A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, June 01, 2015

Be Careful What You Ask For, You Just Might Get It: A Lectionary Reflection on 1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15

1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15

The people of Israel were the people of God. This meant that they were not to be like all the other nations. They were different. They were unique. One aspect of their uniqueness was that, since God was their king, they were to have no earthly monarch like all the other nations. But they were unable to trust in the One who had led them through the wilderness and protected them through the years. They began to clamor to God's prophet Samuel, "We want a king like all the other nations." Somehow it was reasoned that a human king was better than a divine one. Eventually God relented giving the people what they wanted, and saying to Samuel, "They have not rejected you; they have rejected me."


Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it. The people get what they ask for, but what they discover over time, is that Samuel's warnings were right.
So Samuel reported all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, 'These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day' (1 Samuel 8:10-18)
While Saul may look the part of a king (see 1 Samuel 10:24) he is not fit for the job. Saul is ruthless, he undermines his own people, he acts to preserve his own power, he opposes the priests, and he attempts to thwart the very plans of God to make David the king in his place. Indeed, the people of Israel have received exactly what they asked for-- they have a king like all the other nations. Be careful what you ask for.

But even though the people had rejected God in their desire for a king, God had not rejected his people. One thing we must always remember is that God works with us and in spite of us. God continues to lead and move when things go according to God’s plan, and when they don't. God will use Saul as Israel's king, even though God wanted to be their king. God will lead his people even though they prefer to be led by Saul. Even when we find that our lives have become snake bit, whether by our own bad decisions, or through circumstances over which we have no control, God will not abandon his people and leave them-- leave us-- to ourselves.

The following is a true story from Reader's Digest.
On January 10, 1948, just two years after the end of the Second World War, Marcel Sternberger took a train in the Brooklyn subway.  Usually, he took a different line, but his schedule changed because he wanted to visit a sick friend that morning. So now he was on a different train departing at noon so he could get to work. Sternberger stepped on the train and it was packed. He was just getting ready to get off to wait for the next train, when one man suddenly jumped from his seat and left the train hurriedly, probably realizing at the last minute that he was about to miss his stop. Sternberger took the vacant seat. Sitting next to him was a man reading a Hungarian newspaper. Sternberger was born in Hungary and though he was not the type of person to start a conversation with strangers, he felt compelled to do so. He turned to the man and said in Hungarian, "I hope you don't mind if I glance at your paper." The man was surprised to be addressed in his native language. During their trip they began to talk.
The man began to share with Sternberger his heartrending story. His last name was Paskin. When the war started, he was a law student. Eventually, he was enlisted in a labor battalion and sent to the Ukraine. He was captured by the Russians and was put to work burying the German dead. After the war was over, he travelled hundreds of miles on foot to return to his home in Debrecen, Hungary, only to discover that his entire family was gone. Strangers were living in the apartment he had once occupied with his father, mother, brothers, and sisters. When he reached his apartment where he had lived with his wife, it was also occupied by people he did not know. Finally, he found some old friends in Debrecen who had survived the carnage of the war. They sorrowfully informed him that his entire family was dead. The Nazis had taken them and his wife to Auschwitz where they were presumably murdered in the gas chambers.
Paskin was shocked by the news. He left Hungary, which was now to him a land of death. He went west toward Paris and eventually he emigrated to the United States in October of 1947. As Sternberger listened to the man's incredible story, somehow it seemed familiar, and suddenly it dawned on him. Only recently, he had met a young woman in the home of friends who had also been from Debrecen. She had been taken to Auschwitz, but was then transferred to work in a German munitions factory. All her relatives had been killed in the gas chambers. After she and the camp had been liberated by the Americans, she was brought to New York in the first boatload of Displaced Persons in 1946. Sternberger had been so stirred by her story he had written down her address and phone number, hoping to invite her to meet his family in order to assist her in her time of loneliness and grief.
Sternberger could not imagine that this was nothing more than a strange coincidence, but when the train reached his stop, he stayed on the subway with his newfound friend. Sternberger asked Paskin informally, "Is your first name 'Bela?'”
The man face went pale-- "Yes! How did you know?"
Sternberger fumbled for his address book, as he asked, "Was your wife's name 'Marya?'”
Looking as though he might pass out, Paskin said, "Yes! Yes!"
Sternberger suggested that they get off at the next station without explanation. He led Paskin to a nearby phone booth. While Paskin stood there like a man in a stupor, Sternberger made a phone call, and after what seemed like an eternity, Sternberger had Marya Paskin on the line. Sternberger reminded her of their recent chance meeting, and she remembered him. Without explaining why, Sternberger asked where Marya had lived in Debrecen before the war. She told him the address. Sternberger turned to Paskin and asked, "Did you and your wife live on such-and-such street?"
"Yes!" Bela exclaimed, as he trembled.
Sternberger urged Paskin to stay calm, but then readied him by telling him the miraculous was about to happen. Then he handed Bela the phone, saying, "Here, take this telephone and talk to your wife."
When Paskin realized that he was actually speaking with his Marya, he cried uncontrollably. Sternberger sent him by taxi to be reunited with his wife. Bela and Marya each thought the other was dead; and now half-way across the world in their new country, they were husband and wife once again. 
Reader's Digest ends the article in this way:
Skeptical persons would no doubt attribute the events of that afternoon to mere chance. But was it chance that made Sternberger suddenly decide to visit his sick friend, and hence take a subway line that he had never been on before? Was it chance that caused the man sitting by the door of the car to rush out just as Sternberger came in? Was it chance that caused Bela Paskin to be sitting beside Sternberger, reading a Hungarian newspaper? Was it chance-- or did God ride the Brooklyn subway that afternoon?
Was the aggression of Nazi Germany God's will? Were the Holocaust, Auschwitz, and gas chambers divinely ordained? Of course not! But even when we human beings do our worst, God is in the mix of our misdeeds performing his best. In the midst of the godless horror of what happened in Europe many decades ago, that affected a town in Hungary, Bela and Marya Paskin were reminded after the war that God had not stopped working and leading and offering goodness in a world that, for a while, had gone insane. Israel's rebellious desire for a king would not thwart God's plans to lead Israel to the place where Israel's Messiah, Jesus, would offer salvation to the world; and because of Jesus, God continues to insert himself into the muddle of our affairs working and leading and bringing his goodness and love, when we are faithful, when we are not, and even when life hurls more garbage at us than we can imagine.

Before his ascension to heaven, Jesus reminded us that he would be with us always. That is one truth we can count on in today’s world... even when we get what we ask for.
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*As told in Paul Deutschman, "It Happened on the Brooklyn Subway," Reader's Digest (May 1949), 45-48. See also Bill T. Arnold, 1 & 2 Samuel. NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.

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