God never gives up on us (08/31/2014)

Read 1 Samuel 8:1-20; 11:14-15
I arrived at the Hy-Vee one day and pulled into the parking lot. Now, you know those lines in the parking lot showing people where to park? As I pulled up to a parking space, I noticed a whole line of cars that were parked on the lines between the parking places. It’s like there was someone who got there first and parked on the line between two parking places so that everyone who came after him had to park on a line. I thought to myself, ‘What a mess someone made!’ And then I had to go to the Wal-Mart. I was in a hurry, so I parked quickly. When I came out, I noticed that I had parked on the line, and the cars that pulled in after me parked on a line as well. And I thought, ‘What a mess I made!’
The Apostle Paul, in the book of Romans, talks about the fact that he knows the right thing to do, but just keeps doing the wrong thing. He can’t seem to help himself. The Bible tells us it all started with Adam and Eve who disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the tree from which they were commanded not to eat, and we’ve had this rebellious tendency in us ever since. Theologians call it sin and it touches us all.
Some of our sin is on purpose – hatred, revenge, greed, and so on – but a lot of it is just missteps and stumbles we make along the journey through life. You know the difference. Insurance adjusters often calm anxious drivers who call in from their wrecked cars, “It’s going to be all right,” they say. “That’s why we call them accidents.”
The problem is we can’t take them back any more than we can put toothpaste back in the tube once it’s squeezed out. We make messes in our lives. Some of them we try to cover up, some we just try to live with. Some gnaw at us for years, even decades.
Our Old Testament reading today is the story of a leader of the people, named Samuel, and the people’s persistent complaining about their need for a king to lead them. If you look carefully you will see there are three key themes echoing in this story.
The first one is this: Samuel’s sons have made a mess of things.
If Samuel’s sons are the next ones in line to take over, the future is dim at best. They are about as different from their respected father as anyone could ever be. Contrary to that wise, old saying, in this case the apples fell a long way from the tree! We heard this description in verse 3 of our reading: “His sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.” Samuel’s boys were only out for themselves. Like some leaders today, they were concerned only with feathering their own nest and didn’t care about the people they were supposed to be serving.
The people see this, and want nothing of it. So they complain to Samuel. We read in verse 4 that “All the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said, ‘You are old…your sons don’t follow in your ways…give us a king to govern us.’” We are to hear in this story that their complaining was constant and persistent. When we read, “they said these things to Samuel,” it means they kept saying them again and again.
It’s like the story of the young monk who entered a monastery where everyone had to take a vow of silence. The abbot told the young monk that he would only get to say two words every five years. The young monk knew this would be a challenge but agreed. At the end of the first five years the abbot asked him, “What are your two words?” The young monk replied, “Bed hard.” At the end of the second five years, the abbot asked him what his two words were this time. The young monk replied, “Food bad.” At the end of the third five years when the abbot asked him what his two words were, the young monk replied, “Want out!” And the abbot said, “I’m not surprised; you’ve done nothing but gripe and complain from the moment you got here.”
Some people complain just to complain, but in Samuel’s case it looks as if they had plenty to complain about. They were worried about their future and the future of their children. The old man had been a good leader, but his sons were another story altogether, so they ask for something better. In those days, countries had kings. And they say, “Other countries have kings and some of them are doing a great job. Why can’t we have theat. Give us a king to lead us.”
Notice carefully now what God does at this crucial moment in biblical history. God could have easily intervened and put a stop to it all. God could have just said, “You don’t need a king, you have me. I am your king” But God doesn’t do that. Instead, God lets the people choose their own course. Here’s an example of what theologians call the doctrine of free will, where God gives us human beings room to maneuver. We get make choices. God lets us choose. Why? – Because God decided from the beginning not to treat us like puppets on a string dancing about at the whims of some divine puppeteer.
Sometimes, God stands in the shadows to see what we’re going to do. Are we going to continue to gripe and complain? Are we going to ask God what he wants? What is poor Samuel going to do with this crowd of protesters setting up camp at his doorstep every morning?
Which brings us to the second key theme in this passage – Samuel is taking it all too personally.
We read in verse 6, “The thing displeased Samuel when they said, ‘Give us a king to govern us.” I can imagine Samuel thinking, ‘they don’t like me…they don’t like my family…they’re out to get me.’ It’s easy to do…to take criticism personally.
So, what does Samuel do? He turns to his old friend for help. Who is his old friend? God – the one waiting in the wings to see what we’re going to do. How often we try to fix things ourselves. But Samuel, being a man of faith, knew better than trying to solve this one himself, and so he goes to God in prayer.
And what is God’s answer? God calms him down and says, verse 7 of our reading, “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from bring King over them.” In other words, “Relax, Samuel. This is not about you…it’s me they’re attacking. You need to learn how to self-differentiate” – which is a term from psychology which means, ‘don’t let the opinions of others control you and define your worth.’
It’s so easy to take everything personally when you’re a leader. But, guess what – it’s not always about you. Sometimes people are just angry about something else. And they want to blame someone, so they take it out on the one who’s supposed to be in charge.
We would do well to quit letting the opinions others have about us define us. God reminds Samuel that sometimes you just need to let it go.
Notice again, God doesn’t intervene to change things. At least not right away. God lets the people choose, but that doesn’t mean God is uninvolved.
Which brings us to our third key theme – God never gives up on them even though they insist on doing things their own way. God may discipline them…God may put them in a time out…God may even refuse to hear their prayers for a time…but God never gives up on them, because he is their God and they are his people, his children.
Like a loving parent who gives his/her children room to grow up and make mistakes, God gives them the freedom to make choices. What does this show but the great flexibility, grace, and generosity of God? And that’s the whole point of this story.
As we look at the sweep of human history, we can see many times that humanity has made a mess of things, and we are still capable messing things up today. But, here’s the good news – the messes we make in this world, and in our lives, are not the last word. God has not given up on this world, and God has not given up on us.
As we turn to the New Testament of the Bible, we see God do something extraordinary – God gives us a new king, a new leader for all time. Who is this king? He is the one we call the Christ, the King of kings and the Lord of lords. And because of this King, we have the assurance that God will always be with us, working with us, helping us, guiding us, even in the midst of the messes we make of our lives.
That’s why we should never give up on God, for God will never, ever give up on us!

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About pastorjohnwaseca

ELCA Lutheran Pastor
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