1 Sam. 8:4-11; 2 Cor. 4:13-5:1
The Apostle Paul writes, “We look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. What can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal.”
Bill Howard walked into my office earlier this week to talk about the computer that sits on my desk. His question was very simple, “How do you like what you have?” I had some definite thoughts about what I had and what I might desire. My computer is a desk top version. It will go as far as an extension cord will allow. In terms of internet access, wireless is not an option. On the flip side, it is a wonderful typewriter and is great for writing sermons. Other than that it seems inadequate. Of course how would I really know? My understanding of what a computer can or cannot do is tied to my limited vision. My computer probably does all kinds of wonderful things beyond my narrow imagination. But if a narrow imagination is all I have to work with, then it is my imagination that limits the possibilities of what might be.
In our Old Testament passage, Israel suffers from limited imagination. They want a king for one reason and one reason alone, everyone else had one. Up until this time Israel was a loosely defined group of tribes that had no centralization in their political structure. If there was a problem, a judge such as Samuel was the go to guy. There was no separation of Church and State. The judge/prophet spoke for God and the people were expected to respond. Sometimes they did and sometimes they didn’t. The demands of God were a little tougher than the people desired. Israel felt if they had contact with someone who lived among them, such as a king, the lines of communication would be better and the world would become a safer place. In other words, the people desired a champion who would comply with their demands rather than a God who possessed an entirely different set of priorities.
As we enter the political season, I think we understand this completely. Be honest now. When we pick our political favorites, what is our number one concern? Is it National Security; environmental issues; the economy; foreign wars; or does it simply come down to voting for the guy who thinks closest to the way we think? In other words, who is going to take care of what is important to me? That is exactly what was on the minds of the Israelites. They wanted a king. They wanted someone who was just like them, who understood their problems and would respond to their needs. They had no desire to have their imaginations stretched, Against the wishes of Samuel and God, Israel got what it desired. Samuel was told to go out and anoint a King who would create a centralized government. Walter Brueggemann makes an interesting comment on this text. “There was both indignation and pathos in the voice of God who knew better than to let them travel the road alone but God was exhausted by a people of limited vision who insisted on their own way.”
God through Samuel warned Israel about “the ways of kings”. Samuel promised the culmination of political power and centralized government would bring with it the redistribution and concentration of wealth, the monopoly of land control, taxation, confiscation of land and the drafting of an army. Samuel finished with this dire admonition, “You will once again be slaves, but this time when you cry to God, Yahweh will not answer. You have sought a new earthly rather than heavenly covenant, one which leads to futility, abandonment and eventually death.” We all know none of that matters when one only plans for today. The visions that tomorrow brings are always is something in the future, not to be considered, until it is too late.
Perhaps this would be a good time before you get overly nervous to assure you that during this political season I have no intention of using this pulpit to make the case for anyone who is seeking to become our next “king”. If you want that “sermon” you will have to talk to me on my back porch. But let us never forget the Bible is a very political book that makes no distinction between church and state. Furthermore, this text is one of those dangerous passages that is saying a lot more to us than who we might vote for in the upcoming election. It is questioning our relationship with God. Do we trust God? Can we trust God? What kind of relationship are we willing to risk with this deity that demands far more than most of us are wiling to relinquish? For some the most fundamental questions are, “Who exactly do I believe God to be and what can God offer me?” That is the selfish question that has dominated theological minds from the time of Samuel. But I think there is a far important question, a question that fell from the lips of the Israelites once they put their trust in kings. Not only who is God but where is God?
The youngest of theologians, our very own children and grandchildren respond quickly to this question. “God is every where.” That is what we have correctly taught them to believe. Of course they also believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Good Fairy. Eventually their childlike imaginations are dispelled by the harsh reality of the world. Like most of us, our innocent children grow into adults that have lost the ability to dream beyond their own desires. Then when tragedy strikes, together we look skyward, demanding God appear and punish those we have anointed as king. What a daunting message to deliver just before we go outside and have a church picnic.
Where is God? I suspect the great truth is God is never where we expect God to be. Like the prophet Elijah we anticipate a booming voice which rises above the wind and gives us a clear answer to all our desperate inquiries. Like the great reformer Martin Luther we clamor out into the middle of an electrical storm hoping the words of God will be written across the sky. You might remember both men were sorely disappointed. The wind, the rain, the fire and the storm offered nothing. But then, when they were calm, when they were silent, when they were ready, when they moved beyond their own desires and yearned for a Godly vision, a word came to them in a still small voice. It was as if God was saying, “Are you finally ready to listen to me?”
There is an ancient story about a conversation between a student and teacher.
“Where shall I find God”, the student asked.
“Here”, the teacher said.
“Then why can’t I see God.”
“Because you do not look.”
“But what should I look for?”
“Nothing. Just look”
“But at what?”
“At anything your eyes alight upon.”
“Must I look in a special kind of way?”
“No, the ordinary way will do.”
“But don’t I look in the ordinary way?”
“No you don’t.”
Exasperated the student asked, “Why not?”
The teacher calmly explained, “In order to find God you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else.”
To believe in the God of the Incarnation is to believe in the imagination of a God who comes to us in the now, in the ordinary, in the moment of our spiritual dawning and allows us to see with eyes and hearts a vision beyond our immediate desires. God is discovered when we acknowledge we live in the dawning of God’s coming age. God is discovered in our stories, in our dreams and in our songs. God is discovered when we look beyond what we cannot see and imagine what God desires. “God”, according to Desmond TuTu, “is discovered in a goodness that is stronger than hate.”
So dream, not of what is but rather of what could be when we trust in God’s amazing imagination. Amen.