What? | TRANSITIONS WORSHIP SERIES
When news of change and a time of transition comes, especially a transition we do not want and can see more harm than good in, it’s the very next question after “What?”
It can be a useful question, an empowering question, even a question that could, at times, lead to a different kind of change that would be for the better.
But let’s be honest about the degree of our own self-interest in asking “Why?” We ask “Why?” first as a kind of primal response, out of our own pain, confusion, and discomfort with the news we have received and where we see things going—for us and ours. We ask “Why?” as a kind of demand for the messenger or the change-maker to explain themselves, to justify the pain, discomfort, or confusion they’re putting us through. The deeper our sense of our own loss and pain, the more demanding our “Why?” becomes. There had better be a good explanation for this… or else.
Or else, what? Or else our relationship is in trouble. Or else I may start to treat you not merely as a threat, but as an enemy to be defeated or destroyed. Or else I’m going to defect in place, or maybe not remain in place. Or else I’m going to make you regret that decision. Or else… you get the idea.
Last week, we encountered Eli and Samuel at the “What?” stage of the transitions they were facing.
This week, we find Samuel very much in the “Why?” stage.
At “What?” we’re just trying to make sure we heard it right, and let it sink in.
At “Why?” we’re fighting back, often out of our own stuff and sense of pain around the situation. We’re saying, “Have you really thought through this? Have you considered the consequences?” Which is another way of saying, “That’s a bad idea, and now I’m going to tell you why it’s a bad idea and expect/trust you to change your decision.”
Samuel’s at “Why?”
There had been a secret called meeting of all the elders of Israel. Samuel hadn’t called this meeting. He wasn’t there. At that meeting, they decided it was time for Samuel to step aside as judge and anoint a king to replace him. They also decided how they’d approach telling Samuel the news— by giving him their own version of a “Why” he’d have a hard time refusing, because it was the same reason Samuel had displaced Eli as priest and prophet. “You are old, and your sons do not follow in your ways” (vs.5, NRSV).
They weren’t wrong. Verses 1-3 in this chapter, which we didn’t read today, are quite clear that indeed Samuel had gotten old and had appointed his sons to take over his judging duties throughout the region; and his sons had abused the office to enrich themselves—just as Phinehas and Hophni, Eli’s sons, had done.
So maybe Samuel should have seen this coming.
Still, verse 6 tells us his response to this wasn’t the “This is the Lord. Let God do what God pleases” we saw last week from his mentor, Eli.
No. “The thing displeased Samuel,” it says in the NRSV (vs. 6). More literally, the Hebrew could be translated, “The[ir] word was evil in the eyes of Samuel.” He was more than “displeased.” He was offended. He was mad.
So he prayed to God.
Prayer in a Hebrew/Jewish Context
by Taylor Burton-Edwards
The Hebrew verb used here and commonly translated “to pray” comes from a Hebrew root word meaning “to judge” (pallel). The verb form as it appears in this week’s text is reflexive, meaning “to act as judge for oneself” or “intercede for oneself” or “plead one’s case” as if before a judge. We still get a sense of this in the older English usage “I pray you” just before a request (“I pray you, pass me the ketchup!”), though that usage has since been largely displaced by the word “Please’ (short for “if it pleases you,” from the French).
So there’s a somewhat significant shift in thought worlds between Samuel, himself “judge-emeritus of Israel” praying to the Lord, and the ways we may think about the use of the verb “to pray.” It’s more like Samuel the judge judging himself before the Lord, whom he sees as ultimate judge. It is Samuel standing before God, taking in both what has been said to him, and his own judgment of it as “an evil word” and bringing all of that to the Lord.
Prayer as self-judgment before God does not bring a demand for a specific resolution. Rather, it brings a request for a response, the response of God’s judgment and wisdom to show us the way forward in our particular circumstance.
We don’t know what Samuel said. We just know what he did. He prayed. He took in what had been said to him, he offered his own assessment of these words, and waited for God’s reply.
And God responded.
In God’s response, we hear God’s wisdom, and we see some of the hurt and anger Samuel must have brought in his prayer. Samuel’s hurt and anger said, “Help me change their minds, God!” God’s wisdom says, “You can’t win this. Do what they ask.” Samuel’s hurt and anger likely said, “They’ve rejected me!” God’s wisdom says, “No. They haven’t rejected you as judge. They’ve rejected me as king.”
And God gives Samuel the opportunity to give further voice to his hurt and anger in the form of warning the people of what their decision will mean for them if indeed they pursue it.
Warn them, Samuel does. He doesn’t refuse their request. But he does warn. He speaks from his heart in this “Why?” moment. A king will convert their sons into his soldiers, their daughters into his domestic staff, their wine and produce into feasts for his courtiers, their freedom for his use as his slaves.
It was a strong warning. But, as God had noted, not enough to dissuade the elders from their decision. Indeed, they doubled down, or at least got much more specific.
“We are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, that our king may govern us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” (I Samuel 8:20, NRSV).
We could address at some length just how misguided and disastrous their desire to be like other nations and have a king whose primary focus was annual military campaigns would be. Samuel could have, too.
But it would have made no difference.
The leaders had spoken. This was on them. Samuel would not prevail against them. God instructed Samuel to let them have their way.
In the season of “Why?” the answers that come may not be answers, or they may not be satisfying, and they may even be evil in our eyes. We may be deeply offended and hurt along the way. We may shake our heads at what we may see as the foolishness or danger of the decisions being made above our paygrades. We may be right. But we don’t have the power to change them.
What we have the power to do in our season of “Why?” is exactly what Samuel and God did. We can pray, processing what we’re seeing before the face of the Almighty. We can hear God’s word for us in the face of our “Why?”. We can hear God reminding us of our role, and God’s, in the midst of our situations. And maybe we can sense God reminding us that God still has good work for us to do, even if it’s not what we’ve been doing, and even if the outcome of our work won’t be what we had hoped for. Maybe we can sense God nudging us, just a bit, to get over ourselves enough to let the healing of our hurt begin, and a next chapter begin to unfold.
But you won’t know if you don’t ask “Why?”
Or if you don’t ask the right person.
Some of you here today may be in your own season of “Why?” You wonder about what you know is your own weakness, the messes you’ve made that have hurt you or others, or the messes others have made that have wounded you or worn you down. You may not get to a peace about it all anytime soon. I won’t guarantee you there’s any quick fix for that, any shortcut to happiness or success.
But I will testify to you, as will many here if you ask, that I know and we know what it is in our seasons of “Why?” to be led by the Spirit, to be moved by the Spirit to pray, to be heard and answered by the Father when we do, and to be embraced by Jesus. And that just may be worth far more than ten thousand charms. Amen.