Sunday, November 21, 2021

Sermon: “(God the) Father Knows Best”, 1 Samuel 8:4-14, 19-21/John 18.33-37 (November 21, 2021)


When I was a kid, my favorite time of the day was when I got home from school, and that was for one reason and one reason only—snack time. (I suspect that food has always given me an abnormally large dopamine rush, because I’ve *always* looked forward to meals as the highlight of my day.) Of course, I had my snacking preferences: candy was ideal, but cookies were also acceptable, as were chocolate-covered granola bars or potato chips (in a pinch). I would always try to steer my mom towards these items whenever I accompanied her to the grocery store.

Unfortunately, my mother and I fundamentally disagreed about what constituted a good snack. I would lobby for a new stash of my favorites, envisioning frosted animal crackers or Oreo cookies, but more often than not would wind up with string cheese, apples, or even (*shudder*) NON-chocolate-covered granola bars. Like, not even the kind with chocolate chips in them. JUST granola.

One day, however, I came home from school to find that there was no one around to supervise snack time. I went to the pantry to explore my options, and lo and behold, there was a full tub of cherry-flavored cake frosting. I have no idea why it was there—maybe it had been on sale, or maybe there was a birthday coming up that I was about to ruin—but with the unbridled enthusiasm of a kid with no sense of moderation, I grabbed a spoon and went to town.

Friends, let’s just say that I haven’t eaten cherry-flavored frosting since that day. It’s probably just as well, since I suspect that I consumed a lifetime’s allotment of cherry-flavored frosting in that one sitting. Needless to say, it was a poor choice. I can’t say I was totally on board with the mom-approved snacks going forward, but I was certainly a bit more skeptical of my own choices.

Believe it or not, we don’t always have the best sense of what’s in our own best interest, even as adults. We often make decisions impulsively, looking to satisfy our immediate appetites and FOMO (fear of missing out) before even considering what we might actually *need*. Like the Israelites demanding “a king to judge us, like all the other nations have,” we decide what we want, and we won’t take no for an answer. We insist that only WE know what’s best for us, so just let us decide and get out of our way!

This is essentially the Israelites’ attitude in our first reading. Up until that point, God’s people had been led by God directly, guided (but not ruled) by God’s chosen representative: first the patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob, then prophets and priests like Moses and Aaron, and finally by the Judges like Deborah and Samson. But by the time we arrive at chapter 8, the people had somehow arrived at the erroneous conclusion that they knew better than God. They’d had enough of a theocracy and wanted to “keep up with the Joneses” by choosing someone among themselves to rule: a proper human king.

(To be entirely fair, Samuel hadn’t helped matters by trying to establish a hereditary judgeship, especially since his sons were unscrupulous and corrupt. This is supremely ironic in light of his own call to prophethood and judgeship a mere 5 chapters earlier, which we read in worship two weeks ago): his very first prophesy was a condemnation of the high priest Eli for the exact same nepotistic behavior. It just goes to show exactly how determined human beings can be to do whatever they want despite any and all evidence that it’s a terrible idea.)

The people had been snacking on the apples and cheese sticks that God gave them after school for years, and they were SICK OF IT! Sure, it was the reason they had stayed on the right track as a nation for centuries, but they didn’t LIKE it. It’s not what they WANTED. Everyone else got to eat cookies after school. The Israelites were ready to storm the pantry and eat whatever they could find that was at LEAST 70% sugar. Because surely, they knew better than the creator of the entire universe what was best for them, right? (To be clear, the snack is a metaphor for a king.)

Rather than intervene and put a stop to this nonsense, God decides to take a different tack this time. There would be no massive floods, no plagues, no divine curses as there’d been in the past. God tells Samuel, “Comply with the people’s request because they’ve rejected me, just as they’ve been doing since the day I brought them out of Egypt.” Essentially, God says, “You know what? LET them eat the cherry flavored frosting. They’ve been complaining nonstop and I’m tired of it. Let them find out what happens when they refuse to listen to divine wisdom.”

