It was a bad situation. Samuel, the prophet, the spiritual leader of Israel, was growing old. And in the tradition of prophets, his “heirs,” his sons, were not up to the task. There was no new spiritual leader on the horizon. Who was going to lead Israel?
The people of Israel looked around them, and saw their neighbors had something they did not. The other nations had a King. They “only” had God. So they asked, “Everyone else is being ruled by an earthly king, why not us? Everyone else is able to pick their leader—usually a big, tall, powerful, military man. Everyone else can do it? Why not us?”
It was a tense situation. Jesus had broken one of the ten commandments, according to the Pharisees—he had done work, he had healed on the Sabbath. Jesus, on the other hand, felt he was following God’s higher law—as he expressed it, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save life or to kill?”
He was also exorcizing demon spirits from people. No one did these things. And so the Pharisees and even his family thought he was mentally ill, working on the side of the devil. Everyone else had played by the rules of what was work and what was not. Everyone else knew that you didn’t buck the system (or it came after you). Everyone else walked on the other side of the street when confronted with withered hands or broken minds. Everyone else did it? Why not Jesus?
Our focus lesson (and the gospel reading from Mark that I have just outlined) asks us to look at how we make decisions, at who our final bedrock is, and in whose footsteps we follow. As is often portrayed in the Scripture, it is an easy choice to see (at least in hindsight). On the one side, there is God—the God who created us, the God who led the people of God out of slavery and into a promised land, the God who was a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, the God who makes covenants with us, asking for love, and loyalty in return. And on the other side, there is “everyone else …”
In our reading from the book of Samuel, the people of God want an earthly king, because everyone else has one. And Samuel cannot convince them otherwise. And God tells Samuel to go ahead and give the people what they want, even if it is not good for them. And so, Samuel will go out and anoint Saul, who stood head and shoulders above everyone else, who was so good in battle, as the earthly king the people say they want. (Stay tuned about how that works out.)
We can understand the feelings of the people of God. They didn’t know what was going to happen if Samuel’s sons were the voice-pieces of God. It seemed a prudent choice, to make themselves “safe” and “strong” instead of being willing to trust God would provide answers, provide a way. It is human nature to want to be comfortable, to want to not have to work so hard, to want to survive.
But often God calls us into strange places, and uncharted territory, and even scary times. And God makes promises to us in those wilderness moments. Now I’m not talking about when you run into a difficult medical diagnosis (as if that is something that God calls us into—instead of a time when God stands with us through hardship). I’m thinking about the myriad stories in the Bible, such as when God leads the people of God out of comfort in Egypt into the wilderness before getting to the promised land. Or the many stories of prophets calling to the people of God to stop playing by anyone’s rules but God’s. Even the great prophet Elijah runs away from his prophetic job, terrified that he will be assassinated, hides in a cave, until God calls him out, and asks him to go back into the fray.
And then there are the stories of Jesus that are too numerous to list—where following God certainly puts you in the religious hierarchies’ crosshairs, and out of sync with the times. There is the true scandal of the cross—something that we do not always appreciate. Jesus being tried and convicted and executed, just wasn’t in the accepted idea of what God’s call would look like. Everyone else knew that Messiah would be a glorious victor, or a military martyr, anything but what Jesus was. “Everyone else’s messiah is …” Why not ours?
And why did God want to be our king anyway? Why not delegate that responsibility to a puny earthling, allowing for God to be consumed with loftier things. God knows us too well. God knows that having an earthly king is often too tempting for us. God as king holds up the vision of community in Hebrew called shalom—a vision of a world where the marginalized and the vulnerable will be priority, and there will be justice and fairness for all.
Jesus recognized that in his own time this vision had eroded (if it ever was a reality). Jesus didn’t ever claim to be king (although Calvin—following Eusebius—describes Jesus in his Institutes as Prophet, Priest, and King.) But Jesus lifted up this vision. He said “I come to bring good news to the poor.” He acted on behalf of those who were outcast, those who had no power, those who had fallen through the cracks. In other words, he didn’t act like “everyone else.” He tried to show how to live as if God were the king, not Herod, not Caesar.
And that leads right to us. In the “everyone else is…” world, people look out for their family, biological and friends, and Jesus says following God means giving up that “in.” Jesus doesn’t allow for his mother and brothers to have more control than others—Who are my mother and brothers and sisters? He asks. And looking around, he says, you, those who follow the word of God, those who let God rule their lives, those who put the marginalized, the vulnerable, the poor, the hungry, the lost, first—they are my mother and brothers and sisters.
Man on Wire
When I saw Man on Wire,
about the Frenchman
who secretly rigged a cable
between the Twin Towers in New York
and walked on it for 45 minutes,
450 metres above the ground, what made me cry
was not the audacity of it,
but also its beauty.
For those who saw it,
it was an aesthetic experience,
a kind of poetry.
A policeman, sent to arrest him,
described it, not as tightrope walking,
but as tightrope dancing.
I have done something audacious too.
leaving the security of inherited faith,
I risked everything
and stepped out onto the wire.
I experienced the elation
of finding equilibrium.
From the middle of the wire,
I looked into the abyss
and did not fall.
John Clement Pfitzner, 1942–2013.
Used by permission.
If we want to follow Jesus, we need to stop looking around at what “everyone else is …” doing
and keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, fixed on God as our King, fixed on the vision of shalom. It may lead us into strange places, and uncharted territory, and even feel scary at times. But we are in good company.
May God open our eyes to see,
Our ears to hear,
Our hearts to show,
God’s love and grace in everything.