Crows Nest Uniting Church
Sunday 11 • 14 June 2015

1 Samuel 15:34 - 16:13
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

Rev. Chris Udy

Our Old Testament readings
over the last few weeks
are focussed on Samuel’s role
as the prophet who anointed Israel’s first kings.
Samuel lived
in what the ancient Chinese proverbial curse
would call “interesting times”.
You remember that he was born
to a mother - Hannah -
who had been tormented for years
by her husband’s other wife
because, the book of Samuel says,
God had closed her womb.
When Samuel was born and had been weaned -
so when he was, say, 2 or 3 -
Hannah took him up to the temple in Shiloh,
where she left him with the priest,
an elderly man named Eli,
whose sons were notorious
for their corruption and contempt.
Samuel then saw his mother only once a year,
when she came with her husband
to make sacrifices to God,
and on that annual visit
gave Samuel a linen ephod - a tunic -
to replace the one he’d worn the year before.
Samuel was essentially a servant in the temple;
a very young boy
in a difficult and probably dangerous place,
estranged from his family
and in the care of a man of declining powers -
and it was in that context
that he began to receive
the messages from God
that he would deliver to the people of Israel
for the rest of his life.
He grew to adulthood there in the temple,
but around him Israel was falling apart.
Attacks by the Philistines
became more and more aggressive and invasive,
and finally they captured the Ark of the Covenant
and carried it off to their capital, Ashdod.
Samuel was instrumental
in getting the ark back,
but the attacks continued,
and there would never be a time
during Samuel’s life
when Israel wasn’t at war
with one tribe or another.
Samuel did what he could
to lead Israel in battle against external enemies,
and he also travelled from village to village
and town to town as a judge,
resolving their internal disputes -
but as he grew older
the elders and leaders of Israel
looked at their neighbouring tribes
and grew jealous
of what they saw there.
Israel had no king -
their king was God -
and Samuel was God’s prophet and God’s judge.
But the people of Israel saw
that Kings have a hunger for conquest and for war,
and they thought that maybe,
if they had a king,
they would also be more successful in battle.
So the leaders came to Samuel,
demanding that he make them a king.
Samuel resisted,
and gave them a message from God,
warning them that a king would take for himself
all the best of what they could make or grow,
and that a king would raise a standing army
who would enforce his will and control
at their expense.
But the people came back again, and said:
“No! We are determined
to have a king over us,
so we may also be like other nations,
and that our king may govern us
and go out before us
and fight our battles!” (1 Sam 8:19-20)
Samuel lived in interesting times;
the world he had grown up in was profoundly changing,
and he was responsible to make decisions
that would lead to the end
of something he valued and believed in.
He refused as long as he could,
but when it was clear that he had no other option
he gave to Israel what the people said they wanted -
a king - a tall and handsome man named Saul.
Saul was anointed, presented and welcomed,
and for a while he fulfilled the hopes of Israel.
He fought with the Moabites, the Ammonites,
the Edomites and the kings of Zobah;
his armies defeated the Amalekites
and routed the Philistines -
despite their having a giant warrior named Goliath.
He married and had three sons,
the oldest of whom was Jonathan.
He also had two daughters,
the younger of whom was Michal -
but as the years progressed
Saul became increasingly unstable,
more and more erratic and unwell.
Samuel watched his progress,
guiding and directing him
with messages from God and prophetic signs.
But then Saul disobeyed a command from Samuel
that Saul should destroy - completely erase -
the Amalekite nation,
from the king and the oldest man
to the youngest child - and even the animals.
Saul won the battle, and captured the king,
and he even killed all the people,
as he’d been commanded -
but he kept the king alive,
and he also kept the animals for himself.
That was the final straw for Samuel,
so he gave up on Saul,
killed the Amalekite king himself,
and exiled himself to his home in bitter fury.
So the first verse in our reading for today says
“Samuel did not see Saul again
until the day of his death,
but Samuel grieved over Saul
And the Lord was sorry
that he had made Saul king over Israel.” (1 Sam 15:35)
Samuel’s interesting times weren’t over.
As we read today,
in a story reminiscent of our previous federal government
and definitely worthy
of a documentary by Sarah Ferguson,
while Saul was still alive,
Samuel then set out
to find and anoint Saul’s successor.
That in itself is a dangerous thing to do,
and it’s understandable, as we read,
that Bethlehem’s elders trembled
when they came out of the city
to ask Samuel
whether his visit would be peaceful -
but Samuel persisted,
lining up the sons of Jesse
to find his choice for king -
and the man he anointed to take Saul’s crown
was David -
the shepherd boy who would go on to kill Goliath,
who would play his harp and sing
