Archive for November, 2012

Getting ready…

November 25, 2012

1 Kings 8:14-30, 41-43

The Story, Ch. 13


Thanksgiving past quickly this year!  It fell early in November…and on the church calendar, we even have a week between Thanksgiving and Advent…that almost never happens!

But the early date hasn’t stopped us from jumping into the Christmas season with enthusiasm.  We’re getting ready:  shopping for gifts, decorating our homes.  We even gathered yesterday for the “Hanging of the Greens” (well before the start of Advent, I might add – due to outreach activities already on the calendar for next weekend).

We’re pretty good at “getting ready” for Christmas.  We know just which boxes to pull of the attic.  We make our lists and check them off.  We invite family & friends, make our travel plans and pull out the old familiar family recipes.

In the Scriptures we find ourselves in a “getting ready” place too.  Solomon’s preparations take more than just the month of December.   He spends seven years getting ready for the biggest celebration of his lifetime:  the Temple Dedication.

Solomon’s getting ready is something like ours.  He decorates with the very best materials – strong cedar beams, gold and silver and bronze, beautifully carved olive wood.  He gathers the gifts – the sacred furnishings his father made, the wealth that King David had dedicated to the Temple treasuries.  He invites all the right people – the elders of Israel, foreign dignitaries, the judges and priests.

And finally, the big day arrives.  Temple dedication day!  People come from far and wide.  The gold gleams and the feast (in the form of sacrificial lambs) is abundant.  Solomon has realized his father’s dream, completed his own lifelong ambition, and lived to see the fulfillment of God’s promises.  This is a big deal!

Solomon begins the day with a carefully rehearsed speech:  “My father David had it in mind to build a house for the name of the Lord, the God of Israel, but the Lord said to my father David, ‘You did well to consider building a house for my name; nevertheless you shall not build the house, but your son who shall be born to you shall build the house for my name.  Now the Lord has upheld the promise that he made, for I have risen to the place of my father David…and have built the house for the name of the Lord…” (1 Kings 8:17-20).

Then there is a beautiful moment – the kind of unscripted moment that happens in the midst of celebration, the moment that you’ll look back on and smile when the day is over and the decorations are packed away.  In 1 Kings 8:22, Solomon turns his back on the crowd before him and faces the altar of the Lord.  The bravado of his welcome speech fades into the background and he bows his head in humility before his God.  “There is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath” (1 Kings 8:23), he prays.  “Even the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27).

He continues:  “Hear the pleas of your servant and of your people…when they pray toward this place; hear in heaven your dwelling place…heed and forgive” (1 Kings 8:30).  And then, remembering all who gathered to celebrate with him:  “Likewise when a foreigner who is not of your people Israel…and prays toward this house, then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name…” (1 Kings 8:41-43).

I love this moment in Solomon’s story.  It reminds me of an image of our pastor in Chicago.  We worshipped at First UMC of Chicago (The Chicago Temple).  The pastor was a respected leader in the city, known among the religious community and often tapped by the media for interviews and politicians for advice.  When he led worship, it was carefully scripted and fully under his control.  Everyone knew their part and – for the most part – completed it on cue.

But there was one moment in the Sunday service that was not so scripted, that took on a different tone than the rest of worship.  When the time came in the service for prayer, Pastor Phil routinely stepped out of the raised pulpit, walked down the chancel steps, turned his back to the congregation and knelt before the altar.  His prayers were clearly heard through his wireless mic, but the truth is, I’ve long forgotten the words of his prayers.  What sticks in my mind is the image of his bowed head, kneeling before the altar, with his back to his congregation, representing them before God.  It was a posture of humility, of gratitude, and of worship.

It was a beautiful picture for me of a pastor and his people approaching God together.  It is even more powerful to think of a king turning his back to his people and bowing, in their presence, before God.

Solomon’s piety is rewarded.  God hears Solomon’s prayer, and responds:  “I have heard your plea; I have consecrated this house that you have built, and put my name there forever; my eyes and my heart will be there for all time” (1 Kings 9:3).  God wants nothing more than to be with his people!  Yes, God says, if you will seek me in this place, I will be glad to meet you here!  Nothing would delight me more, in fact.

