March 8, 2015
John 2:13-22
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
Exodus 20:1-17
Psalm 19

The Office Of The King Was Not Vacant

Fourth Sunday in Lent

from the book
First Lesson Sermons For Lent/Easter

Robert J. Elder

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Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm from an anointed king.

- Richard II, William Shakespeare

How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out.

When we drop into the scriptures, as we tend to do on Sunday mornings, visiting this and then that spot in various books of the Bible, what tends to get lost is the long--term flow of the larger narrative, the place in the whole long story of the kings of Israel where this particular portion of the story takes place, for instance. If we read over just the verses that have been chosen for today's service, we might be left with the impression that by the time we reach verse 14, the rule of King Saul is at an end, that David has become ascendant. While this may have been true in the mind of God at the moment of David's anointing, it is going to take fifteen more chapters for the full impact of the news to trickle all the way up to Saul. Saul may have lost favor with God, but no human being much wants to be the bearer of that message to a sitting king.

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Samuel was one of the great prophets of Israel. It had been Samuel whom God chose to seek and anoint Israel's first king, and as he scanned through the tribes he had chosen Saul, who stood "head and shoulders" above everyone else (1 Samuel 9:2; 10:23). Judging by his impressive external appearance, which is likely the way any warrior king would most frequently be judged, Saul seemed to be more than qualified, seemed destined to succeed. But he had not succeeded, not by God's measure at any rate. He turned out to be like so many human leaders, more interested in erecting monuments to himself than in seeing to the welfare of the people. By the time we reach the portion of the story we share today, his life has ground to a virtual halt with aberrant behavior that suggests madness, a blindness to any vision of God's purpose for this chosen people. He was clinging to power for the sake of power alone. So Samuel was called upon to seek and anoint a new king, even though the office of the sitting king was not yet vacant. This is not something that one would normally do, anoint a new king when the current king is still occupying the throne. Sitting kings tend to take a dim view of such things. Being a prophet in such circumstances is dangerous work; it should merit battlefield pay.

In the chapters that follow this, David will meet up with Goliath and defeat him on the field of battle. And instead of receiving the gratitude of the king, he will look up just in time to dodge a spear which the king will have chucked at him. He will marry Saul's daughter Michal, a loveless, arranged marriage which Saul will finagle in order to improvise a way that David might be killed by the Philistines as he attempts to secure a wedding prize for his future father--in--law. Eventually, David will be forced to flee Saul's royal court and begin to live the life of an outlaw and fugitive. He will have to make alliance with enemies of Saul, go into the service of the king of Gath, even fight alongside the hated Philistines in order to stay alive. Twice David will find himself in a position to kill the sleeping king, but twice he won't do it, using the evidence of his refusal to harm Saul as testimony to his fealty to a king who no longer deserves his loyalty. Finally, in chapter 31, beleaguered and outnumbered, Saul will fall on his own sword in battle.

So the anointing of Jesse's youngest and least--likely son - this is only the beginning of the troubles for David, the boy who would be king, for the office of king was not vacant, not by a long shot. And we all know how gladly kings receive the news that their replacement is on the way. Recall how delighted Herod was to hear from the Magi about a king to be born in Bethlehem.

Let's take a look at the boy David, whom God favored above his seven older brothers. The first thing we need to note is that youngest birth--order children love stories like this account of David. The youngest, weakest, the one seemingly so unlikely to be chosen for anything special, the antithesis of the dramatically imposing Saul, the one whose father almost forgot he had him - this is the very one God has in mind to be the greatest king Israel has ever known, the one next to whom all other kings before or since have been measured, the one from whose line Jesus came.

