Photo: Anointing of David by Saul (Barrias)
~ 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 ~
Leonard Bernstein’s enigmatic musical theatre work, Mass, from the 70’s, begins with this song, A Simple Song, sung by the celebrant. Everyone in harmony and agreement. In the free spirit of harmony and togetherness, “make it up as you go along,” seems so right, “for God is the simplest of all.”
But the mass soon turns to chaos when the kids of the street express doubts and suspicions about the necessity of God and the mass. At the climax of the musical the celebrant has grown so frustrated and angry that he throws the eucharistic bread and chalice on the floor and collapses in a heap, completely undone.
Making it up as you go along seems an attractive notion. The free spirit of spontaneity is a nice pushback against stuck-in-the-mud institutions and traditions. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just let the spirit flow? The stifling structures of institutional ways do seem quite overbearing at times. However, living in a world like that would be, well, chaotic. It isn’t a recipe for long-term stability. It turns out that institutions are kind of necessary.
Our dive into the world of Samuel, Saul and David bears that out. “Make it up as you go along” is a good way to describe the early heady days of Israel’s venture into monarchy. There were no institutional precidents; no “this is the way we’ve done it before.” There was no “before.” Indeed, the most important qualification, if you will, for Saul to be named king was that he was a completely free spirit. Or, to put it another way, he was completely spirit-possessed. It was out of that spirit-filled frenzy that he did his kingly duties.
Jeanne talked last Sunday about the Israelites’ desire for a king. Subsequently, Samuel anointed Saul. After the anointing, Samuel sends Saul home and tells him that on the way he is going to meet up with a band of prophets, singing, dancing and playing instruments, and that they’ll be in a prophetic frenzy. And then you, Saul, will also be possessed by God and you, too, will be in a prophetic frenzy and you’ll be turned into a different person. And when this happens you do whatever you see fit to do because God is with you.
And that’s what happened. Saul goes on to do amazing things in his charismatic frenzied state. He rallies the people, bringing together all the tribes like none before. He defeats – no, he utterly destroys their enemies. He is glorious in his ecstatic being. Yet, he is also erratic and unpredictable, making things up as he goes along. But what should they expect from a “make-it-up-as-you-go-along” kind of king. Well, Samuel expected something different. And that got Saul into trouble.
In our story of Samuel and Saul, we have two men who supposedly are appointed by God to lead the people. When Samuel speaks he is speaking the very words of God, God’s demands and directions. When Saul acts he is acting in the very spirit of God – whatever he does, supposedly, it is God doing it through him. Yet they are constantly butting heads. What gives?
What if we set aside all of the “God said” verbiage and set aside Saul’s charismatic anointing? What do we have. We have two strong-willed, religiously-motivated political characters vying for the attention and devotion of the people. And one of them has to lose. In time it is Saul who loses, a tragic figure who literally loses his mind, exhibited in fits of rage and despair. Indeed, a musician named David is called upon to come play his harp and sing to sooth Saul’s troubled soul.
Which brings us to David. Where you wondering if I’d ever get to him? So, here’s the story of how David comes on the scene. First, Samuel has truly regretted ever making Saul king which, of course, means God has regretted making Saul king. The pretense for that rejection is really quite troubling.
Samuel tells Saul that God has ordered the utter destruction of the Amalekites for, supposedly, opposing the Israelites when they came out of Egypt (a long time ago). “Utterly” destroy means spare nothing – men, women, children, and animals. All must be killed. Saul attacks the Amalekites, wins the battle decisively killing everybody and most of the animals, but not all. He decides to keep the best of the animals supposedly to be used for sacrifices to God. But when Samuel arrives and sees the spoils of war, the animals, he condemns Saul, saying that he has done a great evil for not completely obeying the command of God. It says that Samuel grieved over Saul, but for the most part that was the end for Saul.
Your right, there is no excusing this terrible evil committed in the name of God. But, again, as hard as it might be, try setting aside the “thus saith the Lord” stuff and see that we have people acting out their political agendas using religion as a pretext. It happens all the time. It has happened over and over again throughout history.
So all that sets the stage for today’s reading from First Samuel: the anointing of David to be king of Israel. But it is a strange story, one in which God and Samuel seem to be intertwined. Is God sorry or is Samuel sorry to have made Saul king. God seems to be saying to Samuel to stop moping over Saul because it’s clear that God has rejected Saul. So get up off your duff and go find the next king. Go to Jesse’s house and you’ll find the next king there.