But then God continues:  “But If you or your sons turn away from me and do not observe the commands I have given you…then I will cut off Israel from the land I have given them and will reject this temple I have consecrated for my name.  Israel will become…an object of ridicule among all people.  And though this temple is now imposing, all who pass by will be appalled and will scoff and say, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this land and to this temple?’  People will answer, ‘Because they have forsaken the Lord their God, who brought their fathers out of Egypt, and have embraced other gods, worshipping and serving them – that is why the Lord brought all this disaster on them” (1 Kings 9:6-9).

Bam.  Just like that, the festive mood is gone.  The room grows silent.  God’s harsh warning feels like the argument that breaks out over Christmas dinner – it shatters the image of perfection, breaks the magic of a carefully constructed holiday fairytale.

Doesn’t it happen that way, though?  We prepare for the perfect Christmas, with its twinkling lights, beautifully wrapped gifts and mouth-watering food.  And what we get is someone pouting because they didn’t get the gift they wanted, a toy broken before it is even a day old, and a pie burning in the oven because mom was yelling at the kids to stop fighting!  Sound familiar?

Perfection is usually just out of our grasp.

And so it was for Solomon, too.  He nearly got it right – he was the golden child, Israel’s wisest and wealthiest king.  He carried the weight of the family dream, and fulfilled his father’s vision for a temple.  He even modeled well for the people how to enter into God’s presence – kneeling in humility before a King much greater than he.

Solomon prepared the Temple and attended to every detail of its dedication.  He prepared the perfect surroundings and laid out all the trappings of worship.

But Solomon didn’t, apparently, put as much time and attention to preparing himself – his heart, his life – for God’s presence.  He forgot, it seems, that the end goal of all his preparation was not to have a spectacular place to worship, but simply to be with God.  That was the goal of the Temple all along:  to provide a way for God to dwell with God’s people!

Somewhere along the way, in the midst of the preparing, Solomon lost sight of this goal.  How do we know?  Because it won’t be long before Solomon will do exactly what God warned against.  He will ignore God’s commands, follow his lusts, and pledge allegiance to other gods.  The beautiful image of a king bowing humbly before God will be tarnished.  God may dwell in the Temple as promised – but Solomon won’t notice, because he’s out on the hillside bowing before another god.

Solomon’s story invites us to do it differently.  We often make the same mistakes he did:  we prepare for Christmas by hanging the greens, decorating our homes, laying out all the trappings of Christmas… when we should be focused on preparing our lives and our hearts to be with God.  We too easily forget – like Solomon – that the end goal of all the preparations is not a magical Christmas morning.  The end goal is God’s presence in our lives and in our world.

Despite what the television commercials may tell us this time of year, the goal is not perfection.  The goal is being with God.  And being with God can happen within the walls of the temple…in a lowly manger…and in the midst of our mixed up, messed up lives.

The truth is, God never expected perfect!  In fact, God knows people will take advantage of one another (1 Kings 8:31) and ignore God (1 Kings 8:33, 35).  And God has already promised forgiveness!  “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14).  Imperfections – even outright sin – will not cause God to leave us.

The Good News (that’s what the word “gospel” means!) of Solomon’s story – and of Christmas – is that God wants to be with us.  God wants to be with us enough that God will willingly fold all of his greatness, his grandeur, his majesty – greatness that couldn’t be contained in the whole heavens! – into the four walls of Solomon’s temple.

And God wants to be with us enough to draw all of his greatness, his grandeur, his majesty down into a little baby, born in a messy stable, to an unwed teenage mother.

And God wants to be with us enough to draw all of his greatness, his grandeur, his majesty down into our lives too – our mixed up, messed up lives that are anything but glowingly perfect.

Preparations for Christmas are already fully underway in the world around us.  But we aren’t preparing for Christmas.  We’re preparing for God to show up.

That’s a whole different thing.  Preparing for Christmas means getting everything just right – the decorations, the gifts, the food.  Preparing for God to show up means humbling ourselves, and praying, and “practicing the presence of God” (to borrow a phrase from the 17th century French monk Brother Lawrence).

So how will you prepare for God’s presence this year?