There is some good news in this that we might not have expected. Beholden as we are to the culture of entertainment that celebrates exclusively the rich, the powerful, the beautiful people, the story of humble David - smallest of eight brothers, citizen of the smallest clan in Israel, the one whose father almost forgot him out standing up to his ankles in sheep droppings in the field behind the house - this story reminds us that the hero God chooses is often the unfinished one, the unlikely one, the one that only after he or she has succeeded beyond anyone's wildest imaginings do we find ourselves saying, "Of course, it had to be him; it couldn't have been anyone else but her." God sometimes goes in search of the least likely candidate to be God's champion, and that candidate will sometimes be you, even when you feel least up to the task, perhaps especially then. It will be you even though the office of king is not yet vacant. Never mind that, trust the promise of God, it carries all the strength needed. Why is this, do you suppose? One line tells all. "For the Lord does not see as human beings see; they look on outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." This so reminds me of Antoine Saint Exupery's Little Prince, where we read, "And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye."

Samuel had tried going by outward appearance once before and it didn't work out for him. This time, God was in search of a leader who had the insides for the job. That is why this is good news for any of us who have cherished even a small burning ember of desire to do something significant for the Lord. That tiny, unformed willingness can be put to work even if we believe ourselves to be far from ready. Recall that the people who remembered and passed this story down were more like David than Saul. The people Israel were small potatoes, marginalized, barely a footnote in the historical records of kingdoms and empires except for their own record in the Bible. The story was remembered by people who often need to recall from time to time that even among the marginalized, the beside--the--point people, there is undiscovered capacity for greatness.

Here is the way one pastor spoke about the opening line of our passage: " 'Now the Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul?" ' And while it's unusual for a story to start that way, it's also true that the question's a natural. Whenever there is a collapse of leadership ... that vacuum is the arena of grief; grief over what might have been and won't be yet until new leadership emerges. So it's interesting that the Lord doesn't say: don't grieve. The question is how long? ... Because grief does prevent us from entering the future, and as long as we live in the kingdom of what might have been, we aren't really ready to move forward."1

Who is the king? What place does a king have in the life of a people who believe that God is the ruler of the universe, the true King of the people? In Israel, there existed a continuing, dramatic tension between two major establishments: the religious authorities and the secular authorities. Samuel's prophetic office in Israel expressed God's reluctance to give the people the king they craved. The reason is the all--too--common human temptation to believe that human heroes are worthy of our worship, and the equally human temptation of our heroes to believe they are right. In some ways, our lives represent a series of overthrows of the kings who lay claim to the thrones of our hearts. It is an on--going process, never completed but always in progress.

We awake one day in our earliest childhood memory with our parents on the throne, seeming gods, yet they exist alongside the increasing awareness of our separateness from them. While they are still on the throne - the office of king in our lives not yet vacated by them - we begin the process of anointing ourselves rulers over our own lives. This contest for the throne generally comes to a head in adolescence, when, even though the king of self--awareness still sits on the throne, we anoint as rulers over us the tyrannical opinions and company of our peers. If we are here this morning through some means other than coercion, chances are good that at some point we also began to recognize another Pretender to the throne of our lives. But this one is gentle, not a tyrant. While parents, self, peers, and eventually career, family, relationships may all have found themselves struggling for the throne of our lives at one time or another - perhaps all at the same time - this Pretender to the throne does not join the fight in the usual way.

Others may claim a place as the rightful rulers in our lives because they are strongest, most beautiful, most influential, most popular. But this One, already anointed by the shedding of his blood on the cross, is not to be regarded by outward appearances, which could appear weak, even horrifying. This claimant to the throne is to be judged by his heart. And his heart, descended from the spacious heart of David himself, from the very throne of God, his heart is capacious enough to include all of us, to meet our secret, most fervent and unmet desire to have a truly benevolent ruler in our lives that cares for our well--being more than he cares for his own.

There are rejected kings aplenty who have competed for the right to rule over us. We may spend our whole lives honoring one or another of them, battling the new King, the rightful King, who is descended from the line of David; we may even crucify him in our attempt to deny him our throne. But that he will reign is a promise of God. All our fighting will not change the outcome, only our own suffering in it.

Even if the office of King is not vacant in your life, there is an Anointed One who claims the throne. But he will not take it by force. His reign is not like that. He awaits your acquiescence. Yet he will not rest until he makes his home on the throne of your heart.


1. George Chorba, "In The Kingdom Of Nobodies," unpublished manuscript.