Only three days ago on February 14th, we celebrated the joys and blessings of our love for each other.
Today begins our journey to remember, in the aftermath of flowers, chocolates
and other sweet demonstrations of affection, to remember and not to forget or overlook our most important valentine of all.
This valentine is no ordinary token of affection.
It is an unconditional, sacrificial, blood oath commitment of love for us revealed through the willingness of our Creator to come down and give His life for us – to go hell and back in order to forever secure our victory over all that hinders and holds us in bondage – even the stone-cold reality of death itself.
Today, we begin a journey with Jesus to the Cross, to Resurrection, and beyond.
The formal name for this journey adopted by much the of Christian Church is “Lent.”
Lent is an Old English word which means “spring.”
As the darkness of winter gives way to the light of spring, the forty days of Lent (excluding Sundays) have long been observed in many parts of the Church as a sacred time of reflection and reconsideration of the order, priority, and health of our loves and to recognize and to recommit to the first, true and everlasting love we have in Jesus Christ.
Today, what is known as Ash Wednesday, initiates this journey.
We’ll hear more about the history and meaning of Ash Wednesday throughout today’s service but for now, observing Ash Wednesday is the recognition that receiving the love of Christ and following Jesus begins with facing the bad news of our lives apart from God.
Today, on this Ash Wednesday, as we return to our series on 1 Samuel, we’re going to catch a glimpse of how truly bad things can get – of how just how broken we all are.
And yet, let us hold tight and not lose hope.
For as we’ll also learn, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent are not about facing our darkness alone; they also are about perceiving and following the Light that eclipses our darkness – the Light of the Gospel, the Light of Christ, the Light of the God who refuses to live apart from us.
So, let’s take a deep, cleansing breath as we center ourselves in the Holy Spirit
and receive the word of the Lord from 1 Samuel, chapter 8.
Please keep your Bibles open after the reading as we will be considering all of chapter 8 in the message today.
How could everything turn so bad – so quickly?
Only a chapter before, Israel had come clean to the prophet Samuel and repented of her fickleness and devotion to false gods – to idols crafted out of our fear of loss, our insecurity about our health and wellbeing, and our desire for control.
Israel had acknowledged all that they needed – not only their salvation – but abundant, daily provision and their continued protection could be found, would be secured by the Lord God alone.
And when their faith was put to the test, as their longstanding enemy, the Philistines, prepared to launch a surprise attack, the Lord God came through – delivering them from harm, returning all they had previously lost, and inaugurating a long season – two decades – of peace and stability.
But then, one day, the people decided they needed more than just God.
Israel became convinced the presence and provision of the Lord in their lives wasn’t enough.
They wanted more. They wanted a king.
This wasn’t, by the way, the first time Israel had made this request.
Twice in their history, the people had pressed their leaders for a king.
First, during the days of Gideon, later during the days of his son, Abimelech, and now for the third time, in the time of Samuel, they demanded a king yet again.
Now to be fair, it appears there was some legitimate reason Israel’s request.
After all, an emerging crisis in leadership was brewing.
It began with the aging of Samuel. It created a problem of succession.
Samuel’s answer to the problem was simply to make his sons, Joel and Abiah, the next in line for leading Israel.
However, in the time of the judges, during this period of Israel’s history, spiritual leadership was not conveyed by heredity.
It is the Lord alone who raised up the judge or leader of the people.
To further complicate matters, in the particular case of Joel and Abiah, apparently, the apples CAN fall far from the tree.
For these two sons were nothing at all like their father. Whereas Samuel was a faithful leader of integrity, the initial tenure of his sons Joel and Abiah, was marked by an abuse of leadership – ill-gotten gain, taking bribes, and perverting justice.
Understandably, the people of Israel feared what life would be like under Joel and Abiah, so, they asked for a king.
And truth be told, in the Torah, God’s law and instructions given way back when through Moses did, in fact, make provision for Israel, someday, to have a king.
The problem is not the request for a king per se.
The problem was the manner and motive of the request.
What’s wrong with the manner of the people’s request?
It’s the same mistake the people of Israel made back in 1 Samuel, chapter 4.
