(1 Samuel 8:4-20, 11:14-15; Psalm 138; 2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1; Mark 3:20-35)
I know a young adult – who shall remain nameless, to protect her anonymity – who graduated from college believing that a certain governmental system would solve all the injustices of the world. When we talked about her belief, I would acknowledge the strengths of the system she believed in, but would point out that there were countries that had tried this governmental system only to have it corrupted by those in leadership positions. The end result was that injustices remained, caused by the very people who were supposed to be managing a system in which injustices would be eradicated! Those in power benefited from the corrupt system, so they had no interest in revealing and eradicating the corruption. The people in power benefited and the powerless were oppressed. And, to top it all off, the people in power manipulated and controlled the media so that they could convince the masses that they were not oppressed! Because the masses were convinced they were not oppressed, they did not try to expose or eradicate the corruption and, thus, they did not work toward justice to right the wrongs.
Despite the evidence from history, this young adult woman continued to believe that the system could work; that is, until she started working as both an employee and a volunteer for governmental and non-profit organizations that were in line with her beliefs. She has called me recently to ask my advice in handling situations in these organizations caused by spiritually, mentally, or emotionally unhealthy people who are in leadership positions in the organizations. She is discovering that any system can be corrupted because it is people who work within those systems, and people are corruptible. Whether it is a governmental organization, a business organization, a non-profit organization, a religious organization, a community organization, and so on, it can be corrupted. A system, in theory, can be wonderful, but when humans get their hands on systems . . . well, you know what happens.
As has been said since the birth of Christianity, we are in the world but not of the world. We come from God and will return to God. As disciples of Jesus, we are aware that we come from God and will return to God. In the Gospel According to John, Jesus prays to the Father, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of it” (17:16). He continues his prayer with, “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified” (17:17-19). Even though we are not of the world, Jesus has sent us into the world to evangelize by word and deed. Just as Jesus was sent into the wilderness after he was baptized by the Holy Spirit, he sends us into the wilderness after our baptism. In the wilderness, he was tempted by Satan to turn from the way and the will of God. Satan offered him the things of the world – food, riches, power – but Jesus knew that those things meant nothing if he abandoned God’s will and way in order to have them. Satan had no power over Jesus, the Son of God, and Jesus emerged from the wilderness sinless.
Jesus has sent us into the wilderness where we, too, are tempted to turn from the way and the will of God. Often, we don’t even realize we are being tempted. It just feels like we’re being offered choices about what to think, who to believe, what to purchase, how to behave, and so on. It won’t feel like Satan is tempting us, but he is. Satan – or whatever name you want to give to the force in the world that seeks destruction rather than creation – is ever tempting us to follow him, just as he did with Jesus. This is why Jesus prayed to the Father to sanctify us with God’s truth! Jesus knew we would be tempted and he wants us to be fortified with God’s truth while we make our way in the wilderness of the world!
We see God’s people being tempted in the passage read today from 1 Samuel. The elders of Israel came to Samuel, their prophet, and demanded to have a king to govern them, just like other nations. Samuel did as a faithful prophet should: He prayed to the Lord. The Lord told him to do as the people demanded and give them a king, but to warn them of the consequences of allowing a king to govern them. The Lord understood that the Israelites had rejected the old way of allowing God to be their king in favor of a human king who would fight their battles with other nations. The Israelites felt the need to engage with the world as it is, to be like other nations, so that they could fight the battles that inevitably arose as nations vied for land and power. The Israelites desired to be in the world in the way that other nations are in the world. Certainly, we can understand this desire, because we, also, desire human leaders that will fight our nation’s battles! At the heart of the Israelites’ and our desire is the tension of being in the world but not of the world. They and we love God, but they and we want to, also, have a hand in shaping the world we live in.
And, so, both the Israelites and we chose to have human leaders. And we have both benefited and suffered from that choice. Think of our own situation as I read God’s description of what having a king will do to the Israelites:
“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 plow 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” (8:11-17).
