Friday, June 1, 2012

Bad Bargains (1 Samuel 8)

A few years ago, my family vacationed in Orlando, Florida.  We were all excited to visit Disney World.  Emma was desperate to see Mickey!  
Then, we noticed that our hotel lobby had a special booth selling tickets - how convenient.  And they were at a 50% discount - brilliant.  All we had to do was visit a local resort and listen to a “one hour presentation.”  That’s not so bad.  One hour and then we could be on our way.  
We started right after breakfast, but when we got to the resort, it was packed.  We had to wait about an hour before we even got started.  Then, our “one hour presentation” took about two hours.  
  I don’t know if they have “time shares” in Korea, but these are basically institutions where you buy “two weeks” worth of a vacation condo and “share” it with others throughout the year.  It sounds like a great deal when they explain it.  But financial experts say it’s one of the worst consumer bargains - ever.  
But when we walked around the lush condo grounds, I began to imagine our family there.  When I listened to the sales pitch, I kind of forgot all the bad stuff.  In a moment of great stupidity, we started to consider saying yes. 
Then, in a moment of even greater stupidity, we actually decided to buy.  There are two reasons that was a bad call.  First, it was just stupid financially.  Second, that turned the “one hour presentation” on our way to Disney World into a 4-5 hour affair.  We didn’t leave the “time share” office until we had “shared” half of our day with them.  
Later, when we got home to Texas, we called to cancel.  We got voice mail.  We got “the wrong person.”  They promised that “the right person” would call us back.  When we finally reached “the right person,” our one week optional cancelation period had expired.  Legally, we were stuck with our bad bargain.  

