4th Sunday of Lent – Addressing the Real Needs of Our Time

Samuel Anoints David, François Victor Eloi Biennourry, 1841, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

Samuel Anoints David, François Victor Eloi Biennourry, 1841, École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts.

Fourth Sunday of Lent
1 Samuel 16:1B, 6–7, 10–13a
March 22, 2020

The relationship between King Saul and the Prophet Samuel is one of the most interesting in the Old Testament. The tensions are always there, but the reasons are hidden under a veneer of piety. Its relevance to our present situation as a church may indeed be obscured for the same reason.

Our opening line this week says:

The LORD said to Samuel: “How long will you grieve for Saul,
whom I have rejected as king of Israel?
Fill your horn with oil, and be on your way.
I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem,
for I have chosen my king from among his sons.”
(1 Samuel 16:1)

It may seem that Samuel was fond of Saul as the LORD asks him how long will he grieve for him. Yet in the next verse (Sa. 2a), Samuel tells the Lord: “How can I go? Saul will hear of it and kill me. With friends like this who needs enemies?”

Also, Samuel has already told Saul twice that he was to be replaced as King. Saul disobeyed the Lord’s command to wait for Samuel to offer sacrifice before a battle. When he sees many of his men deserting, Saul offers it himself. When Samuel does arrive, he is furious and abandons Saul to military failure and replacement.

Samuel’s response was: “You have been foolish!
Had you kept the command the LORD your God gave you,
the LORD would now establish your kingship in Israel as lasting
but as things are, your kingdom shall not endure.
The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart
and has appointed him commander of his people,
because you broke the LORD’S command
(Sa. 13:13–14)

Later, rather than putting the Amalekites under the ban—that is, killing everyone including the animals—he spares the “fat sheep, oxen, and lambs” to give to his men as booty. (1 Sa. 15:8-9) Samuel again rejects Saul:

I will not return with you,
because you rejected the command of the LORD
and the LORD rejects you as king of Israel.”
(1 Sa. 15:26)

And finally:

Never again, as long as he lived,
did Samuel see Saul. Yet he grieved over Saul,
because the LORD regretted having made him king of Israel.
(1 Sa. 15:35)

Why would he grieve over Saul? There seems to be little affection between the two of them, and Saul was, quite frankly, a very ineffective King. That is the point. He wanted Saul because he was incompetent.

First, why did the Hebrews want a King?

Saul lived about 1100 BC. The Hebrews were not a nation, but a collection of tribes who had similar religious beliefs and practices. When a crisis occurred, they would choose a leader to lead all the tribes. These leaders were called judges. In Saul’s time, other tribes had formed themselves into “nations “by selecting kings who could more effectively organize against other groups. Particularly dangerous were the Philistines whose vast trading network allowed them to import superior weapons

Samuel was the last of these judges. Indeed, he led the people in a successful battle.

While Samuel was offering the holocaust,
the Philistines advanced to join battle with Israel.
That day, however, the LORD thundered loudly against the Philistines,
and threw them into such confusion that they were defeated by Israel.
(1 Sa. 7:10)

Samuel then retires, but appoints his sons Joel and Abijah to succeed him. (1 Sa. 8:1–2). They did not follow his example, but sought illicit gain and accepted bribes, perverting justice. (1 Sa. 8:3).

This is ironic since Samuel attained power because Ely, his predecessor as the religious leader of the Hebrews, was rejected by God because of the corruption of his sons. It is no wonder that the elders of the people came to Samuel and demanded a king. Essentially, they were asking for an institutional remedy to their situation.

Samuel obviously is not happy with this. He wished to remain the hidden power:

Samuel was displeased when they asked for a king to judge them.
He prayed to the LORD, however.
(1 Sa. 8:6)

The text next becomes very pious:

The Lord said in answer:
“Grant the people’s every request.
It is not you they reject,
they are rejecting me as their king.
(1 Sa. 8:7)

Samuel then tells the people:

The rights of the king who will rule you will be as follows:
He will take your sons and assign them to his chariots and horses,
and they will run before his chariot.
(1 Sa. 8:11)

He lists the dire consequences for seven verses. He then however seeks a king and is told by the LORD that it is Saul.