Earlier, do we remember, the Israelites presumptuously brought God into the battle they were facing – assuming the Lord was on their side, that the Lord would fight for them – totally convinced that what they wanted is what God wanted without ever even consulting with the Lord.
And now, here we go again, as the people do not approach God asking what is best, what the Lord desires for them, but instead presuming, demanding, telling the Lord what they must have.
Israel’s bad manners stem from a bad motive.
This is the truly damning part.
Why does Israel want a king?
Here it is straight from their lips to God’s ears: “now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”
(1 Samuel 8:5)
We see the problem here, don’t we?
This runs contrary to who Israel was created to be – unlike all the other nations.
Israel, the only nation created by God, was to be distinctive, set apart, a light to the rest of the world – to know and to understand how to be in relationship with the Lord, to learn how to reflect the goodness, the love, and the grace of God to others.
Other nations worshipped many gods – false, deceptive and enslaving idols made of wood and stone.
Israel was to worship only one God, the one true God named YHWH.
Other nations ordered their lives around working in order to rest – a basis of power and gain built on the backs of those they conquered and exploited.
Israel was instructed to keep the Sabbath holy – to rest, to abide in God and thus work out of the Lord’s provision – a basis of power and abundance that was shared because it was not earned or achieved but given – given for the good and well-being of not just the few and the proud but for all people.
Instead of becoming a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, Israel was basically declaring, “We want to abandon our unique, distinct identity and just be like everyone else.”
Initially in response, the Lord attempts to talk Israel out of a really bad decision.
Through Samuel, the Lord outlines in detail what having an earthly king like all the other nations would mean.
While the people all only focused on the functions of monarchy – what an earthly king can do for them; YHWM points out the nature of monarchy – what an earthly king will take from them.
Note the recurrence of the words “take” and “best”in 1 Samuel 8, verses 10 – 18.
The gist of what the Lord is trying to get the people to see is what they are convinced will make them more safe and secure and more positioned for success and prosperity, actually will end up being more of a massive burden upon them.
Ironically, gaining an earthly king will result in the loss of most of the freedoms and possessions Israel presently enjoys.
This counter move by God is in and of itself a reflection of His grace in our lives.
The witness not just of this story but of all of scripture is clear and cannot be refuted.
Our Heavenly Father never allows us to stumble and fall without first warning us of the potential dangers and the inevitable consequences of our going on own way rather than His.
The smart move, the right choice, at this point, would have been for Israel to heed the Lord’s counsel and drop the whole matter.
But human nature been broken, our human nature being what it is, the people remain obstinate, unmoved.
They know better. They want it the way they want it. Or as verse 19 puts it, “But the people refused to listen…” (1 Samuel 8:19)
The people double-down. They reiterate their demand and add more salt to the wound:
“We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8:19 – 20)
With this additional statement, the people revealed just how clueless they were.
In their request for an earthly king, they made no reference to God.
They weren’t even looking for a king like the one they already had – like the Lord.
No, their ideal of a perfect king came straight from the desire to be like all the other nations around them.
The people were rejecting God – yet again.
They were, in effect, saying to the Lord, “We believe that a human king can do a better job of protecting, guiding, and leading us than you can.”
Talk about a slap in the face.
Was there any battle Israel had ever won without the Lord’s intervention?
Did they need a king like all the other nations to get out of slavery in Egypt or to take possession of the Promised Land?
Having been sucker punched, let alone heinously insulted, the Lord’s response to the people’s second request for a king is surprising.
The Lord extends not a word of rejection, not a word of judgment. The Lord does not strike the people dead or turn His back on them.
Instead, the Lord tells Samuel to listen to the people – to give them a king.
Again, we witness the grace of God – grace albeit expressed through tough love.
The Lord giving the people what they want is tough love because they will learn soon enough what happens when you don’t follow the Lord’s advice.
As time progresses, as the majority of Israel’s kings become evil and corrupt, as Israel not only greatly suffers but eventually splits apart and ends up in exile, the people will learn the hard way the best King, the right King, the only King humanity needs is the Lord God Almighty.
This isn’t just a story about Israel. This is the story about us – all humanity.
In what will be the ashes of Israel’s utter failure before God, we perceive the ashes borne of our own brokenness.