  •             Slowing down
  •             Moving away from consumerism
  •             Making room for all (prayer for foreigners…)
  •             Caring for the least, lost

Here’s some concrete ways:

  •             Advent Prayer retreats, Dec 8 & 22
  •             Ring the bell for Salvation Army
  •             Buy fair trade and homemade
  •             Give as much away as you spend on gifts
  •             Support the CCDF at Celebrate Coraopolis
  •             Go caroling with the choir at nursing homes & hospitals – go to the lonely



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Guilt & Grace

Wow, I am two weeks behind.  How did that happen?  Sorry, folks.  Here’s the sermon for November 18, 2012.

2 Samuel 11:1-17, 12:1-14 & Psalm 51

The Story, Chapter 12


This is one of those stories that both attracts and repels us.  It is full of blatant misuse of power, raw lust, and desperate cover-ups.  We are rightly disgusted by it – and yet we cannot look away.  It reminds me of a whole host of similar news stories that grab our attention.  Change the names to OJ Simpson, Bill Clinton, Tiger Woods, Jerry Sandusky or David Petraeus (the list could go on) – and this story might as well be part of our nightly news headlines.  Respected leaders who are corrupted by power and lust are nothing new to us.

We generally respond to such stories in one of two ways.

Sometimes, we are secretly sympathetic.  We write off personal indiscretions as unfortunate or even unavoidable effects of greatness.  We admit some disappointment at the lack of self-control, but after all – under such stresses and with so many opportunities to stray – who can really blame them?  And besides, we say, such private and personal choices don’t change one’s public and professional credentials.  Think of Bill Clinton, for example; he is generally respected as an elder statesman now that his years in office have ended.  History may still remember King David as a great and accomplished leader.

That’s one response.  The other is to demonize the person.  News stories speak of “heinous crimes” and use names like “predator” and “monster.”  We are outraged and disgusted.  When certain lines are crossed, there is no redemption imaginable.  Swift punishment and public shame are the only right responses.  If we think too hard about the details of King David’s exploits – forcing himself on a powerless woman, deliberately killing an innocent and honorable man, and even, in a roundabout way, bringing death on an innocent child – we might rightly respond with moral outrage.

So we can understand how historians would honor David as a great warrior and shrewd politician.  And we can also go along with a judgment like the one that David himself pronounces in 2 Samuel 12:5-6:  “As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this deserves to die!  He must pay…four times over because he did such a thing!”

The problem for us, though, is that the Bible does both:  it honors David’s memory – not only as a political leader but as “a man after God’s own heart” – and also names his actions as thoroughly, completely sinful and shameful.  David is not saint or sinner – he is both, through and through.

So what does that mean for us?  First, it means we have to think of ourselves differently.  We tend to think of ourselves (and others) as either “good enough” – not perfect, but good enough to have no real need of grace – or as so bad that we are beyond the scope of grace.

We might admit certain failings and shortcomings, but when it comes right down to it, most of us would say we are “a good person.”  Others of us hold such unreasonably high expectations for ourselves and are so overwhelmed by feelings of shame that we think of ourselves as beyond repair, hopelessly damaged goods, “bad girls” or “bad boys” who will never be anything better.

Christian faith challenges both.  It tells us that we cannot be “good enough” – “for all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:23).  But it also tells us that we are never beyond God’s grace – “all are justified freely by God’s grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).  Christian faith tells us that we are sinners in need of grace, and also beloved children of God who are saved by grace and enabled to live as God’s saints.  Both.  At the same time.

The other thing that David’s story does is challenge how we think about others.  If we are both saints and sinners, so are they.  Our tendency is to make either heroes and demons out of other people – we do it to political leaders, sports figures, the people who are “not like us”.  The truth of David’s story is that other people are – just as much as we are – both sinners and saints.

Finally, this story stretches our understanding of God to acknowledge that God might work even through brutality and brazen human lust to bring about redemption.  It asks us to open ourselves to grace that we don’t feel we deserve – simply because God gives it.  It challenges us to extend grace to others who do not deserve it – because we know God offers them grace.

David’s story invites us into a much messier storyline for life – in which saint and sinner aren’t easily separated – but in which we can be thoroughly and completely honest with each other and with God about who we are and are becoming.

