Sunday, September 3, 2017

This Week's Sermon: "The Final Judge: Samuel"

1 Samuel 8:1-9

 Now when Samuel got old, he appointed his sons to serve as Israel’s judges. 2 The name of his oldest son was Joel; the name of the second was Abijah. They served as judges in Beer-sheba. 3 But Samuel’s sons didn’t follow in his footsteps. They tried to turn a profit, they accepted bribes, and they perverted justice. 4 So all the Israelite elders got together and went to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “Listen. You are old now, and your sons don’t follow in your footsteps. So appoint us a king to judge us like all the other nations have.” 6 It seemed very bad to Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us,” so he prayed to the Lord. 7 The Lord answered Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request—everything they ask of you—because they haven’t rejected you. No, they’ve rejected me as king over them. 8 They are doing to you only what they’ve been doing to me from the day I brought them out of Egypt to this very minute, abandoning me and worshipping other gods. 9 So comply with their request, but give them a clear warning, telling them how the king will rule over them.” (Common English Bible) 

“Heroes, not Kings: The Days of Israel’s Judges,” Week Nine

Today, to end our nine-week summer sermon series on the Judges, a brief history lesson. Especially given our government’s inexplicable ambivalence to accepting Mexico’s formal offer of assistance in the wake of Hurricane Harvey, it seems relevant.

During the 19th century, the meddling by foreign countries into Mexico’s affairs was not limited to just the United States during the Mexican-American War (and in the previous decade to assert its interests in Texas’s war of independence). France continually attempted to insert itself into the Mexican sphere of sovereignty, even going so far in the spring of 1864, while the United States was consumed with the Civil War, to overthrow the democratically-minded government of Mexico under Benito Juarez and replace it with a monarchy.

Juarez—today a national hero in Mexico who has a state holiday in his honor—was aging into his fifties, and France had a mind to replace him with Maximilian I, a European who, to them, looked the part of a proper emperor: he was young, cultured, militaristic, Caucasian...all the things you imagine an old-timey empire might want in an old-timey emperor.

Except he wasn’t Mexican. He was Austrian. And independent countries tend not to take too well to having their government taken out back and replaced with a younger, less democratic version, no matter the optics of that young ruler. Maximilian lasted a scant three years on the throne in Mexico before he was deposed, court martialed, and executed.
The replacing of Juarez with Maximilian is reminiscent in many ways of Israel’s replacing of the judge—their last judge—Samuel with their first king, Saul. Samuel wasn’t getting any younger, and he was replaced by a far younger specimen who may have looked the part, but was ultimately disastrous for the country he was appointed to lead. And that archetype of a story continues to act as a cautionary tale, all the way up to nineteenth century Mexico and to the present.

This is the final installment of a sermon series for the season of summer, and it has reflected in part my desire to proffer a balanced spiritual diet of sorts in my preaching. We had just spent two full months in the New Testament for Holy Week, Easter, and Pentecost, so it’s high time to slip into some Hebrew Bible Scripture, and for me there are few stories more compelling anywhere—not just in Scripture—than the stories of Israel’s judges.

The term “judge” is a bit of a misnomer to us now in the Biblical sense. In our government, judges are the black-robed guardians of justice who sit from on high and issue opinions and decrees that interpret the law in such a way as to protect and uphold the United States Constitution. My dad quite enjoys his gig doing exactly that as a judge on the Court of Appeals of the state of Kansas.

But “judge” in the Hebrew Bible sense refers to a very different sort of role: that of a unifying figure who arises as a result of popular acclamation to unite the otherwise disparate twelve tribes of Israel temporarily into one nation to face down an external threat (typically, a neighboring nation of people), and who may serve as judge for life, but who does not necessarily have an automatic heir and thus is unable to turn their rule as judge into a dynasty of kings. Hence, the title of this sermon series: “Heroes, not Kings.”

We began this series with the story of the left-handed assassin Ehud, and we continued the series with the female judge Deborah and her aide-de-camp Barak. We heard in succession about three more judges—Gideon, Abimelech, and Jephthah, and then, for three full weeks, Samson. We now arrive at the final judge of Israel, Samuel, and in order to do that, we actually skip ahead from the book of Judges itself to the next book in the canon: 1 Samuel.

