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!