That kind of stark honesty – the kind that isn’t afraid to admit “I have sinned against the Lord” but also isn’t afraid to claim that we are God’s children, both gifted and loved – is, I think, what made David “a man after God’s own heart”.  It was a truthfulness about who he was and who God was that made David a great leader.

We don’t learn that kind of honesty from the world around us.  We learn to hide our faults, to be embarrassed by them.  We learn to puff up our accomplishments with bravado, to show ourselves greater than we are.  Or, we learn to cower behind past failures, certain that our past has permanently removed us from God’s good graces.

We learn that we deserve love or that we are unworthy of love.  Both are false.

The fullness of David’s story reminds us – again – of the fullness of God’s love.  It cannot be earned; it is not deserved; but it is ours.  And because we are loved, we can share God’s love with others – freely, abundantly, and without strings attached.

Friends, that’s our calling as God’s people.  First, to care for one another in such a way that we learn that we are loved.  Sometimes that means gently confronting one another, as Nathan did to David.  (Which requires that we already be in healthy, whole relationships with one another – the kind of relationships fostered through covenant groups, for example.)  Sometimes, it means publicly admitting our need, as David did before his court officials.  Sometimes it means the difficult task of confession, admitting our sinfulness and experiencing the shame that makes us squirm.  And yet – in the midst of it – we know we are also loved.

That’s the kind of community we are called to be.  The kind where we are known – and challenged – sometimes confronted – but always loved.

And then, when we are secure in God’s love and the love of a Christian community, we are called to share the love that we have received with others – by welcoming them as they are, by offering what we have without expectation of receiving back, by meeting the needs we see around us without concern about whether they “deserve” it.  “Deserve” isn’t our word, it isn’t our category.  “Grace” is.

This part of David’s story attracts me, but it isn’t the voyeuristic attraction of TV news headlines.  It attracts me because it is deeply honest and direct about who we are in a way that frees us to become who God created us to be.  May we grow into that kind of honest and trust as we share life with one another in God’s presence.

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November 11, 2012 Sermon

Text:  2 Samuel 7:1-17 (The Story, Ch. 11)


Today’s Scripture reads like an HGTV (Home & Garden Television) script.  There is David’s house – a palace!  There is God’s house – a temple! And there’s another house for David, too – the surprise twist.  There are houses, everywhere!

Houses matter to us.  Think of the energy and time we put into maintaining our houses – making them our own.  We decorate and repair and remodel.  There are stores and magazines and even an entire television network dedicated to houses and the things we do to them – buy them, sell them, renovate, decorate, organize.

We care about our houses because they are a reflection of us.  Who we are, what we care about, how we live – that’s all expressed, in one way or another, in our houses.

Did you know it goes the other way around, too?  We shape and mold the places we live to fit who we are – but those places also shape and mold our identity.  The places we spend our time changes, in some sense, who we are!

When we lived in Chicago, I worked quite a bit with homeless men and women.  One of the things I learned is that dry, warm shelter is important, but to really thrive, human beings need more than that.  We need some sort of space of your own, a place where we belong.  And it isn’t just the people who share the place with us that matter – although they do matter, an awful lot!  The place itself – the physical space – matters too.  That familiar place affects who we are as human beings.

In fact, it affects us so much that homeless adults who are given a house first, and then asked to work on addiction, mental illness and medical problems fare dramatically better than those who are asked to address their problems before they become eligible for stable housing.  “Housing First”programs, as they are called, give people safe, adequate housing before any other requirements are met.  These programs are rare, and perhaps counterintuitive, but research shows that they are the most successful way to reduce the rates of not only homelessness but also addiction and mental illness.  People who have a place to call home are better equipped to build a new identity, a new life for themselves.  We human beings need a place to belong.

There is quite a bit of research on this, in fact.  Sociologists have shown that human beings cannot form a healthy self-identity without some connection to a particular place.  In the 21st century we may jet-set around the world in hours and connect across the Internet nearly instantaneously – but we still need the anchor of a familiar place to call our own.  Our sense of self depends on it.

There’s quite a bit in the Bible about place, too.  Some theologians have even suggested that place is the most central category of Scripture.  They believe you can trace the whole story of Scripture by moving from place to place – from the garden of Eden to the promised land to the new heaven and new earth.