Samuel is put into a tough spot in 1 Samuel 8, because despite his own honorable service as a judge of Israel, the people—remember, the Israelites are often seen by the writers of the Hebrew Bible as a finicky, fairweather bunch—demand a king. As the author of 1 Samuel (who is not the judge himself) conveys, Samuel’s own sons are of ill repute and can no longer be expected to follow in his venerable footsteps without disaster befalling the country, so Samuel will eventually go out and find Saul, anoint him, and present him as the king of Israel.

Samuel does all this at God’s behest, who basically tells the aging judge, “It’s okay, just give them what they want. Give them a king.” But that can only be read as a very painful acquiescence for God to give, per commentary on this passage from Hebrew Bible scholar James Kugel: “He (Samuel) was thus already an old man when the people approached Samuel with a request: “Give us a king to rule over us!” (1 Sam. 8:6). Up until then, the Bible says, God had been their only king, and this request was thus a tacit throwing off of God’s direct authority. As God says to Samuel, “They are rejecting me as their king” (1 Sam. 8:7).

It is impossible, then, to see Israel’s rejection of Samuel as *only* a rejection of Samuel. It is a rejection of God as well.

There are moments when rejection—or acceptance—of a person represents to a group, or a church, or a nation, rejection or acceptance not only of the person but of who or what they represent. Samuel represents God. To reject him in so public a fashion is to reject God in so public a fashion.

That line of reasoning gets used and abused by cult leaders and fundamentalists—that to reject them is automatically to reject God—and I will never, ever go so far as to say the same about myself. What ought to be a clear appeal to God’s authority often gets abused in human hands, and this particular logic is no exception.

Heeding it in this case, though, is clearly in hindsight what Israel is expected to have done. Samuel has led Israel faithfully and well, leading the nation against the Philistines when the latter had stolen the Ark of the Covenant—an act so demoralizing that the high priest, Eli, died of shock at the news—and recovering the Ark and returning it to its rightful home.

Saul, by contrast, will not lead Israel so successfully against the Philistines, as 1 Samuel as a book concludes with Israel’s army being routed by the Philistines, Saul’s three oldest sons dying in the battle, and Saul himself committing suicide to avoid capture.

So this is a case not of Samuel as cult leader or fundamentalist pulpit-thumper, but of Samuel as still the best option to lead this array of tribes.

But he gets shoved out for the younger, shinier model. And sometimes, that’s okay—says the pastor who was called here when he was a whopping twenty-five years old. Indeed, I’m writing a book on how the younger Christians need more space to wiggle their way into the church because so many doors have been shut in our faces up to this point.

Newer and shinier can mean better—but not necessarily or inherently. Age and experience can and should count for a great deal in the world. And Samuel represents not the newest of gods but the oldest, the one true God from whom all of us exist and take our shape. The God who is eternal. The God who is timeless. The God who see us in all our fickleness and pettiness and nickel-and-dime stinginess and sees a far bigger world for us than we could ever possibly dream of.

I think that is partially what makes the stories of the judges so challenging—their limitedness. Their good work results in peace for a generation or two, and then Israel falls right back into the warmongering ways of the Ba’als and other false gods. The effect of their rule only goes so far, and would have been even more limited if we had not the blessing to be able to learn of their lives and works today.

That may be, sadly, the lasting legacy of the judges of Israel, good though they began as—especially Othniel, Barak, and Deborah. That good rulers sometimes only get you so far when replaced with husks of their once and former selves.

It is an enduring lesson for churches, not just nations: who we choose to lead us matters, to God but also to our futures. And as we go into the very beginning of year seven together, y’all are still very much stuck with me! And now, six years in, my presence ought to not simply represent the future to you, but the presence and part of the rich tapestry of FCC's past as well.

But there is great reason to be hopeful. There has always been great reason to be hopeful. Because we are fully capable of honoring our rich history while walking with courage into our future. Not everyone is so fortunate—including the now-cast aside Samuel.

So let us continue that walk together, in the shadow and embrace of God, who calls us forward each new day.
Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington 
September 3, 2017

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