God’s economy of surprise (sermon)

It’s always the youngest.

Now, I know that’s a very oldest child thing of me to say, but it’s true to some extent, right? The youngest child gets to have the most fun, and has the fewest rules that apply to them. It’s always the youngest, and perhaps we roll our eyes a bit when we say that, or if we’re youngest children, perhaps it’s that familiar feeling of “oh man, why are they blaming me for everything again—it’s not my fault?!”

It’s always the youngest. At least, it’s always the youngest in God’s economy of surprise, where our expectations of who succeeds, or who is chosen, are so often thwarted.

It’s always the youngest, even from the beginning of Genesis, where Abel wins God’s favor with his first fruits, or in the Abraham cycle, where Jacob triumphs over Esau and Joseph’s dreams of ruling over his 10 older brothers eventually come true in Egypt.

This theme continues throughout the prophets—where Jeremiah is named a prophet despite his protestations that he is “only a boy”, and in the New Testament, with the parable of the prodigal—younger—son, and Paul’s lifting up of Timothy.

It’s always the youngest. This is especially true in today’s Old Testament lesson from 1 Samuel, where we read that famous story of David the shepherd boy. He is the youngest of the youngest: the eighth son, from the tribe of Benjamin. The youngest child from the least significant tribe, and nobody expects very much from him. Perhaps in time he will own sheep and marry well, and live in the same town as his father.

Perhaps nobody expected very much of David, but they certainly expected a lot from his predecessor on the throne of Israel. Saul, who we heard about last week, was put on the throne after the Israelites begged God through Samuel to give them a king. God said yes, but only after warning them: “you’re not going to like this as much as you think you will”.

As God expected, things didn’t go so well. Saul fails his first major test, disobeying the commands of God on the battlefield, resulting in his immediate loss of favor. And it is in this context that we find ourselves today, where Samuel grieves over Saul.

What is this prophet grieving over? Perhaps he’s grieving over Saul himself, that he really liked Saul so much that his disappointment is real and tangible. Perhaps he’s grieving over the hope of peace and stability and a leader who would do the commands of God: all of which the text suggests are lost when Saul disobeys. Perhaps he’s grieving over this loss of potential, over the many things that could have come into being, over dreams of success and prosperity.

Regardless of the reason, we know that Samuel is grieving. He goes home, retreats, and wants to be done with this king stuff for a little while.

And I don’t know about you, but I really understand Samuel in this moment, especially after this year of pandemic. After a year of real, deep trauma within our community and world, it’s really tempting some days to hide away, and think about the things we have lost: perhaps grief around losing an opportunity or experience, or missing out on the chance to be in relationship with someone who lives far away, or even loosing a loved one. There’s real grief in our world right now, a communal sense of loss over what the last year plus might have been. Perhaps you find yourself in grief over what has and is changing, or how you have changed. Do I remember what it’s like to interact with people again? How do I rid myself of this or that habit or coping mechanism, now that the world is changing again? What will church be like, in June, or September, or December—what will feel normal? Will I want to go back to my normal routine? What if that normal routine isn’t there to go back to?

It’s always the youngest that surprises us. God tells Samuel to get up, to stop grieving over something irretrievably lost, and go to Bethlehem. This makes me think about that passage in Isaiah, when God talks about the restoration that is to come, saying “do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” In Revelation, he who is seated on the throne says “Behold, I am making all things new”. God calls Samuel, in his grief, into this new thing that God is doing.

I can imagine the huff that Samuel was in: “okay God, surely this is the one, right?” You sort of get this sense that Samuel just wants it to be over already. But it’s not. It goes on and on until it seems like there are no more sons left. What are you doing, God? You’ve exhausted all the options?!

It’s always the youngest. When all other options are tapped out, here comes David. The youngest son who God has chosen to rule Israel. In a world where Samuel thinks there are no other options than grief and failed hopes, God reminds him, and us, that in God’s economy of surprise, there is always new hope and life coming, even when we don’t expect or particularly want it.

As we stand on the cusp of so many things, we may find ourselves experiencing many feelings: reluctance, impatience, grief, anxiety, excitement, and even hope. Perhaps you are preparing to go see friends and family for the first time in months, or returning to church for the first time, or grappling with all the challenges and possibilities presented to the parish in last week’s Ministry Architects report.

Wherever you are, in this moment of regathering and return and revisioning, I hope you hear the voice of God calling to you, like Samuel so many centuries ago, saying come to Bethlehem, to see this new thing that I am doing. May we respond as the shepherds do, so many years later, “let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place” as we follow and partner with our God in this work, even, and especially in, the most unlikely of places and people.

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