Whether they explain the whole Bible or not, the concepts of place and home certainly shape King David’s story.  2 Samuel 7 opens with the words, “After the king was settled in his palace…”  That opening phrase tells us a few things.

It tells us that David is now well-established as leader of the Israelites, of course.  That wasn’t always the case – some years before, he was the anointed king but found himself crouched in the darkness of a cave hiding from his predecessor Saul.  David’s kingship was announced LONG before it was inaugurated.  But here in 2 Samuel, David is settled comfortably into his palace.  His reign is now well established.

In a broader sense, this opening phrase tells us that Israel’s identity has changed from a wandering people to a settled people with a king.  God’s has been faithful to promises made.  They lived in particular ways in the wilderness – and now that they are in the promised land, settled into their houses, farming the land, building up towns – life looks different. Their national identity is shifting.

And with that identity shift comes a shift in religious understanding, too.  It is a natural thing – any significant change in one part of our lives affects many other parts of our lives too.  A dramatic change in identity – brought about by a new place to call home – will naturally change their relationship to their God, too.  Faith will grow and stretch.

King David is a good leader.  He knows that his responsibilities go beyond military protection and political posturing.  He understands that being king gives him moral and religious influence, and he wants to live up to his responsibilities.  And so he proposes to build a house for God, to settle God into the land in the same way that he and his people have settled into the land.

It’s a good instinct.  David’s plans are well meaning.  He wants to do something for God.  “Let me build God a house – a beautiful house, an extravagant temple, a house truly worthy of God!”

There’s only one problem with this plan:  It isn’t God’s plan.  The prophet Nathan hears from God:  “Go and tell my servant David:  ‘I have not dwelt in a house from the day I brought the Israelites out of Egypt to his day!  I have been moving from place to place with a tent as my dwelling…Did I ever say…why have you not built me a house of cedar?’” (2 Sam 7:6-7).

God’s response reminds David, immediately, of two things.  First, it reminds David of his own identity.  Nathan doesn’t bring God’s word to “David the King” (as in 2 Sam 7:1 & 3).  Nathan brings God’s word to “my servant David.”  It is as if God is saying, “Remember, David – you are first my servant.  Wherever you may live – in a tent or a cave or a palace – you are always my servant.  That’s who you are.”

And then, David is reminded who God is.  God says, “I am the one who rescued you from oppression, who stayed with you through the desert, who walked with you in the wilderness.  And I will go where I wants to go.”  No one – including the king – will determine where God dwells.  No one will fence God in!

David has, it seems, been thoroughly set in his place.  Remember, David, you were just a shepherd boy before I took you from the pasture.  Remember, David, I’m the one who is in charge here.  You don’t call the shots.  You don’t tell me where to go.  It’s the other way around.  I’m the one who gives you a house, a place for my people, a home of their own.

But then – God goes on.  God says, “David, you want to build me a house…but I’ve got something even better.  I’m going to build you a house – a house that will last forever, that cannot be torn down or overrun by the enemy.  ‘I will raise up your offspring to succeed you…your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me’ (2 Sam 7:12, 16).

God promises to build a household, a dynasty for David that will extend beyond political kingship right to the person of Jesus, who will himself become the dwelling place of God in human flesh, the tent of God (cf. John 1:14, “and the Word became flesh and tented among us.”)

It’s an interesting story, here in 2 Samuel 7.  David thought he knew what would be pleasing in God’s sight – what God would want.  Even Nathan, at first, gave religious sanction to David’s plans.  These two men of faith – men who knew the story of God’s past faithfulness and wanted to honor God as best they knew how – still misconceived the character and purpose of the God they worshipped.  Their desire to protect and provide a place for God to belong in their society was well-meaning, but misdirected.

This week, we voted in an election.  In the days leading up to that election, we heard many voices calling us to vote in a way that would honor God.  And I assume we did – all of us, whether we voted Republican or Democrat or third party.  Whatever way we voted, I assume we voted that way because we believed it was the most faithful way to express our Christian faith.

Some of us, this week, feel like we’ve been rebuked like David.  We thought we got it right, we thought we were doing the right thing for God – and we lost.  Our efforts weren’t enough to move our country where we believe it ought to go.

