The Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.
The Lord was sorry. The Lord regretted.
In our first reading today, the Lord felt regret…and if you know the Bible well, you’ll know that God doesn’t do this often. the only other time was in the days of Noah, when God:
saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created—people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them.”1
Well, now we’re in the Book of Samuel, much later in Israel’s history, and a new king is just being chosen–young David. King Saul has been deposed. Samuel the judge is grieving. But why?
Well, to make sense of it all we’ll have to go back to the beginning of the story. Today, I’ll be sharing a lot more of the story, more of the Biblical narrative than is customary in a sermon. Because with all the Bible being bandied about in the media right now, I think we need to let the Bible speak in much larger chunks. We need to hear something more like “the whole story.” So let’s jump in to one of the Bible’s foundational stories about leadership.
To begin with, do you remember how Samuel got his job? He was just a boy, and God called to him in the night. Hear now the word of the Lord:
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the Lord under Eli. The word of the Lord was rare in those days; visions were not widespread.
At that time Eli, whose eyesight had begun to grow dim so that he could not see, was lying down in his room; the lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the temple of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called, “Samuel! Samuel!” and he said, “Here I am!” and ran to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call; lie down again.” So he went and lay down. The Lord called again, “Samuel!” Samuel got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.” But he said, “I did not call, my son; lie down again.” Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him. The Lord called Samuel again, a third time. And he got up and went to Eli, and said, “Here I am, for you called me.”
Then Eli perceived that the Lord was calling the boy. Therefore Eli said to Samuel, “Go, lie down; and if he calls you, you shall say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’”2
Well, the Lord spoke. And the Lord continued speaking. As Samuel grew up, he become known as “a trustworthy prophet of the Lord.”3 But as Samuel was growing up, Israel also got into some pretty big trouble. Defeated in battle by the Philistines, with 30,000 people left dead, Israel felt deeply abandoned by God. And Israel did not rebound quickly. For some 20 years, “the whole house of Israel lamented after the Lord.”4
Eventually, in the midst of all this lament, Samuel arose to lead his people, in the role of judge, just as Eli had before him. Samuel gathered the people of Israel together and urged them to repent and return to the Lord. The people fasted and Samuel offered a sacrifice. And God finally heard their cry, saving them from the hand of the Philistines.
As the story tells it:
The Philistines were subdued and did not again enter the territory of Israel; the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel. The towns that the Philistines had taken from Israel were restored to Israel. […] And Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life.5
When Samuel became old, he made his sons judges over Israel. […] His sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.6
This, of course, did not sit well with the people. Not at all. And here’s where our story takes a dramatic turn.
Hear again the word of the Lord:
Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah, and 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.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to govern us.” Samuel prayed to the Lord, and 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. Just 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. Now then, listen to their voice; only—you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He 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; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And 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.”
But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, “No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. The Lord said to Samuel, “Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”7
The people got their king. And it did not go well.
Just as it has not gone well for us. Because, more often than not, kings run roughshod over their people. Kings become despots, ever more bent on amassing power. And it doesn’t matter to them who’s trampled in the process, how extensive the collateral damage of their rule might be. We think we want someone to fight our battles for us, until we end up becoming the enemy.
I read an article this week, entitled: “It’s All Too Much, and We Still Have To Care.”
It’s about the overwhelming evil happening at our southern border right now, in which children are being abducted by our government, stolen from their parents and thrown into makeshift prisons. The author says:
Most…[people]….I know are as heartsick about the obscene actions taking place at the borders as I am. I think a year ago we would have been out on the streets, were the government stealing the children of asylum-seekers and refugees and sending them halfway across the country or stacking them up like lumber in detention facilities. But today, I worry, we are horrified, but numb.
We want to be told what to do. […]
That we are finding ourselves unable to process or act or organize because the large-scale daily horrors are escalating and the news is overpowering is perfectly understandable. But we need to understand that and acknowledge it and then refuse it any purchase. Because to be overwhelmed and to do nothing are a choice. It’s a choice, and it’s also a luxury, because the asylum-seekers at the borders cannot afford to go numb. 8
It’s a choice. We have a choice. We always, always have a choice.
Because we are God’s people. We are baptised into the pattern of Jesus’ death and resurrection so that we need not be afraid of the powers and principalities that aim to wear us down and run roughshod over our dignity. We are a people baptised into the loving strength of the One whom death could not contain. The same one who:
…took a child in his arms and said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”9
The same one to whom:
…people were bringing little children…in order that he might touch them. [His] disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.10
As disciples of this Jesus, then, what are we called to do and how are we called to be in such a time as this? There are all the usual things, of course. Prayer, letters and calls, money. Good and important actions.
But the time is coming, I believe, for us to also put our bodies on the line. The time is coming for us to take the suffering children up in our arms. For us to lay hands on them and bless them, to anoint them with oil.
The time is coming for us to shift from using our words to using our bodies. Because when a child is in danger, you immediately sweep him or her up in your arms. You shield him or her with your body. You protect him or her with your whole being – heart, mind, and strength.
The children need our bodies, not just our words.
I don’t yet know how we might best use our bodies in protest of the sin of family separation. I’m sure that many opportunities will arise in the days to come. And when they do, we can help one another to find the courage to put our bodies on the line–to show up, in body, mind, and spirit.
We should also begin filling our horns with oil, ready to let God guide us toward new leaders. To leaders who will help us be brave. To leaders who will help us stand against tyranny. To leaders who will help us refuse to accept injustice.
These leaders, of course, are likely to be unexpected. Maybe the young. Maybe wearing the wrong clothes or from the wrong side of the tracks or a little too edgy. But we need to be on the lookout for them: for people who can help us be braver and bolder.
“It’s All Too Much, and We Still Have To Care.”
We say that we are God’s hands and feet.
Let’s enflesh our sentiments in the days to come.
Other people’s families are depending on us.
- Genesis 6:5-8 – all Biblical references are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).
1 Samuel 3:1-9
1 Samuel 3:19
1 Samuel 7:2
1 Samuel 7:13-15 (redacted)
1 Samuel 8:1-3 (redacted)
1 Samuel 8: 4-18