Samuel is apprehensive. What if Saul finds out and seeks to kill him? So God cooks up a plan for Samuel. The proverbial take-a-cow-to-be-sacrificed gambit. As a result, Samuel gets to look over all of Jesse’s sons. And even though, as each son passes by, Samuel is sure several times, God tells him “that isn’t the one.” Finally, he finds out that the youngest son is still out in the field tending sheep. So they go find David and, sure enough, God says he’s the one, anoint him! Interestingly, David is described as “ruddy” with “beautiful eyes and was handsome.” However, it should be noted that the person telling the story, the “chronicler,” is one of David’s people so flattering descriptions of the future king are not surprising. But the most important line of the story is this: “and the spirit of God came mightily upon David from that day forward.”
Thus, the power games commence. The next 15 chapters of First Samuel tell the story of the contentious relationship between Saul and David. Saul’s dark moods, David playing the harp for him, David could have killed Saul in his sleep but doesn’t, Jonathon, Saul’s son, and David befriended, Saul finally getting killed in battle. Compelling story telling.
But it is the very next verse from the passage, one we didn’t read, that is the kicker: First Samuel 16:14 says, “Now the spirit of God departed Saul, and God sent an evil spirit to torment him.” This is the only place in the bible where it says God’s spirit leaves a man and sends an evil spirit in God’s place. In the battle of charismatic personalities, the chronicler hired by David to tell the story, wants us to know that it is David and not Saul that has God’s blessing and anointing, even though Saul once did.
So David goes on to be a great king, a great success. He defeated Israel’s enemies even more decisively than did Saul, he expanded Israel’s territory significantly, he obtained a new capital, Jerusalem (OK, he invaded a supposed ally and took the city from them!) and established some sense of normalcy. And, as the story goes along, he was capable of doing despicable things, like have the captain of his army, Uriah, killed so he could justify keeping his wife, Bathsheba, for himself.
Some scholars attribute David’s success to his ability to put together political coalitions better than did Saul, thus putting into place some institutional structures. But there is no doubt that the main ingredient was his charismatic leadership. Remember, it was their supposed God-anointed, spirit-filled charisma that gave Samuel, Saul and David their legitimacy. As the story goes on in Second Samuel, David justifies pretty much all his actions, including killing everyone left in Saul’s family, as divine directives; he’s just doing what God has commanded.
What are we to make of all this? And what does it have to do with us today? It certainly does look like they were making it up as they went along, doesn’t it? And I think it is safe to say, this isn’t how Presbyterians do things. Let’s talk about that a bit.
To me, one of the more concerning aspects of religion (not just Christianity but religions in general) is the notion that some people claim to have special insight or knowledge about things (the world, human behavior, spirituality) because they are specially endowed with God’s spirit. It’s the problem with, what I call, “being redeemed.” Because I’m redeemed, I know more and should be making the decisions over those who are not redeemed. This seems to be a particular trait of many spiritual leaders. You should listen to me, obey me, because God has told me directly what should be done. God has told me directly what you should do. Dangerous stuff. Who am I to tell you what God wants you to do? Yet many a “spiritual leader” believes they have such authority. Many, if not all, atrocities are done in the name of religion because “God told us to do it.”
Which is why we Presbyterians don’t do it that way. We don’t just make it up as we go along. Indeed, we don’t even rely on an individual’s own sense of call. We don’t go it alone. As much as we might groan about Presbyterians’ reliance on committees, even make jokes about it, committees are an important component in discerning God’s desires. Even when a person believes he or she has a call from God for ministry, be it as a Minister of Word and Sacrament or an elder or a deacon, that call is subject, if you will, to a discernment process with others.
In another vein, we are not an only pastor-led church, no matter how “spirit-filled” he may be (lol). Decisions, discernment for ministry decisions, are made by the Session. You, the congregation, elect elders to serve as those discerning ministry collaborators – to discern God’s desires and will for the ministry of Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church. Yes, this might be old hat for many of you. But I think it important to remind ourselves that this is the way we discern God’s purpose for our church.
Yet, digging deeper, we are all in this together. As Keenan reminded us last week, being a disciple is not easy. We don’t just look to God to magically make things happen. God looks to us to live our God’s purpose. But we don’t go it alone; we don’t make it up as we go along. Together we discern God’s purpose for our lives and for the life of this church. So, I think it appropriate that we sing a hymn that bespeaks that desire, Be Now My Vision. It is a prayer for each of us individually and for all of us collectively. May we take it to heart. Amen.