As you may have guessed, it did NOT go well. The first few regimes went okay; in the VERY beginning, God personally selected and anointed Israel’s kings. When Saul went rogue, David ascended to the throne, followed by his son Solomon, both divinely approved kings. But after that, everything that God had warned about came to pass. The kings after Solomon were corrupt and often cruel; almost immediately the kingdom split in two and eventually fell entirely to the Babylonian Empire. The people of Israel wound up exiled from the promised land, forced to figure out new ways to worship God while in captivity. (I won’t say that my experience with the cherry frosting was exactly the same, but I will say that my level of regret was definitely up there.)

Of course, the moral of both stories, Biblical and personal, is that we human beings are terrible at judging what’s best for us. We are full to the brim of bad choices, and we make them at every possible opportunity. And the worst part is that if we persist in demanding to do things our way, eventually, God will…let us. And we’ll be forced to live with the repercussions of our own terrible choices. When we demand our personal freedoms, what WE want, without considering our responsibility to love our neighbor, to be our “brother’s keeper”, we WILL pay for our hubris—not as a punishment, but as a natural, logical consequence. When we listen to our own judgement over God’s, our faith cannot and will not shield us from what follows. We can’t have choices that will cause harm AS WELL AS protection from their effects.

But just as sin and death don’t have the final word, neither do we (thanks be to God!). In spite of our terrible choices, God has never completely abandoned us to our own (inevitable) corruption and immorality. It’s true that even today, societies all over the world are still governed by leaders who all too often make decisions based on political expediency and profit, but something crucial has changed since the events recounted in 1 Samuel 8. Once upon a time, the people insisted that humanity be ruled not by God, but by a king, and God complied. But in God’s infinite compassion and mercy, God intervened after centuries of human fumbling, subverting our foolhardy demand by giving us something that we never envisioned but desperately need: Jesus; God AS king.

This king caught humanity completely off-guard. He was not, and is not, what anyone expected of a king, as the dialogue in John’s gospel illustrates. Pilate was expecting another Jewish Messiah (like the countless others who had previously claimed to be sent from God) in the mold of other earthly rulers: a militant political authority who would ultimately prove a threat to the Roman establishment. A figure thirsty for power and prepared to do anything necessary to get it. Pilate expects Jesus to be exactly the kind of king that the Israelites demanded of Samuel. Because to him, that’s what a king is.

But that’s not who JESUS is. That’s not how JESUS reigns. In Christ, God has flipped the conventions of monarchy upside down. This king doesn’t fight to protect land and power but to save people. This king doesn’t depend on military victory for success but willingly submits to seeming defeat at his enemies’ hands. This king doesn’t come to spread self-serving propaganda but to testify to Truth. This king doesn’t rule in the manner of a tyrant but of a shepherd. This is no king that Pilate had ever encountered before—and he’s certainly not the kind that the ancient Israelites had in mind. But this is the king that God sent when we were elbows-deep in cherry frosting. This is the king that God knows we need.

In sending Jesus as our king, God has no expectation of human societies reverting back to theocracies. At this point, God has no interest in ruling over an earthly kingdom because that, in Idahoan terms, is small potatoes. God has MUCH bigger plans that can’t be contained within a kingdom of this world. So, King Jesus reigns over something far greater and more important. Our societies are still ordered by human monarchs and politicians, but our hearts and spirits are ruled by Christ alone. Since our hearts and spirits are what drive our every action, it’s vital that they be ruled by a just and compassionate king. Jesus fits THAT bill perfectly.

God lets us gorge ourselves on junk food, at our insistence, for as long as we want. But we don’t need to keep making ourselves sick with our mistaken idea of what’s best for us, not when God offers us something so much better. We don’t have to submit our lives to the vanity and pride of flawed human rulers. God has given us a divine king, one who finds power in compassion and victory in service to others. No longer do sinful regimes have control over us, not when Jesus empowers us to follow him.

We got the king that we demanded, alright…and every day that we serve him, he shows us exactly how little we know about living according to his regime. This shepherd king has much to teach us still. In humility, let us welcome this strange, wonderful king into our hearts and follow him wherever his rule takes us—even if it’s not where we think we need to go. Because our Father (who art in heaven) knows best. In the immortal words of the Rolling Stones, “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just may find you get what you need.” Thanks be to God for that. Amen.

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