Others of us think we did make some progress toward what we believe is a faithful future for our country.  We also thought we were doing the right thing for God, and the election results seem to confirm our belief – perhaps like Nathan originally affirmed David’s plans.

Regardless of which way we voted, 2 Samuel 7 suggests to all of us that we may think we know the will of God – and still be wrong.  And thus, it invites us to humility.

2 Samuel 7 also reminds us that God is not captive to human expectations, and that God often catches us by surprise.  (What could be more surprising, after all, than the Messiah, David’s promised descendent, born to a poor girl in Bethlehem, and growing up in the hick-town of Nazareth, living among tax collectors and sinners?)

David’s greatness, I think, lies in his response to the unexpected.  He doesn’t try to figure it out or explain it away.  He isn’t shell-shocked by the sudden change of direction.  He simply says:  “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?…Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have brought all this greatness, so that your servant may know it.  Therefore you are great, O Lord God; for there is no one like you, and there is no God besides you” (from 2 Sam 7:18-22).  He remembers who he is, and who God is, and goes from there.

I don’t know if we got it “right” or got it “wrong” last Tuesday.  But I do trust that God’s is still at work.  I hope you’ll trust with me, and pray this week not about what we can do for God, but about what surprising, unexpected thing God might want to do through us.

So where might God be at work around us, in ways we wouldn’t expect?  What new, surprising thing might God be doing here in this place?

While we listen for God’s answer to those questions, I hope we’ll respond as David did – remembering who we are, and who God is, and trusting the future to God.

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I feel like I should write something about the US election…but so far, the words aren’t there.  Then yesterday, I read a colleague’s blog and found in her words the thoughts I had yet to put into words.  Take a read:


Thanks, Sarah.  Now let’s get on with the business of doing that which God has called us to do.

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November 4, 2012 Sermon
“Where We Look”

Texts:  Ruth & 1 Sam 1-8

The Story, Chapters 9 & 10


Have you ever had a moment reading the Bible when you just realize, “Whoa…that’s me!  That’s my story!”  That happens to me every once in awhile – a particular story, or verse, or even just a phrase catches my attention and I think, “that’s talking about me!”  Did anyone else have that moment this week, reading about Ruth and Hannah, Samuel and Saul?  This is our story!

If you don’t quite see it, let me draw it out a bit.  The opening verses of Ruth tells us that she lived in the time of the judges – that a famine was in the land – and that people were leaving their homes in Judah to find food and livelihood elsewhere.  So in other words:  Ruth lived at a time of ineffective political rulers, devastating natural disaster, and economic hardship.  Sound familiar?

And then, there’s the story of Eli, Hannah and Samuel.  Eli was a priest, and also, probably, a judge who led Israel for 40 years.  He was a likeable enough character – kind to Hannah and a good mentor to young Samuel.  But as both a national leader and a father, he was ineffective.  The army was in disarray and national treasures were lost because of his carelessness.  He failed to lead well.

Then Eli’s two sons die in battle, and Samuel – Eli’s prodigy – becomes leader of Israel.  He brings the people back to God, and also leads them to military victory.  Things are improving.  But – Samuel can’t live forever.  And his sons aren’t following his ways.  They, the text says, “turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice” (1 Sam 8:3).

So the people of Israel find themselves at a crossroads.  Their previous leaders have become increasingly ineffective – from foolish Jephthah to self-destructive Samson to faltering Eli.  The people are ready for a change.  (Sound familiar?)  But the alternatives – the other party’s candidates, if you will – don’t look too promising either.  (Sound familiar again?)

So what to do?  (That’s our dilemma on Tuesday, right?)  The people of Israel were desperate for some way forward.  So they decided to take things into their own hands.  They didn’t revolt, exactly, but they demanded from Samuel and from God a king– a king like all the other nations had (1 Sam 8:5).

It was a logical solution.  But it was not God’s solution.  (The two are not always the same – which is hard for some of us who pride ourselves on being logical to imagine!)

