June 11, 2012
I. As I was looking ahead at what the lectionary suggested for this summer, I was intrigued by taking a journey through the early years of Israel’s monarchy starting when the elders of the people asked Samuel for a king until Solomon dedicated the great Temple in Jerusalem. Though we won’t see him until next week, David is the focus. I hope you will listen with me for the voice of God to teach us about spiritual leadership in times of transition.
A. Against this ancient history we will hold up some of the more puzzling things Mark tells us about Jesus. In that space between seemingly unrelated events, I believe we will hear from God for our own time. As I prepared for today, I felt God was telling me: prayer is asking to know what God wants, not asking God for what I want.
B. If you thought I gave you too much drama last week, this week you might think it’s too much history. We need at least a little history to understand the ambivalence about a king in 1 Samuel 8. Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and through the wilderness for 40 years. Joshua led them into the Promised Land. Then came the period of Judges for 250 – 400 years, depending on how the counting is done. The Judges were charismatic leaders whom God called to respond to specific local threats. They were not government officials, and they did not lead the whole nation. The elders of each tribe took care of whatever administration was necessary in their own tribal territory. They had no central government but recognized God as their King. Samuel was a giant character at the end of this time. He was prophet, priest and judge all rolled up into one and was the first truly national leader since the time of Joshua and Moses. When Samuel got old, his sons took over much of the work but were corrupt.
C. At this time Israel was not a nation in the way we think of nations. It was an informal alliance of the Twelve Tribes working together when necessary. I’m going to teach you a new word today that is fun to say and will give you something new with which to impress your friends: amphictyonic league. The most famous and long-lasting one was the Delphic League in Greece from the 7th century BCE to the 2nd century CE. The Israelite Tribal League predated this by as much as five centuries. We can get a little better idea of how this worked from the period of the Articles of Confederation in United States history from 1777 to 1789. After the American Revolution until the Constitution was adopted, the 13 colonies agreed to cooperate with each other for defense and diplomacy without giving up their individual sovereignty. They had no national president, no courts and no taxes. The constitution was controversial when it was proposed. Patrick Henry, who we remember for saying, “Give me liberty or give me death,” objected to the strong central government of the new constitution as “only the lust of ambitious men for a splendid empire that, in the time honored way of empires, would oppress the people with taxes, conscription and military campaigns.” (Wikipedia) Sounds a lot like what Samuel warned Israel a king would bring. Sounds a lot like the political debates of 2012.
D. By Samuel’s time, Israel’s security was not threatened by petty kings but the Philistines. They were sea faring people from the Aegean who had colonized what is now the Gaza Strip with ambitions to take over all of Israel. Samuel may have been prophet, priest and judge, but he was not a military general, and his corrupt sons were not to be trusted. Faced with great uncertainty, the elders of Israel asked Samuel to appoint a king.
1. In and of itself having a king was not wrong. Deuteronomy 17:14-20 describes the responsibilities of the king Israel was to have when they are settled in the Promised Land. I know scholars debate whether this was written after they already had kings, but I am quite confident that the source does go back to Moses’ final sermons before Joshua took them across the Jordan River. Psalm 72 is attributed to Solomon and echoes the central theme that the King of Israel was responsible for protecting justice for the weak, the poor, the foreigners and the outcasts.
2. But that was not the kind of king the elders asked Samuel to appoint. They wanted a king like the other nations to go ahead of them and fight their battles. They were no longer willing to trust God to protect and lead them. They might have asked Samuel if this was the time for God’s king, but they didn’t.
3. Samuel did pray. God acquiesced but told Samuel to warn them what a king of military rather than spiritual power would cost them. The strongest and brightest of their young people would be conscripted for military and government service. Their land would be confiscated for military and government installations. They would pay taxes to support the military and government operations. Sounds like Patrick Henry. Sounds like today’s debates on the size and scope of government.