If we translate these words from a monarchical system to a democratic system, we will see that the description can fit our governmental system, too. We cannot benefit from having human leaders without, also, paying a price for them. Every system has its cost. And, yet, we have to live in systems while we are in the world. Systems allow us to live and work together. Everything we engage in is part of a system. We can see what happens to societies when systems are disrupted by natural disasters, such as floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, volcanoes, earthquakes, and fires. People suffer due to lack of water, food, and shelter; diseases erupt; robberies increase. The systems we live in serve and protect us when they are at their best; but, when they are at their worst, they oppress and harm us. And, sometimes, they oppress us so much that we don’t even realize we are being harmed.
Did you know that the Bible is banned in some countries? It’s banned because it liberates people. It lets them know that they are loved by God and deserve love from humans regardless of their status in society. The Bible teaches people that Christ has set them free, that all are one in Christ, and that all deserve love. It is powerful. It is God’s word, which reveals God’s truth. And, so, it is to the Bible that we turn for spiritual discernment as we make our way in the wilderness of the world. Just as Jesus turned to God’s word to refute Satan when he tempted him, we turn to God’s word to refute the world and its systems when they tempt us, for the world and its systems will tempt us to accept the corruption and injustice that are inevitable when human beings are in charge.
Spiritual discernment has to do with wisdom gained through the disciplines of our faith lives – such as Bible study, prayer, and worship – that is then put into practice to figure out truth from error. I’m sure all of you have heard the cries of, “Fake news!” Yes, we are subjected to fake news during our time, but there has always been fake news. In the 19th Century, it was called “yellow journalism.” For example, according to yourdictionary.com, “[Y]ellow journalism helped to push Spain and the United States into war in 1898. The Maine, a US battleship, sunk from an explosion. Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst published false articles about a plot to sink the ship, thereby increasing tensions.” Fake news has existed since humans have existed because – remember – human beings are corruptible. The thing that is different now is the internet and social media. Nowadays, fake news spreads like wildfire through the internet and social media. As P.T. Barnum famously stated, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” and we fall for all sorts of lies because humans have always fallen for the lies that appeal to whatever sin we are guilty of at the time: vanity, pride, envy, anger, judgment, fear, and so on.
This is why we must be ever watchful and practice spiritual discernment as we go about our daily lives in all the systems in which we operate. Otherwise we – or others – will be victims or perpetrators of the corruption of those systems, either through our ignorance of the corruption, or our own corruption due to sin – for we are not free from corruption, ourselves.
The famous poet Dante wrote of the wilderness of the world in his Divine Comedy:
“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself in a dark wilderness,
for I had wandered from the straight and true.
How hard a thing it is to tell about,
that wilderness so savage, dense, and harsh,
even to think of it renews my fear!
It is so bitter, death is hardly more—“
In the midst of his wandering in the dark wilderness, Dante found the light of Christ to guide him through it and out of it. As the Dominican brother Gabriel Torretta wrote, “[Jesus] is Master of the forest. He entered the wooded wilderness of human life and so became a luminous beacon shining in our deepest darkness, brushing aside the branches and brambles with which we are surrounded.”
Let us not be quick to take something as true without researching via trusted sources. “Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Mt 2:21). Our hearts, our minds, our spirits, our consciences, do not belong to Caesar; they belong to God. We must guard them well to insure that Caesar has not infiltrated them and taken over. We must allow the light of Christ to illumine all with which we come into contact. “He is the luminous beacon shining in our deepest darkness, brushing aside the branches and brambles with which we are surrounded,” and he will continue to lead the way, as he did when he prayed to his Father to sanctify us with God’s truth. Let us offer ourselves for sanctification as we practice the disciplines of our faith and make our way through the wilderness of the world. Amen.
Sermon preached by Rev. Amy Johnson, Canton Community Baptist Church, Sunday, June 10, 2018, the Third Sunday After Pentecost.
 Information about spiritual discernment was gleaned from https://www.gotquestions.org/spiritual-discernment.html.