God’s solution was that God would be their king – the one who governed justly, who set their national priorities, to whom their loyalty was paid.  God would be the one to direct their paths – individually, yes, but also as a nation.  God didn’t want the people to be “like all the other nations.”  Just the opposite, in fact!  God wants God’s people – Israel then, and us now – to be distinct.  To stand out because of the way we love one another – provide for those in need – speak with honesty and integrity – share what we have.  God’s people should be unique!

But being out of step with the world around is hard.  It takes a lot of courage and strength.  And Israel didn’t much want to do the hard work of going against the norm (do we?).  So they asked for a king – like all the other nations.

The request didn’t sit so well with Samuel. It would, after all, mean his own sons were ousted from power.  But it was more than that.  Samuel – taught well by his mother Hannah, we can presume! – was a man with a deep enough prayer life to trust the Spirit’s leading, to trust his intuition when something just didn’t feel right.  And this request for a king didn’t feel right.

So he talked to God about it – wondered out loud in prayer if this was the best path.  God answered:  “They have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Sam 8:7).  And then you can almost hear the exasperated sigh of God:  oh, all right, already; give them the king they want (1 Sam 8:22).

And so Saul is anointed king of Israel.  He was a handsome young man who stood a full head taller than his classmates; he certainly looked the part of ruler.  And he had some success in battle – he led them to victory against the Amalekites.  The people had spoken; they had the leader they wanted.

The truth is, though, they didn’t have the leader they needed.  They had a king who showed some good sense in battle and in business – but he failed to bring their hearts back to God.  Saul was jealous and impatient, and arrogant enough to ignore the voices of his advisors (like Samuel!), and the whole nation of Israel suffered as a result.

It seems the downward spiral of the judges has continued without check into the period of the kings.  Nothing has changed!

And here, again, is our story.  Isn’t that our fear – that nothing will change, regardless of who is elected on Tuesday?  That we are caught in some national economic decline and moral decay that we may not be able to reverse?

Usually, when I see myself in the pages of Scripture, it is a particular phrase or story or image that draws my attention.  I recognize myself, my story there.  But that is usually an incomplete picture.  The next step is to step back, to read what lies before and after that passage, to find the context for my story.  It is usually in the wider context that I recognize not just myself, but where God is at work in my life.

So let’s take that step back for a moment.  We see ourselves in the opening verses of the book of Ruth, living in a time of ineffective politics and natural disaster and economic distress.  We see ourselves in the stories of Eli, Samuel and Saul – stories of failed leaders, hope for change that never comes, and a certain cynical desperation.

But we also see – especially in the story of Naomi, Ruth, and Boaz – God at work behind the scenes.  While national attention is preoccupied with a king, no one notices the young woman Ruth, whose life radiates loyalty and care.  No one notices the honorable man Boaz, who protects and provides for those in need.  And no one notices the baby born to them, whom they name Obed – the father of Jesse and grandfather of David, the king who will lead the people back to God.

Change is possible, after all.  And not only possible, but God is already quietly at work to make it happen!  God has not thrown up his hands in disgust and given up on his people.

Isn’t that good news?  Isn’t that reason for hope in our own lives and our own nation?  God is yet at work!

Our challenge, I think, is to pay attention to the places God is working rather than to the “nations around us.”  God’s work is usually done in the out-of-the-way places, among people who are poor and powerless.  I mean, look at Ruth!  God works through a foreign widow – a woman with no standing in society and absolutely no claim on any national resources from Israel.  She’s an illegal immigrant working the fields!  But she is faithful, and God uses her – and many, many others like her.  And I daresay the only way we’ll see God is if we are there, with them, too.

This week is election week, of course.  It may be important to look around, at the world around us, just long enough to understand the leadership choices before us.  And then, once you’ve surveyed the field – I hope you’ll talk to God about it, like Samuel did.  See where the Spirit leads you, and vote accordingly.  It is important.

But the most important thing we may do this week is to step back and look for the out-of-the-way places that God is at work around us.  Look for the people on the margins who are quietly, faithfully, following God.  Those are the places we should be.  Those are the people we ought to seek out, and share life with.  Because they are the ones, like Ruth and Boaz, who will lead us toward God, and into a hopeful future, regardless of the outcome of the election.  They are God’s promise that he has not abandoned us.  Thank God for that!

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