The lessons this morning are certainly heavy: “All we, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned – every one – to his own way.” And then the Lord’s declaration that the covenant made with Moses will pass away “for they did not continue in my covenant, and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord”. And then that stern phrase from Jesus: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword”.
And if you read Chapter 16 in The Story, you see why: after almost three centuries and 39 kings of God’s chosen people choosing to ignore God and go their own way, of people trying to come up with their own convenient solutions, of people going right back to the words of the serpent in the Garden and saying “did God really say that? We won’t actually die if we disobey” …finally, God says: “ok”.
Think about that one. I have to say, that was an earth-shattering revelation for me.
Some people – indeed, some whole denominations – like to talk about the wrath of God, about judgement and things like that. And many of us, reading along in The Story, have a hard time reading through this downward spiral, as those whom God has given so much end up with so little.
But what is the wrath of God? As you read it, what do you think? Does God inflict punishments on his people, does God cook up plans to show his wrath, to get his revenge?
No. Not at all (though the punishments are no less real).
The wrath of God is when God finally says “ok”. God’s judgment, those events in scripture that we might glance at and call “punishments”, really aren’t punishments that God inflicts at all, are they? These punishments that God’s people finally have to endure are the things that they themselves have chosen. As you read through scripture, Genesis to Revelation, we find, time and time again, that the wrath of God is nothing more than our patient, loving, forgiving, and merciful Heavenly Father finally saying
“I gave you free will; I’m not going to force you; I will let you have it your way”.
That changes things, doesn’t it.
Three centuries, 39 kings, countless wars, altars to worship power and money and sex built in every town, and a total disregard for the promises made to keep the covenant and teach it to their children in order to remain safe and secure with the blessings of the promised land: and finally, God says “ok. I won’t force you. You can do it your way”.
And there we have it; God lets Israel go it’s own way, and in a mere matter of weeks, the Kingdom of Israel is no more. The tribes of Israel are broken up and scattered, so that only Judah, little Benjamin, and a few members of the priestly tribe of Levi are left.
Did God inflict this upon them for their disobedience? The answer is “no”.
What God did was say “fine, ok, I won’t force you, you can do it your way”.
That’s all it took. God didn’t inflict this; he allowed the people to choose it.
And did you know that’s what the Church believes about judgment in our own day, too? God doesn’t ever inflict judgment; but, because he honours the free will he gave us, he allows us to choose it by rejecting Him as Lord.
How did we get here?
For the Kingdom of Israel, we can pinpoint where this path started. In fact, the prophet Samuel warned them – quite sternly – about the many dangers of the path they were choosing. This all began when they said “we don’t want God for our king; we want a human king instead”. Or, in other words, “we don’t want to trust in someone beyond our understanding; I want to trust in someone who looks like me, who thinks like me, who I can see”.
This whole path started because they didn’t want God to be king.
And, on the one hand, it makes sense: it’s hard to argue with God.
God says “trust me, and let’s do the impossible together”. And we say, “but we’re outnumbered; or we’re weak; or we’re facing an ocean that we cannot cross; or there’s a storm and we’re being rocked around in this little boat; or we’re tired and hungry and can’t wrap our minds around what you’re asking us to do”. And God says, “yes, all of that, but trust me”.
And I completely understand why they wanted a human king: because it’s hard to argue with God.
It’s so much easier to have a human leader; to have someone to argue with, to have someone whose faults you can point out, whose logic you can challenge, to have someone you can either rely on because they’ve earned your trust, or walk away for some good human reason, and not feel bad about it.
It’s so much easier to have a human leader, because then we can come up with good, rational reasons not to trust them.
But if God is our king, and he says “trust me”, then we have to face the fact that the only real reason not to follow him is, well, because I don’t want to. There’s no good reason we can ever give to justify why we argue and refuse to follow God except “I don’t want to”.
And that means, when there are consequences for the path we’ve chosen, there’s no one to blame it on, either. God didn’t inflict it, he just said “ok, I’ll let you do it your way”. Israel has no one to blame for the kingdom falling and the lost tribes being wiped off the face of the earth but themselves. And we, when we refuse to let God be our king, have no one to blame for the consequences but ourselves.
So I get it: I understand why Israel wanted a king; because it’s easier to argue with a person than to admit that, ultimately, we just don’t want to trust God to do the impossible.
But there’s good news here, too.
We know, in this story, there was a faithful remnant. There were a faithful few who, through the years, said “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord”.
When God said “trust in me, let’s do the impossible” they said “well, I don’t see how: I don’t have much faith, I’m weak, I’m outnumbered, I don’t really understand how this whole covenant works, like how my faith and my good works have to go together, yet it relies on God’s gift; no, I don’t really understand much of this at all, but, I’ll trust in you.” That faithful remnant trusts in God, and lets God be the king, even though that means there’s no one to argue with.
And we see in that faithful remnant this eternal truth: God never breaks a promise.
If God says “I will bless the nations through you”, He will.
If God says “Be strong and courageous, I will go with you, I will never leave you nor forsake you”, He will. (Deut. 4:31; 31:6; Joshua 1:9; Isaiah 41:10-13)
If God says “I’ll go with you and watch over you wherever you go, and I will bring you back to this land”, He will. (Genesis 28:15).
If God says “I will work all things together for the good of those who love me, who have been called according to my purpose”, He will. (Romans 8:28).
If God says “in every situation, by prayer and petition, present your requests to me; and the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds”, He will. (Philippians 4:6-7).
But, at the same time, God knows our weakness.
The people struggled having God as their king. The people struggled having a king that was so completely beyond their understanding; a king they couldn’t see; a king they couldn’t comprehend.
God knows that. So does God hold that against them? Does God say, “get your act together, salvation depends on you finding the Ark of the Covenant, and accepting the invisible God as your political leader?”
No. Not at all.
When the people said “we want a human king”, God said “this isn’t going to end well, but I gave you free will and I won’t force you to be obedient, so ok”.
But what else did God have in store?
God, because He’s God, had already planned, from before the foundation of the earth, that He would come in the flesh; that God would walk amongst people for our sake, so that we can have a king whom we can look up to; a king who we can be sure knows and has experienced our human weaknesses; Jesus, my king and my God, who is one of us, who is an example, in whose footsteps I can walk; and when God says “trust me”, and I say “I don’t know what that looks like”, God says “look to Jesus. Be like him, more and more each day, and when you mess up, say you’re sorry and start again, but I know the human heart needs a human example, so here: my only Son is your example.”
And God says, “now, trust me, let’s do the impossible”.
We either say “my God and my King, I don’t see what you’re doing, I don’t see how you’re going to work this together for good, but I will trust you”.
Or, we find ourselves in a situation where, however we go about it, whatever excuses or rational arguments we make, God’s response is “well, this isn’t going to end well, but I won’t force you, so… ok”.
God doesn’t inflict judgment.
What we call judgment is when God finally says “fine, you can do it your way”.
Friends: we live in crazy times. Uncertain times. But no crazier and certainly no more uncertain than what we’ve been reading in the Story. So my prayer, for you and for me, is that we would be that faithful remnant, that we would be those willing to say “God, I don’t understand what you’re up to, but you can be my king. I will trust you. Now… let’s do the impossible together.”
To God alone be the glory, now and forevermore. Amen.
 I am not suggesting a silly idea that people want to be in hell (like they would choose it in response to a desire to be there), or that God somehow sits back and watches world events. Rather, when we reject God as Lord, when we reject the blessings that are offered, it means we choose the alternative de facto, because there is no alternative middle-ground that is free of consequence. The consequences of going our own way are severe, as shown in the terrible history of the destruction of Israel and the later exile.