you something to think about :)

So God, in essence, tells Samuel to put a label on every crown to sit on the head of every King that follows: "Warning, Kings are hazardous to your health!" :) You'd think this text was written by the Tea Party of ancient Israel! 10% of our best produce, taken by the government?! If only 10%! And not only produce, but land and slaves, sons and daughters. The primary job description of Kings is to take, take, take. Sound familiar?

In the end, Samuel says: "You will become a nation of slaves to your own government". So do you hear the irony? Freed from slavery in Egypt, only to become slaves in Israel.

Walter Wink, the wonderful Biblical scholar who just died recently, says "The longing for a Messiah to save us, on whom we place all our hopes, has a down-side. We typically long for someone to come and do for us what we ought to do for ourselves. Someone to change how things are without requiring any change among ourselves. Someone who will take responsibility for that which we are ultimately responsible".

You see, that's the nice thing about Messiahs, be they Kings, Presidents or Preachers, we can hold them responsible without taking any responsibility. So please take note when you read the Gospels how often and how adamant Jesus is about NOT claiming the title King or Messiah. Forbidding Disciples and demons alike to speak it out loud. Responding to Pilate who asked "Are you the King of the Jews", Jesus said "So you say".

True to the mission of Christ but contrary to the office of King, Jesus consistently seeks to liberate from bondage rather than to subordinate to rule. Let me repeat that, let it sink in: Jesus consistently seeks to liberate from bondage rather than to subordinate to rule.

In other words, Jesus as the Christ is the anti-King. That's why Jesus rides in on a donkey on Palm Sunday. It's the opposite of the King riding in on his mighty war-horse. Jesus as the Christ is the anti-King, indeed the very proclamation of the crucified Jesus as Christ is not simply a slight adjustment of the Messianic expectation of the victorious King, it is a complete and total reversal of that Messianic image. It explodes all preconceptions of the Messiah as King and replaces them with the notion of Messiah as suffering servant.

The Messiah has come, crucified, was raised and has ascended to God. So now the Messianic tasks passes on not to his descendents (that was the way of Kings of old), but to the community, to the body of Christ, the new Confederacy of God that administers God's justice through the law of God, not the crowns of men.

So I would suggest to you that this is the gospel: the proclamation that Christ, as the anti-King Messiah, calls us not to bow down in adoration to him as the new King, to subordinate ourselves as slaves to a new master, rather the risen, victorious Christ calls us to rediscover the image of God in which we are all created. The spirit of Christ in which we are born anew from above, to claim our royalty as God's chosen people, and our Messianic mission, with all it's privileges, rights and responsibilities. Expecting no one to do for us what we can do for ourselves as God's people.

Thomas Jefferson, I think got it precisely right, updating his language for modern times with the intent of the Declaration of Independence: "All people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights". Only it's not just about our liberty, our life and happiness. It's about the nature of the fullness and the restoration of the fullness of humanity with dignity and respect for every person as a child of God regardless of race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, or economic status.

Jesus calls it the Kingdom of God. We might call it the global community, or justice for all, or heaven on earth.

It is who we are. As God's people, it is what we are about as Disciples of Christ.


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