**This is a slightly edited homily that I gave on our youth retreat (May 8, 2016- I was a bad Anglican and forgot that this also happened to be Ascension Sunday, whoops. The great thing about lectionary reading, however, is that, by the Spirit, it still points you to how God is speaking through the season. Ascension Sunday is about Christ being our King and taking his rightful place at the right hand of the Father).
And all the people said to Samuel, “Pray for your servants to the LORD your God, that we may not die, for we have added to all our sins this evil, to ask for ourselves a king.” And Samuel said to the people, “Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil. Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty. For the LORD will not forsake his people, for his great name’s sake, because it has pleased the LORD to make you a people for himself. Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the LORD by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way. Only fear the LORD and serve him faithfully with all your heart. For consider what great things he has done for you.
Have you ever asked God for something that you knew was probably not a part of his will or something that was even sinful? Have you ever gotten it? This passage is a story of God’s people rebelling against him and asking for a king and of him giving them what they wanted.
At this point in the story, Israel has been led by Judges (the period of good and bad judges, the back and forth cycle and sin). They have gone back and forth from serving God to serving other, false gods. Samuel has served as judge over the Israel and his judgeship has been proven to be blameless (beginning of the chapter). Samuel’s sons, however, prove to be greedy and poor judges. The people, therefore demand a king so that they can be like all the other nations. They want someone to rule over them that can fight for them.
This doesn’t seem like such a bad thing at first glance–the sons are pretty shoddy. But, look a little below the surface. The Israelites are rejecting God’s servant, Samuel, and they are ultimately rejecting Yahweh’s rule over them. They have had Yahweh fighting for them and giving them victory. God was supposed to be there King! But they thought that that wasn’t enough for them.
How many times do we do this? How many times do we say that God’s rule over our life is not enough? How many times do we want to be like other people even when that means not being like God’s holy, chosen people? How many times do we want someone visible or some thing to take God’s place? How many times do we say, “Sorry God, but I think my plans are better?”
This desire is not new for these Israelites, however. God tells Samuel that “from the day I brought the Israelites up out of Egypt even to this day, they have forsaken me and have served other gods, and so they’re also doing it to you.” In other words, God is saying “Just like they’ve rejected me time and time again, they are doing it again and they are rejecting you too. Do not be discouraged.”
And even though they have continued to reject God, he continues to be faithful to his covenant. God promised to be their God, to bless them with land, and to use them to bless the world– if they followed him (Deut. 27-28;Lev. 26). Even though they have disobeyed their part of the deal, He continues to be faithful to them in their unfaithfulness. And so he asks Samuel to be faithful too.
Samuel, because he loves Yahweh and loves the people, makes one more attempt to deter the Israelites from pursuing this route. He warns them that human kings will exploit them, that the kings will treat them horribly. Yet they still beg for a king, believing it will somehow better than what God’s plan had been for them.
It’s like when we have people like parents, pastors, mentors warn us that the path we are taking seems rocky. When we know that what we are doing is going against God’s desire for us and do it anyway.
Despite the wrongfulness of their request, God appoints Saul as a king for them. And all of this has not surprised God. He is all knowing and sovereign over all things. While he does not approve of or commit sin or evil, he is in control over it. He knew this would happen too, and we see that in other Old Testament texts like Genesis 17:6-16 and Deuteronomy 17:14-20. He tells Abraham that kings will come from him and he tells the people what kings should be like if they are to rule.
The people think that what they asked for was actually right because they received a king and they rejoice and celebrate. Samuel, frustrated with their hard heartedness asks God to bring a terrifying thunderstorm during the driest time of the year. It’d be similar to a huge snowstorm to hit Birmingham in the middle of July. It’s out of order.
Just like the weather is terrifying and not right, they realize that their request and longings were wrong too. They freak out and beg Samuel to pray for them. Because Samuel loves them and has been called to serve them, he does it. Even though it probably was tough because they were punks and had rejected him as well as God.
Even more, he encourages them. He reminds them not to run after useless things but to love and follow the Lord. He comforts them, saying “do not fear. Even though you’ve done great evil, you can still turn back to the Lord.” Even though you have been faithless and forsaken him, he is perfect and unchanging. He is a God who, because of his character, will not forsake or be faithless. We’ve seen this time and time again. He is faithful even though you haven’t been.
And so it’s like that with us as well. I know that there have been plenty of times where I’ve wandered and gone astray. Where, even though I knew what I was asking from God was wrong, I did it anyway. And he allowed me to have it. Or I didn’t even bother to ask and just charged right ahead into sin. I thought my plans were better than his. And, like the Israelites, I would have to deal with the consequences. Later in the book, we read that Saul and other kings ended up doing just what Samuel had warned the people that they would do. But even though we sin, we are never too far gone.
Even though our sin has sent God’s only Son to the cross, he welcomes us into his arms. He has made a way for us to be reconciled to him. So today, let’s look at what we are following and in what we are putting our trust. Is it worldly success, is it popularity, is it relationships, is it money, or is it Jesus Christ? Let’s remember Samuel’s warning, “Yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart. And do not turn aside after empty things that cannot profit or deliver, for they are empty.” The things of this world are empty, they are hollow. Our plans, without God, will fail and leave us empty. They cannot make us happy, they cannot fulfill us. And they cannot save us. Only Jesus can. And only God can fulfill the longings that we have deep in our heart. We have been created to worship and follow him. We have been called to be separate from the world.
Peter writes in 1 Peter,
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
So, are we following Christ as King, and choosing him over the world? Or do we feel too far gone? The good news is that Jesus is not a King who will rip us off or exploit us. Rather, he is a King who has suffered and died so that we may be with him. He is the Master Planner who knows us better than we know ourselves and knows the best way for us to walk. This means we have to give him our entire selves, but the good news is that when we do, we are putting ourselves into the care of a King who is also a Good Shepherd and who will provide all that we need.