A sermon on 1 Samuel 8:4-20, and Mark 3:20-35.
[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash]
I want to start today by offering you a question to ponder. I say ponder, because I don’t want you to answer right away, not even just to yourself. When we answer right away, too often we are giving what we think is the “right” answer, rather than the answer that comes from the deep truth of our souls. And I don’t want you to try for the “right answer.” (I don’t even know if there is a right answer). I want you to sit with the question. I want you to wrestle with all the different factors, fears, and possibilities that it raises. I want you to encounter whatever it brings up for you.
Here’s the question:
If you were given the choice, would you opt to keep our current political system, or would you swap it for a theocracy: a nation that is ruled directly by God through God’s called and appointed prophets.
We all, probably, have reasons to be frustrated with our political system. There’s corruption, and partisanship, and anger with decisions that we disagree with… But at least it is – at least to some degree – representative. We have a vote. And that vote functions within a system that is supposed to protect the ideals of freedom, human rights, and room for diversity.
The idea of giving up our right to have a say in how our country is run… that sounds, frankly, a bit scary. Because unchecked power can so easily be abused. Not that I think God would abuse the power – a God who voluntarily takes on human vulnerability and submits to death on a cross is not likely to go power-mad given the chance to directly run a single human country…
But how could we trust that a given prophet was really delivering God’s instructions? History offers us plenty of examples of false prophets, crusaders, and cult leaders who have claimed to be doing God’s will, but have led their followers into devastation and destruction.
And even when God’s true prophets were in charge, the people had plenty of problems. That’s what generates our question. Today’s first reading recounts the moment where the people of Israel came to the prophet Samuel, who was acting as God’s representative to the people, and said they wanted a different system. In essence, they wanted to swap out their theocracy for a system of human government that reflected the moral and political standard of their time.
For around a few hundred years they had been organized as a tribal society over which God would raise up “judges” and prophets to provide leadership as circumstances demanded. It was as close as a human society has ever gotten to the God of the Universe being the practical ruler, but it did not guarantee peace with their foreign neighbors OR morality within their tribes, and the people wanted a change.
They wanted a king “like other nations.” They wanted a strong, visible ruler. They wanted the certainty of knowing who was in charge, rather than having to trust that God would provide the right person if the neighbors started getting aggressive. Even after Samuel warned them what a king would mean –conscripting their sons for the military, and their daughters for service, taking the best of the land for his own purposes, and taxing them besides – even after that warning they still wanted a human king.
They had the option of God as their king, and they went the other way.
Why? The possibility of false prophets does not seem to be the motivation. They don’t want to follow Samuel’s sons, but there was no reason why they would. Judgeship was not a hereditary role. God was the one who always chose the leaders.
Rather, they gave two reasons: they wanted to be like other nations, and they wanted a king “to govern us and go out before us to fight our battles.”
I think these reasons are deeply revealing. They speak to two driving motivations: predictability, and security. Predictability, because they want an established system with familiar reference points and plans of succession. Security, because they want someone to be responsible for their protection. They were willing to give up the assurance of God’s direction in their lives, and face the abuses that Samuel predicted a king would impose, for (at least the illusion of) predictability and security.
Our temptation might be to judge their decision, but they are hardly unique. In fact, we can see the same instincts for predictability and security, and the same resistance to God’s way of leading, in the gospel story. The contentious scene that we read today occurs in reaction to Jesus’s establishment-shaking ministry. Mark’s gospel essentially begins with Jesus’ declaration that the kingdom of God is at hand, issuing a call to repent and believe to which the people are flocking. And he is claiming the power not only to heal, but also to forgive sins. And had declared himself Lord of the Sabbath. And, of course, the leaders are angry. They have a predictable, safe system for following God’s will. They have no interest in a prophet disrupting the status quo, declaring himself God’s anointed, and leading the people to repentance and a transformed faith. Leading them in a direction that can’t be predicted or controlled… A direction that might be unsafe…
So, the leaders declare his power to be demonic. They label him as being in opposition to God.
And for that, they earn the most terrifying rebuke in all of scripture:
“people will be forgiven for their sins” Jesus says, “but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin…”.
It’s a scary thing to contemplate: the possibility of committing a sin that cannot be forgiven. But I don’t think that fear is the point of what Jesus is saying. Jesus came to guide us into all love, not fear.
I think his point is to pull us all up short when we are standing in judgment over God’s work… rejecting it for violating our expectations, objecting to its disruptive nature, second guessing the risks to our reassuring systems that it would have us take. When the justice of God gets too wild. When the healing gets too indiscriminate.
Jesus understands human nature. He took it on; he knows it from the inside out. And so, he knows how hard it is for us to recognize that letting God be in charge is actually an incredibly good thing, however unpredictable and unsafe it might seem. But he also knows that we are hurting ourselves when we put limits on God’s work. When we say it is too much – too challenging; too dangerous; to unrestrained.
When we try to hold it back or, even worse, call it evil because we cannot understand it or control it. Because it scares us.
And so, he offers us a positive hope to follow the terrifying rebuke. He points to another option for responding to God’s unpredictable, scary way of leading us to places we never expected. He says that we don’t have to follow that way alone. We can go with him, and more than that we can go as his family. “Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
That promise doesn’t answer my opening question for us, because that was just a hypothetical question. God is not asking us to choose between democracy and theocracy.
But what if God IS asking us to trust God to guide us in a new direction? A ministry, or a healing, or a welcome that we were not expecting? What if God is challenging us to question the assumptions we might be making about how predictable God’s guidance is, and how safe we will feel when following it?
What if God is cautioning us not to call evil a movement of the Holy Spirit in our lives or in our world?
It can be scary to let go of predictability and follow where the Spirit leads. But Jesus promises that we don’t follow that way alone. He walks with us… as our brother.
Thanks be to God.