This story comes after the Israelites came out of slavery in Egypt and settled in the Promised Land. Joshua, who led them in after the death of Moses, is now long since dead. After Joshua’s death, Israel was governed by two groups of people: prophets and judges. The prophets attended to the spiritual life of the people and the judges addressed practical disputes. There’s a whole book about that period called “Judges” … admittedly, not a very original title! Probably the best way we can understand the judges was as a kind of tribal warlord but remember both men and women served in this role. But now we hear the people of Israel demanding a king from the prophet Samuel. Of course, they start by dissing Samuel’s kids … that doesn’t help things. Samuel is angry over this request but God says, “Hey, welcome to my world. It’s not about you Samuel, it really is about me.”
God does something interesting, though, in giving Israel a warning about what they are asking for. I wish God would do that for me! “Hey, Anjel, if I really give that to you, here’s what you’re in for.” It doesn’t work that way for me … but in this story, Samuel takes the dire warning about what they would be in for if they go the route of having a king. The people don’t care – they want a king and they want him now and they don’t care what they have to give up.
I think we can best understand their request in the context of their world. Geographically, the Promised Land is in a very vulnerable place. To the southwest, you have the great world power of Egypt – pyramids, the Sphinx, powerful armies with chariots, and Pharaohs with big hats! To the northeast, you have the various ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia – and they have armies, and chariots, and kings with big hats too! And what does Israel have? Judges? Yeah … you’re feeling kind of vulnerable stuck in the middle between these world powers and right on the trade route between them. Israel is kind of the Poland of the ancient near east – everybody runs over her!
This puts the request of the people into focus – they are afraid. They are surrounded by power and they want … security! The primary driving force behind this request is fear and the desire for security. It is in our human nature – we know we are squishable people and we know we are vulnerable both personally and corporately. What is the remedy? Do something to guarantee our security. We are still this way. I’ve been talking with my oldest daughter this week about how congress is revisiting the Patriot Act which was passed in the wake of the attacks of 9/11. It was a reactive response which rolled back many of the freedoms we cherish. When we are in fear, we will sell out our freedom for security every single time. This is what is happening with the Israelites – they are selling out their freedom as God’s people for the security of having an earthly king to defend them. The warning God gives is that one day they will cry out because of their king and the Lord will not answer. This sounds harsh but it is the reality that God will not save us from our choices. Choices have consequences and God will not magically swoop down and save us from them. Be careful what you ask for!
A little over a thousand years later, the people want another king – a Messiah, and anointed one, one who would restore the kingship of David. God sent … a carpenter’s kid from some jerkwater town called Nazareth. Be careful what you ask for … this king wasn’t going to look like what they expected and already he’s causing trouble. We are only in the third chapter of Mark and Jesus is really ticking people off. They think he’s gone mad! He’s possessed by Satan! What in the world could be causing all of this reactivity? What has he done? He healed a few people … on the Sabbath, ok that’s breaking the rules. He’s hanging out with tax collectors and other sinners … definitely associating with undesirable elements of society. He’s challenging the authority of the scribes. Come to think of it … he’s threatening the community’s … security! Rules are established for the purpose of security, and don’t get me wrong, some basic rules are necessary for us to function well and respect others. But rules can go overboard and begin to shun and exclude. This is what Jesus is challenging – rules which exclude those who most need the grace of God in their lives. But these challenges are a threat to their security. Security is now a “small g god” – an idol being worshiped.
We are not so different. We are squishable people too and quite aware of our vulnerability. We ache for security and struggle to place our trust in God for it. Jesus is redefining family and what it means to be community by welcoming people who don’t fit in. Now here at Grace, I think we do a pretty good job of welcoming people here and making safe space for all who come. But one tendency of groups, especially churches, is to welcome people with the understanding that joining our group means becoming “like us.” We welcome you to … become like us. But what if our call isn’t to being people in to this fellowship to become like us but rather to welcome people in to change us? I know … sounds scary at a deep level doesn’t it? A metaphor for community which I find helpful is dancing.
I am not a good dancer. I have witnesses who can attest to this. Mom enrolled me at Miss Vernetta’s Dance Studio in San Diego to help me get over my klutzy ways and I probably do remember a few tap numbers … but it’s not a pretty sight. But if you watch people who are really good dancers, you’ll find they have studied with many different groups and people to learn new moves and develop their own style. If we apply this idea to the way of following Jesus, we as a community have some moves to teach those who come here AND they have some moves to teach us. This will challenge our basic desires for security, but it makes for a more glorious dance and a more vibrant witness to the power of God among us.
Many of you who have been here a long time have prayed for Grace to grow in mission and in membership. Be careful what you ask for … because your prayers are being fulfilled. Grace is growing because the Holy Spirit wants a vibrant witness here in Brunswick. Changes come with risks, they aren’t always comfortable and change will at times feel like a threat to our security. But let’s keep dancing together and as we teach others our moves, may we be open to learning some new ones that our dance may be joyous and more fully glorify God.