to soothe Saul’s inner distress,
who would make his closest friend
Saul’s heir apparent - Jonathan -
and who would marry - but not happily -
Saul’s younger daughter, Michal.
It was a time of drama and turmoil;
Tribes were turning into nation-states
and patriarchs were giving way to kings.
Brutal, violent and bloodthirsty men
dominated history,
and Samuel represented God
in ways that now seem hard and cruel and angry.
The God he served wasn’t funny;
he was a God of conquest and war,
and Samuel’s understanding
was that God would achieve his ends
by carving out an empire,
no matter what that would cost in blood and pain.
The second man Samuel anointed - David -
would do exactly that.
First he, and then his son Solomon,
would push the borders of Israel
to their furthest limits.
North to the Euphrates river
east into what is now Jordan, Syria, and Iraq;
south into the Sinai peninsula and Saudi Arabia;
and west to the Arabian desert.
Israel had an empire:
it was a world power,
controlling land trade routes from Africa to Asia
and maintaining treaties with other empires,
like Egypt.
But both David and Solomon - like Saul -
were deeply flawed men.
David was loved for his courage,
his poetry and his amazing story;
but he betrayed the loyalty and love
of one of his comrades-at-arms,
to cover up his seduction of Bathsheba,
and his children rebelled against him
as he had rebelled against Saul.
Solomon began well,
built a magnificent temple,
and made a reputation for great wisdom -
but he ruined his people with extortion,
was led astray by some of his 700 wives,
and ended in idolatry and civil war.
The golden age of Israel
lasted less than 50 years,
from about 980BC under David
to Solomon’s death in 931BC.
But even so, for the next millennium - and beyond -
Israel would look back to David
as their model for Messiah,
the one who would come
to establish the Kingdom of God.
Jesus also lived in interesting times,
and he was also passionately committed
to the establishment of God’s kingdom -
but where messages from God through Samuel
were blunt and hard
and anything but funny,
Jesus told stories - parables -
that often had - if not a punchline,
then certainly a twist in the tail.
Today we read two parables of the kingdom,
both of them about seeds
growing steadily and peacefully
from an almost invisible nothing
into an amazingly fruitful revelation.
“The kingdom of God is like someone
who scatters seed on the ground”, Jesus says,
and goes to bed, and rises in the morning,
day after day after day.
He takes no further action,
offers no encouragement or direction,
doesn’t even really know what’s going on -
but the seed continues to grow,
and forms a head,
and in that head there’s grain,
and when the grain is ripe
the one who sowed the seed goes in
to reap a harvest.
This is not an empire
made with violence and blood;
this is not a nation-state
that needs a warrior king;
this is a green kingdom,
something that grows, almost imperceptibly,
as day follows night follows day,
with the earth producing of itself,
slowly, naturally, harmoniously -
until the head of grain is formed
and the process begins again.
And Jesus continues:
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God?
What parable will we use for it?
It’s like a mustard seed,
which, when it’s sown
is the smallest of seed on earth;
but when it is sown it grows
and it becomes the greatest of all shrubs.
It puts forth branches large enough,
that the birds of the air can come
and make their nests in its shade.”
Slowly, gently, without violence or bloodshed
the kingdom of God is sown
and grows until it becomes so large
that the birds of the air can roost.
That might not sound like a joke,
but there is a twist in the tail
for those who first Jesus tell the parable.
The birds of the air was a metaphor -
an image or a symbol
for the nation-states and kingdoms of the earth.
The symbol for Rome was an eagle,
and Egypt’s troops carried hawks
so the metaphor wasn’t hard to understand -
while the symbol of the tree for Israel
is found all through the Hebrew Bible.
But where Samuel, and David, and Solomon
thought that God would bring his kingdom
by attacking and annexing
and destroying Israel’s neighbours,
the kingdom Jesus proclaims
grows peacefully, non-violently,
without the need for a warrior messiah,
until it even offers hospitality
to those who had once been threats and enemies.
Jesus may not be a comedian,
but it’s hard not to see him
with just a hint of a smile
as he told his parables of the kingdom of God.
His humour wasn’t the kind of cruel satire
that alienates its objects
and makes us laugh with relief
that we’re not the poor people in the spotlight -
but Jesus told his stories
to gently undermine
the expectations of those
who were waiting for David -
waiting for a military messiah -
to lead them back to a fabled golden age.
Jesus lived in interesting times,
but he had put his hope,
not in an empire -
not in yet another warlord or political leader -
but in people who live with sacrificial love;
in almost invisible, slow and peaceful growth
over generations of living and dying and rising,
like the seeds that are sown in the earth
again and again and again
until the day of the harvest arrives
and the kingdom of God has come.  Amen.