Who? | TRANSITIONS WORSHIP SERIES
Strange news, maybe unwelcome news comes.
And we say, “What?”
Change is coming. We’re going to enter some sort of time of transition. There’s no avoiding it.
And we say, “Why?”
Often the change that comes, the transition we enter, involves a third question, “Who?”
“Who is going to lead us now?”
“Who will do what the folks who aren’t with us any more used to do?”
“Who is going to get us through this time of not having the answers to those first two questions?”
“What?” indicates our shock, but also a desire to learn more. In times of transition, the season of “What?” can be a season of learning.
“Why” expresses our own sense of hurt and loss, and maybe a bit of anger about what’s going on. The season of “Why?” can be a season of bargaining (or demand!) for a different future, or it can point us to sources for healing and growth.
“Who?” indicates anxiety. There’s no question change is coming. The “Why?” questions have been asked, and perhaps our numbers have been diminished further by those who have been culled or have culled themselves from our ranks. While this raises some anxiety about how things will get done, (we’ll talk about How next week!), the pressing question it tends to raise is who will do it now.
That’s a lot of uncertainty.
That uncertainty breeds anxiety.
And anxiety tends to generate tunnel vision in the people charged with finding new leaders or a new way forward.
Tunnel vision isn’t always a bad thing. There’s another name for it in sports. It’s called “being in the zone” or “being in flow state.” Get in the zone on the basketball court or the baseball diamond, and you can have three straight three-point shots or pitch a perfect game. Or ask Shawn White about those back to back 1440s in his third run on the half-pipe at Pyeongchang that got him the gold medal. Anxiety plus their disciplined skills can get athletes into a heightened state of awareness where they can focus and perform what look like miracles with the appearance of complete ease.
But if we’re in the season of “Who?,” and we get into tunnel vision around that, the results can be far from gold medal worthy.
In this week’s reading, we find Samuel in a position where he has every reason to be asking “Who?” questions. The king the people asked for and whom he has anointed has turned out to be even worse than Samuel had warned a king might be. He is enriching himself with booty, losing battles, usurping the priesthood, and, as it turns out, is prone to alternating fits of depression and rage. Saul is a disaster as king.
But there was no way to get rid of him. He was the king. This wasn’t a democracy.
Well, there was a way. Insurrection. Rivals to the throne. You could become a rival and risk splitting up the nation that had just been united around Saul. Then you’d get to deal with the violent aftermath of all that.
So it wasn’t just that Saul’s failings were demoralizing. They were destabilizing. They were dangerous. And everybody knew that.
So anxieties ran high. Eggshells everywhere.
Samuel was dejected. Even God was sorry about it (see verse 35!).
There was nothing the people could do that wouldn’t make things even worse. But there was something God could do. And so there was something Samuel could do.
In the theo-politics of ancient Israel, it was understood, at least by some, that it was God who provided the king. God could make a king, just as God had raised up judges and prophets, and, if needed, God could make another one. The new one couldn’t rule while the first one was alive. But the process of identifying the new one could begin at any time.
God was done with Saul, because Saul had proven himself to be done with any real allegiance to God.
It was time to identify the next king.
It was time for Samuel to get out his horn filled with oil for anointing and go anoint the one God would identify, one of the sons of Jesse in Bethlehem.
It’s a season of anxiety. Samuel can’t go anointing the next king willy-nilly. Madman Saul would have him killed the instant he heard of it.
In a season of anxiety, a season of “Who?,” you tend to become really clear about what you can’t do. You may easily lose sight of what you can.
So yes, Samuel couldn’t travel from Ramah to Bethlehem and announce, “I’m here to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as king.” But that didn’t mean he couldn’t do the anointing. He didn’t know that. But God did.
God reminded Samuel of something Samuel seemed to have forgotten. He wasn’t just a judge and a prophet who could anoint kings. He was also a priest who could offer sacrifices. He could take a sacrifice and his priestly gear with him and offer a sacrifice to which he would invite Jesse and sons.
Sometimes in a season of “Who?,” we find ourselves asking, “Who, me?” and we forget our own gifts that make us perfect candidates for what is needed at the time.
But God doesn’t.
And God didn’t.
So Samuel went. He wasn’t wrong to be anxious. Having the former judge of all Israel on the move in this anxious season could send all sorts of anxiety-raising signals, all by itself. Having that ex-judge arrive at your city gates to do something there—this might not be good. The elders of the city saw him on the road, and in their own panic (they were even trembling, verse 4), they asked whether he were coming to their town with peaceful intent. Seriously, they’d have reason to worry if he were not. If he were going to organize an army of Bethlehemites against Saul-- not an inconceivable thought in those times-- and Saul heard of that, Saul would have every person and everything in the town destroyed. They couldn’t risk that.
Anxious times, the season of “Who?”
Samuel was admitted, probably escorted to the sacrificial site, then sent out word for Jesse and his sons to meet him there. He would get everything ready to offer a sacrifice there, but he would not offer it until he had anointed the next king.
Samuel didn’t know whom he would anoint. He only knew it was to be one of the sons of Jesse. That pairing of knowledge (one of the sons of Jesse, the one God would designate personally) and ignorance (of which son it would be) may have been the key God used to prevent Samuel from falling prey to a tunnel vision that would prevent him from seeing God’s choice.
You know the story. From the oldest to the youngest son called to the sacrifice, one after another of Jesse’s sons was summoned to appear before Samuel. The very first one, Eliab, appeared to be right out of casting central for the part: tall, great looking, and the oldest of Jesse’s sons. But Samuel heard God tell him, “Not this one. I look on the heart” (vs 17).
Then not the next, nor the next, nor the next. Until all the sons present were rejected.
I don’t know about you, but when I’m in an anxious state, and I’ve got six puzzle pieces in front of me, and none of them fits the spot, I assume I’ve missed something and try going back over the six I have. And then I start looking for ways to make one of the puzzle pieces work. I don’t think, right away, “there must be a missing puzzle piece.”
Samuel shows us the way forward in this anxious season of “Who?” And in the process, we learn just how anxiety had affected everyone in the system. “Are all your sons here?” he asks Jesse. Samuel would have had every reason to presume that when there’s a sacrifice the whole family is called to, they’d make sure the whole family was there. But no. Jesse was anxious, too. He was anxious about his flocks. He was anxious about quick compliance with a strange order. So he didn’t bother to try to invite his youngest son, David, who was tending the sheep.
David was summoned; God said he was the one; and Samuel anointed him.
In the season of “Who?” we find ourselves in times of transition; we get anxious; we try to force fit things; and in all of that, we risk missing whom God may be providing for us in such a time as this.
Are you in a season of “Who?”
You may not be able to let go all the anxiety.
But you may be able to interrupt it long enough to breathe and to seek God’s voice and the Spirit’s leading. It’s there. And often, it’s the voice reminding us to ask a question we may not have thought to ask in our anxiety-driven tunnel vision. Is everyone here? Who’s not yet at the table? What kind of face haven’t we seen? What kind of voice haven’t we heard? What kind of abilities and disabilities haven’t we considered?
May we trust the One who knows us better than we know ourselves to lead us to those we don’t yet know and maybe find among them the answer to our “Who?”