Saul is not a bad man, but he has no idea what a king is. He does not set up a court or an administrative structure. He still sees himself as a “judge,” a military leader but not a ruler. This suits Samuel perfectly—it allows him to be the power behind the throne. Saul was never able to assert his authority and thus was fearful of his own troops. The less powerful he was; the more powerful Samuel was.

Now that was about to change. He is sent to choose a new leader over whom he may not exert as much influence. The plan was to invite the sons of Jesse in Bethlehem to offer a sacrifice to God. While there, the LORD would choose the king. Samuel first sees Eliab and exclaims

“Surely the LORD’S anointed is here before him.”
But the LORD said to Samuel:
“Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature,
because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see,
because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”
(1 Sa. 16:6–7)

We should remember that Saul was considered the most handsome man among the Hebrews, but that did not matter: “the Lord looks into the heart” and the Lord chose David, the youngest and, in that world, the least consequential.

As we will see throughout the books of Samuel, David knew that the world had changed, and he knew what a king had to be and do. He created a capital, formed a court, and established an administration. Samuel may have been respected, but he would never have any real power again.

The story of Samuel is instructive for our here and now. We have spoken about the reform of the Church for a half century. Indeed, no one can deny that much has changed, but are we not in the world of Samuel and Saul? Have we addressed the real needs of our time and place?

It is naïve, at the very least, to suggest that the “Historical Books” of the Bible are history in our sense of the discipline. Yet we should not make the opposite mistake of thinking that they do not reflect real events. These may require that we look past some of the piety but doing so will reveal the presence and power of the LORD more clearly.

The Hebrews needed to organize against Philistines. The previous model of temporary charismatic leadership was no longer working. The move to kingship was necessary but not implemented properly. The two people most responsible for implementing the change – Saul and Samuel – did not either understand or want to take the necessary steps. They needed to be replaced and were with a more realistic leader who could mobilize significant forces by a new vision and a new management style.

The coronavirus is our Philistines. A half century ago, the church tried to change its vision and practices. We got about as far as Saul. We saw a slow decline, not only in the loss of priests and religious, but also in the failure to address contemporary needs. The tragedy of the sexual abuse scandals is the clearest example, but there are others as well. Deterioration and decay were the fruit of inadequate action.

Approaching the spiritual, social, and financial effects of this virus with the same mentality, procedures and personnel as “usual” is like the Hebrews fighting the iron weapons of the Philistines with bronze. There is only one end to this.

The need for a fresh start will first be revealed in the practical and the mundane. As we cannot meet in person, we need to go online. Last week I did not know what “Zoom” was and now I use it every day. This idea and how it can be producitvely used came from the younger lay leaders of the Parish. Indeed, keeping connected will be essential to our survival and it will depend on people with the proper motivation and skill set.

This will be difficult and there will be mistakes but the Saul/Samuel/David relationship gives us an idea on how to succeed. When Saul is confronted by Samuel on his failure to enforce the ban on Amalek he tells him:

But he answered: “I have sinned,
yet honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel.
Return with me that I may worship the LORD your God.
(1. Sa 15:30)

Note he says, “your God” not “my God.” He perhaps believed, but his heart was never in it. That David’s heart is with God is mentioned repeatedly in the Bible (1 Sa. 13:14; 16:7; Acts 13:22) David sinned often and mightily—we need only think of Bathsheba—but his dedication never wavered, nor did God’s faithfulness to him.

The church after the “all clear” is sounded will be different and in some ways difficult to accept. Whether it will be worth accepting will require that the hearts of our leaders old and new, clerical and lay belong to God.