When it comes to our relationship with our Creator, we are no less presumptuous in our bad manners – assuming God will bless and endorse whatever we want, whatever we decided to do without even bothering to talk and listen to Him.
How many times in this last year alone has the name of God been invoked in questionable statements and snap judgments, in baseless accusations and self-justifications, for aggressive postures, hostile behaviors, and destructive actions– how many times has the name of God been thrown around without any actual interaction with the Lord?
When it comes to our relationship with our Heavenly Father, we are no different than Israel in our bad motivations.
How often do we take our focus off Jesus – we forget or forsake being who God created, who God calls, who God empowers us to become – and instead look around to see what everybody else is doing?
We turn our attention to what the world promises will make us happy and secure, successful and prosperous, and then become convinced if we only had “that” or “this” if God would give us what we want, then we would feel safe, then we would view ourselves as significant, then we would have everything we need?
And just like the Lord cautions Israel, how often do we find that all the other things we look to for our sense of self and purpose, our peace of mind and heart, – all the other the relationships, all the titles, the achievements, the possessions and the experiences we endlessly grasp for – how often do we discover they take so much more than they give?
They take our time – our evenings and our weekends. They take our energy and our best efforts – our passion and our life. They take from us the very things we need even as they leave us wanting more.
When it comes to our relationship with the Lord, we are no different than Israel in denying grace when it is given to us.
Even though we are cautioned, even though God advises us this is going to end badly, we remain stubborn. We know better.
We refuse to listen.
But then, when the Lord allows what we want to happen in our lives and then it all blows up, we have to nerve to turn to the Lord and say, “How could YOU do this to me?”
And this brings us back to where we started – our assumption that because God allows something to happen means God approves of what we are doing – even when the Lord clearly and repeatedly has told us “No.”
We begin our journey to follow Jesus with ashes because the ashes reflect what we see in this story, what we experience in our lives when we reject the Lord as our one, true King – how everything eventually falls apart, when we try and go our own way.
We start with ashes because like or not, accept it or not, as much as fight against it, death is all we have, our lives inevitably turn to dust, when we seek to make anyone or anything else – including ourselves – the ruler of our lives instead of Christ.
But ashes are not all we have.
In a world that takes more than it gives, ashes are not all that we are left with.
For even though Israel all but abandons God in the end, God does not abandon Israel. It is for and through Israel, despite her repeated failures and betrayals, that God comes to write a different ending to the story.
And Israel’s story is the story of all humanity.
For even though we all but take our Creator for granted, even going so far when He comes to us in the flesh to take God down, to take the Lord out, to kill God in Christ, Jesus will rise from the ashes of the death we deserve to give us the abundant and everlasting life that we don’t.
Ashes are not all we have.
We are not a people without hope. From the ashes of our sin will rise the promise of God’s mercy and love.
Israel asks for a king and perhaps we are still looking for one too.
In the midst of ongoing pandemic, on the other side of an election, as we find ourselves more divided, more polarized than we can ever remember before, we’re all looking for a king – for someone to take charge, to bring us together, and take us to the other side of this weary and broken world.
We are all looking for salvation – for redemption, for meaning and purpose, for resurrection – a second chance.
We are all looking for somebody or something to save us – whoever or whatever that is, is our king.
But there is only one, true King. And this King of Kings does not take, take, take.
The Lord God gives – God gives us life – life not spent searching for our identity, meaning, and purpose but actually living it, fulfilling in relationship with Him.
The Lord God gives – God gives grace – not surprising us but telling us, guiding in advance as to the way we should go and the way that we should avoid.
The Lord God gives – God gives us Godself in the person of Jesus Christ – redeeming us from our failures, forgiving us of sins, and resurrecting us from all our many deaths long before we put a foot in the grave.
With the marking of ashes—a dark and undeniable slash across our foreheads, let us humbly acknowledges our utter helplessness and dependency – our need for a King, but as these ashes take their shape in the sign of the cross, let us recognize, let us testify to others, that we have been claimed, that our allegiance and trust, our loyalty and our love are with the King we may not have wanted but desperately needed, the King we didn’t have to go searching for but who came to find us, to bring His Kingdom into our lives, into this world. Amen.