2 Cor. 4:13-5:1
What Occupies Your Throne? – Rev. Tami Hooker 6/7/15
I stand here before you this morning with two holes in my head – holes that I had placed there on purpose. Some who know me might vote for more then two – but I’m only owning up to these two – at least today. And when I was in my teens – getting these two little holes in my head was an amazingly important thing –I just had to have them – I believe I must have driven my parents crazy asking over and over – against their initial reluctance to permit it – because it seemed to me to be a matter of life and death that I had to get my ears pierced. Why? Well, because my very best friend had recently had her ears pierced – as had several of my other friends.
Teenagers today still do that – of course – they want to be an individual – so they try to look just their friends. And those of us who have survived that phase in our lives (which looking back – may seem to each of us our own personal miracle) sometimes look at today’s youth – and their rather “different” choices in clothes, and hair color, and language, and body art and ways of communicating and yes – piercings (although they are a bit different than those we begged for in our day – and ours now look quite tame by comparison) – we look at them and sometimes – admit it – we wonder – what on earth are they thinking.
In 2013, Shirley Wang reported in the Wall Street Journal that new studies on peer pressure suggest that teens—who often seem to follow each other like lemmings—may do so because their brains derive more pleasure from social acceptance than adult brains, and not because teens are less capable of making rational decisions. And both peer pressure and learning to resist it are important developmental steps. Anyone familiar with classic developmental psychology may recall that Erikson defined the years of adolescence as the 5th of his 8 stages of development and said it’s the one that is characterized by a conflict between identity and identity confusion. This is when humans most wrestle with the questions of “who am I?” and “where am I headed?” It’s the time when children seek to become independent from their parents and immerse themselves in their own social environment. They may be pulling away from their parents, but adolescents want to fit in and understand their place in society. I raise this topic today not to comfort those who may have teenagers in the house by encouraging them by noting studies show they are capable of rational decisions – and that this Phase of life will eventually come to an end – as it did for all of us.
I raise it because as I read through today’s text, I began to wonder if the same could be true of communities as well as individuals. Because the more I contemplate this part of Israel’s history – the more it sounds to me as if – as a society – they were struggling with the idea of who they were and who they are hoping to become. It sounds as if they were in the middle of a communal adolescence if you will. Unfortunately, this particular community didn’t make very wise decisions – and some of the warnings they offer us are good to remember at any age.
The text opens with Samuel dealing with problems – in his household and the Israelite community. This was a time in Israel’s history when – following the death of Joshua, a series of judges served as the leadership for the Israelites. Each of these judges was chosen by God and Samuel was the last – and some would argue the greatest judge. But Samuel seems to be trying to change the system. He –and obviously not God – has chosen his sons to follow him in his work. He has taken this system of divine appointment and decided to make it hereditary and the consequences of that decision are terrible. His sons, who are obviously not suited to the work, pervert the justice they are called to oversee by taking bribes. The community is upset and rightfully so and so they go to Samuel directly.
They begin by very wisely stating exactly what the problem is. But that’s where their wisdom ends. For instead of asking for God to choose another person of integrity to serve as their leader, they ask for a different type of leadership than God has provided. They ask for a king. And it’s not their asking for a king, per se that is the problem. It’s their motivation for asking for a king. They want a king – they say in order to be like all the nations. They are –as the text states- looking for a king to judge them – and go before them – and fight their battles. They are seeking to shift their loyalty from God– to a person. Whew! Big mistake huh?
This wasn’t the first time they had asked for such a thing. When Gideon was serving as judge, the Israelites had asked for him to become their king and establish a hereditary rule which would pass to his son and his grandson. His response at that time was I will not rule over you, and my son will not rule over you, Yahweh will rule over you. I have a feeling there were members of this community who were just waiting for an opportune time to raise the issue again and the behavior of Samuel’s sons gave it to them. But they should have listened to the council they were given – instead of continuing to plead for what they thought they just had to have- like a teenage girl wanting to put holes in her head.
They should have listened to Gideon – for Gideon understood, – as Samuel understood – as the people of Israel should have understood that God had never intended them to be like the other nations. They were a people chosen of God – led from slavery to freedom – bound to God through a covenant relationship. This by necessity made them different from all other nations. They had a different status – and therefore a different responsibility. They were to order their communal as well as their personal lives on God’s law and rely on God’s promises to sustain them. But they let their fear and their doubts lead them to seek a different kind of security – a worldly security that for them was encapsulated in the idea of having a strong king to lead them and represent them.
The text tells us that God sees this as another in a long line of acts of disobedience. They prove once again that they are unwilling to have God as the source and rule of life but are looking to other things – things that can not possibly provide what they’re looking for.
And in perhaps the biggest warning that we find in this text, we see that after being warned by Samuel what having a king would cost them, they still insist on having one. So God lets them chose – but God will also expect them to live with their choice. God will not force them to keep what God has graciously provided. God, recognizing that something precious is being lost, permits them to exercise their free will.
So what’s that to us? Well -We as Christians are also a peculiar people. We too are a chosen people, we have been led from slavery to sin and death to freedom in Christ and as those who were saved by Jesus’ sacrificial death for us, we are bound to God through a covenant relationship. This by necessity gives us a unique status and a unique responsibility and so we – like the Israelites are called to be different from the world around us. We are called to live by the grace of our Lord through the Power of the Holy Spirit and our business is being involved – as a part of the body of Christ in Christ’s mission and ministry. We are, as Paul tells us not to be swayed by any momentary problems but to keep our eyes fixed on a bigger picture – holding on by our faith – to the eternal promises of God that we may not even be able to glimpse at the present but which we are assured of by God’s love for us and God’s faithfulness.
But God will also permit us to choose and to have other things rule in our lives just as the Israelites did. We don’t ask for a king –we’re far too sophisticated for that. But whatever it is that becomes the driving force of our lives – that’s the thing that is we have placed on or own personal throne. And whatever it is we choose, it too will name a price and require us to give up something valuable in order to serve it. For some it’s a need for financial security and a willingness to compromise with the world– maybe just a little- if that’s what it takes to get us there. For some it’s a hunger for power and the willingness to mistreat others in order to get it or keep it. For some it’s a need to promote a particular image of ourselves- even if we have to be deceitful and secretive about who we really are – to do so. The 12 step programs remind us that secrets have power – power over whoever is trying to keep them. Those who insist on harboring secrets must spend the rest of their lives guarding them from being discovered. What a sad and small way to live. And how much of our abundant life we lose if we chose to enthrone any of these – or so many other things the world calls important and to decide to order our lives around them.
In the reading today, Samuel seems to confuse himself with God. It is his understanding that the people are rejecting him. God sets him straight by basically saying – it’s not about you, Samuel. It’s about the people and me. And that’s really the message from this part of God’s word today. It’s a message for all disciples of Christ wherever they are gathered. And the message is to seek to follow as God directs allowing God to be the only authority in our lives. We should not be looking to let anything else reign over us whether it be someone or something serving as our rule of life or by looking for salvation from a worldly source to improve our lot.
We are not to be adolescents looking around to the rest of society trying to figure out what we need to “be like them”. Our identity comes from our knowledge that we are beloved children of the One True Living God and that we have a savior who came to give us an abundant life – freed from having to spend our time and resources and energy serving something that will never make us content – or secure. We already have all the security we will ever need, granted by the only king we should ever serve – and our work is to live and work in the light of that wonderful miracle of grace that God has already provided us.