OK.  Time for some audience participation.  Turn to your neighbor and talk about a time when you got a bad bargain.  When did you buy something which turned out to be a bad deal?
Throughout the summer we’ll be working through 1 and 2 Samuel, which tell the stories of Saul and David, the first kings of Israel.  But these stories start on a bad note, with the prophet Samuel warning Israel that they are getting a bad bargain.  Let’s read it now.  1 Samuel 8.
Think back to our series on Exodus.  The big question was: “Who is the real God - Yahweh or Pharaoh?”  But inside, there was another question: “Who is the real King - Yahweh or Pharaoh?”  When God set Israel free from Pharaoh’s oppressive rule, he was establishing a new Kingdom, with God as King.
The middle portion of the book of Exodus lays out the terms for Israel’s relationship with God.  It follows the format that other nations used for contracts between kings and subjects.  The Ten Commandments and the laws of Exodus form a social contract, binding Israel to God as King and God to Israel as his kingdom people.  By accepting the covenant God offered, Israel was accepting God as King.
Later, the book of Judges tells the story of how God raised up one leader after another to protect Israel in times of crisis.  One of those leaders was Gideon.  After one of Gideon’s great victories, the people Israel said: “Be our ruler!  You and your son and your grandson will be our rulers for you have rescued us from Midian.”  But Gideon said that’s not how it works in Israel.  “I will not rule over you, nor will my son.  The LORD will rule over you!”  (Judges 8:22-23).   God is King of Israel, not a man.
So when the people of Israel come to Samuel to request a king, God says, “It is me they are rejecting, not you.  They don’t want me to be their king any longer” (1 Samuel 8:7).  When Israel asked for a human king, they were saying, “This whole idea of having God as King isn’t working out.  We need someone we can see and touch, someone who can ride a horse into battle.”
On one hand, Israel was right.  The current plan wasn’t working out too well.  There was a consistent pattern in Israel’s story. 
  1. Israel’s faith grows cold, and Israel starts worshiping the gods of the surrounding nations.
  2. The surrounding nations defeat Israel and oppress the people.
  3. God raises up a leader to defend Israel, to restore justice, and to turn people back to God.
  4. Life is good and Israel worships God as long as that leader is alive.
  5. When that leader dies, Israel’s faith falls apart, and the process repeats.
So on one hand, Israel is asking for a way out of this unhealthy cycle.  But on the other hand, they are asking for the wrong way out.  The problem isn’t that they don’t have a king.  The problem is that they don’t stay faithful to God.  Instead of paying the high price of faithfulness, Israel wants to make a bargain to sidestep the whole system.  They see kingship as a way out of all their problems.  But Samuel warns that getting a king is a bad bargain.  Israel was actually trading in several key gifts from God for some stuff they thought would be better.
Israel was trading uniqueness for sameness.  Israel’s essential calling was to be God’s community of restoration in the world.  God’s plan was to bless the whole world through Israel.  God wanted to heal the brokenness of our world through the people of Israel.  But for this to happen, Israel had to be different, unique.  They had to let God heal them so that God’s healing could flow through them to the rest of the broken world.  But Israel wanted to trade that in so they could be just as broken as everyone else.  
Israel was trading equality for uneven power.  God gave Israel a beautiful and radical set of rules to maintain relative equality throughout Israel.   For example, each family had an allotment of land, and their family had permanent, eternal rights to that land.  No one could actually “sell” land.  They could only “lease” it or sell the harvests.  Every 50 years, the land returned to the original family owners (Leviticus 25:15-16).  If your parents had bad luck or made bad choices, you and your children weren’t stuck in poverty for the rest of your lives.  At least once every 50 years, everyone got a fresh start.  
When Israel asked for a king, they were abandoning God’s system for equality and protection of the weak.  They were trading this in for an uneven distribution of power.  
They were trading dependence on God for a feeling of human control.  In the old system, the only thing standing between them and their enemies was God’s gracious protection.  The people had to stay faithful to God and trust that God would stay faithful to them.  It was all so intangible ... and so difficult.  
When Israel was asking for a king, they wanted the feeling of human control.  They knew the couldn’t control God, but perhaps they could have some control over this king.  He would at least provide them the feeling of national unity and protection.  
The last bargain is the most difficult to see.  Israel was trading God’s timing for their timing.  Some Biblical scholars look back into Israel’s history and find hints that God may have actually been planning for Israel to have a king all along - in his own timing.  Deuteronomy actually gives guidelines for choosing a king and how a king should rule.  If there is a king, he should maintain equality with the people - not taking many wives, not amassing lots of wealth, and not becoming proud (17:14-20).  So it seems possible that Israel’s problem in 1 Samuel 8 is not so much with their request, but with their timing.  Maybe God wanted them to have a king, but not yet, not in this way. 
But Israel made the trade.  They traded uniqueness for sameness, equality for uneven power, dependence on God for human control, and God’s timing for their timing.  And the results of this bargain were not so good.  
Israel wanted to be like the other nations, and they got their wish.  They got all the same problems that God was trying to protect them from: broken families, unceasing war, oppression, and injustice.  Israel wanted a powerful king, and they got it.  Their kings concentrated the power and wealth of the nation into a single household and a satellite group of semi-royal families.  The kings took the best of everything and everyone.  The kings had absolute power and became absolutely corrupted by this power.  Just as Samuel warned, the people of Israel became servants to the king.  By rejecting the intangible but faithful God, they chose a tangible but oppressive new Pharaoh.  They were actually rebuilding an Egyptian slavery system in Israel.  
What would have happened if they had waited on God’s timing and God’s way?  We will never know.  That opportunity is lost forever.  Israel made an unalterable choice.  From this point forward, both Israel and God were stuck to work with the results of this bad bargain.
However, God’s plan may experience detours because of our roadblocks, but God’s plan of redemption cannot be stopped.  Our disobedience can send God in a new direction temporarily, but like water running downhill, God will always find a way through.  
God actually worked through the system of kings in Israel’s history.  God used this broken system of kingship to refocus Israel’s attention on God as the true King.  The prophets began speaking of a King who would come in the tradition of David, Israel’s greatest king.  This new King was called the Messiah or the Servant, and He would lead Israel back to God, back to justice, back to peace.  The Messiah would continue God’s mission of restoring the world through Israel.  
Then, Jesus came, and He began his ministry by preaching from one of the Messiah texts: “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, for He has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released, that the blind will see, that the oppressed will be set free, and that the time of the LORD’s favor has come” (Luke 4:18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).  Then Jesus traveled around Israel preaching, “The time promised by God has come at last! ... The Kingdom of God is near!  Repent of your sins and believe the Good News!”  (Mark 1:15).  
Jesus is God in the flesh, and Jesus is the good King.  Jesus restores our focus on God as King and offers us a good bargain instead of the bad bargains the world is selling.  
Jesus offers us a beautiful uniqueness instead of the sameness of our world’s misuse of others.  “Just as I have loved you, you should love each other.  Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:34-35).
Jesus offers us a powerful equality instead of our world’s hyper-competition for power.  “You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them.  But among you it will be different.  Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant...” (Mark 10:42-45).
Jesus offers us a radical dependence on God’s grace and provision instead of the false but alluring feeling of human control.  “Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? ... These things dominate the thoughts of unbelievers, but your heavenly Father already knows all your needs.  Seek the Kingdom of God above all else, and live righteously, and he will give you everything you need” (Matthew 6:27,32-33).  
Jesus offers us God’s timing instead of our timing.  When the disciples asked Jesus when he was finally going to complete the restoration process in this world, Jesus responded, “The Father alone has the authority to set those dates and times, and they are not for you to know.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.  And you will be my witnesses ...” (Acts 1:7-8).  
We face all kinds of temptations for bad bargains.
  • We can trade trust in God for trust in a pastor or leader.
  • We can trade God’s amazing grace for trust in our own works.
  • We can trade God’s provision for trust in a test score.
  • We can trade God’s way of love for our way of revenge or politics.
  • We can trade God’s way of generosity for our way of amassing wealth.
  • We can trade God’s way of recklessly following our calling for our way of sticking with a reliable job.
  • We can trade a day of holy rest for one more day of work.
  • We can trade God’s way of holiness for our world’s way of anything goes.
  • We can trade God’s timing for our ideas of how and when.
All of these temptations come down to one central temptation: trusting God or trusting ourselves.  Trusting ourselves instead of God is always a bad bargain.
There are two parts of Good News for us today.  
First, God’s way is eternally, magnificently better than our way.  If you trust God and walk in his way, you will experience the abundant life that God offers us through Christ.  
Second, no matter how many times you have bought the bad bargain, you can always start over.  It’s never too late to start over in Jesus.  Jesus, the good King, forgives and heals.  Trade him your broken life for his peace and love and mercy.  Our brokenness for his wholeness - that is the ultimate bargain!

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