4. Underneath this lies a fundamental psychological and spiritual issue that we have with us today. We externalize our problems. I think most of you are old enough to remember the comedian Flip Wilson. His signature line, “the devil made me do it” is a sarcastic expression of the ultimate externalization of responsibility. It’s where we end up when we get what we ask for and it turns out to be a disaster. Israel said, “If we just change the way we set up our government, the way we organize our community, our problems will be solved.” But they did not look inside, in their hearts. They did not ask, “How do we need to change spiritually to be prepared for the trials we are facing?” They did not ask, “What does God want us to be and do in the face of new challenges?”
II. Prayer is asking to know what God wants, not asking God for what we want.
A. When people come to me with their problems, the first sentence almost always tells me how they’re going to do. If they say, “I’ve messed things up, and I need help to get back on the right track,” they almost always do. If they say, “Things aren’t working out and they’re messing me up,” they almost never solve their problems but just go from one problem to another.
B. You all look pretty good this morning, but I know most if not all of us in this room have been through some pain this week and know that tough decisions face us next week. I’ve been with you long enough that a number of you have told me about those things. I also know that you pray for yourselves, your families and for each other. I suggest that instead of asking God for the solution you’ve chosen for your problems, you pray that you can know what God wants you to do with your problem.
C. I know almost everyone is praying for the Search and Call Committee to find this church a good pastor. I know the search has been going on for 10 months. The committee and some of you are getting tired if not impatient. Have your prayers started to sound like this, “OK God, alright already, send us a pastor, would you – soon please.” Calling a pastor is not like hiring a CEO, school superintendent or police chief. It’s not even like electing a governor or president. Have you thought about asking God to make you the kind of Christian, to make this the kind of congregation that can follow a new pastor where God wants you to go together?
III. If you have read all of C. S. Lewis’ Narnia books, you know that the Christ-figure, Aslan the lion is not tame. He’s wild, dangerous and good. If you have any degree of reality in your relationship with Jesus, you know that he is not a tame savior either. He’s wild, dangerous and good. Jesus regularly leads us way out of our comfort zones. In Mark 3:20-30, Jesus’ family and the religious leaders from Jerusalem tried unsuccessfully to domesticate him. Jesus had been preaching to such a large crowd by the Sea of Galilee that he had to get in a boat so they wouldn’t crush him. He left the crowd to go up a mountain to appoint the 12 Apostles. “Then he went home; and …
the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat.21When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan?24If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand.25And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come.27But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
28“Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”—30for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
A. For Jesus to teach as an itinerant rabbi was one thing, but his family could not get a handle on the crowds, the draining demands on his energy. They came to rescue him when people said he had gone out of his mind. What can you do if you can’t cope with the demands of Jesus? Write him off as crazy!
B. For Jesus to teach as an itinerant rabbi was one thing, but the scribes who had come down from Jerusalem could not cope with healings and exorcisms. Spiritually powerless themselves, they dismissed his power as coming from Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.
1. In English we miss the play on words here. Beelzebul means “lord of the house,” suggesting that the ruler of the demons has taken over the house and life of the one possessed. “House” is echoed when Jesus said that “a house divided against itself will not be able to stand” and again when Jesus spoke of his power over Satan as plundering the strong man’s house.
2. Because it has troubled so many people over the centuries, I want to assure you that the unforgivable blasphemy against the Holy Spirit is not some trivial sin we inadvertently slip into. Rather, it is refusing to recognize the work of the Holy Spirit and purposely calling it the work of Satan. If you’re worried about having committed it, rest assured, you haven’t. If you had you wouldn’t care.
C. If we don’t write Jesus off as crazy or dismiss him as demon possessed, the only alternative is to accept that he was led and empowered by the Holy Spirit. That takes us here in Mark to the same place we were in 1 Samuel. Prayer is asking to know what God wants, not asking God for what we want.
1. By the Holy Spirit we have the knowledge to do what God wants.
2. By the Holy Spirit we have the power to do what God wants.
IV. Prayer is asking to know what God wants, not asking God for what we want.
A. Listen to these two stories. In 1 Samuel Israel wants a king over God’s objections. In Mark people want to write Jesus off as crazy or demon possessed rather than following Jesus out of our comfort zones.
B. What is God saying to you? How will your prayers change to ask what God wants instead of asking for what you want? Will you give God permission to let the power of the Holy Spirit loose in you?