Whitworth University 125th Anniversary Worship Service
“Like All the Nations”
I Samuel 8 and I Corinthians 1:18-25
Transcript of Gerald Sittser’s sermon, given at the Community Worship Service, Oct. 12, 2014
I have been a professor at Whitworth since 1989. I am in my 26th year. That is one fifth of Whitworth’s history. When Lynda and I arrived, we were a family of five. My youngest, John, was born a few months later, making us a family of six. Two years later we became a family of four – not by choice, obviously, for tragedy is rarely a choice – which lasted for nearly 20 years. Now we are a family of 14: my new wife, Pat, and me, our five kids, their spouses, and two grandchildren.
All of this change occurred under the nurturing shadow of Whitworth. We attended countless theatre productions, music concerts, and sporting events. We have had hundreds of students pass through our home. I have taught hundreds of classes; I have graded thousands of exams and papers; I have attended WAY too many meetings.
I have enjoyed deep friendships, most of which started many years ago, and continue.
My life is far the richer for having been employed at Whitworth. So thank you, Whitworth. Thank you faculty colleagues, staff, alums, parents, and especially students. Thank you.
Enough of sentimental reminiscence! Now for our primary text, which comes from I Samuel and describes a turning-point in Israel’s history. “Like all the nations.” My eye first stopped at this phrase many years ago when I was reading through the O.T. It awakened my curiosity then; that curiosity has never diminished. I knew someday I would be given an opportunity to preach it, on just the right occasion, which I think is now. I have turned it over again and again in my mind. “Like all the nations.”
It is a telling phrase, repeated twice in our passage, for it marks a turning point in Israel’s history, a crisis of leadership and identity. What is happening here?
The world is changing, and the people of Israel want to change with it. Israel is losing its competitive advantage, if it ever had one in the first place. Its way of doing business as a people has become obsolete, or so it seems. If the nation is going to survive and thrive, it will have to change, becoming “like all the nations.”
The passage indicates that there was good reason for concern about Israel’s circumstances. They were dire and dangerous, causing anxiety and fear. The people meet with Samuel, and they begin to complain. It is an ugly business, a hard conversation. As the conservator and guardian of the old order, Samuel becomes defensive. His way of doing things is not working. The progressives seem to have the upper hand. They want change, and they want it now.
Three concerns surface. The old order of a tribal confederacy under Yahweh’s direct rule is failing. Lawlessness has become the order of the day. As the book of Judges says three times over, “There was no king in those days. People did what was right in their own eyes.” Anarchy reigns, and anarchy creates a vacuum that has to be filled
But it is worse than that. Samuel’s sons are falling short, a fact that raises questions about a stable succession of leadership. His sons are taking bribes, practicing injustice, and neglecting their duties.
And Israel faces an enemy that cannot be defeated. The Philistines have created a sophisticated society, ruled by a military elite. Israel is hopelessly outmatched and keeps suffering defeat, to the point where the Israelites are on the run and utterly terrified by what appears to be an unconquerable enemy.
So they want a new kind of government, a monarchy, which will make them “like all the nations.” Considering their struggles, it makes perfect sense. A monarchy will make them competitive, powerful, efficient. It seems so obvious. Other nations have kings, and they are flourishing. Israel does not, and it is suffering defeat. Of course, a monarchy is the solution. It’s really a matter of best practices. They simply want to follow the trail of success.
Samuel, the conservative, reacts. He reads it as rejection of his leadership, which is true enough. But not the whole truth, and not the most important truth. Their desire for a king really reflects their rejection of God – God as king, God as rightful ruler. As the text makes clear, this rejection has been habitual, starting with the flight from Egypt. Israel does not like answering to God. It is too demanding, and it requires trust and obedience. The Israelites want to follow another way, a more convenient and practical and manageable way, a way that puts them in control.
And God concedes. As we know, this concession was permanent and did in the end turn out to be redemptive. For God sent David, to whom God promised a permanent dynasty, and eventually Jesus, who became the oddest and best king history has ever witnessed. “And he shall reign forever and ever.” If there ever was an example of divine flexibility, surely this is it.
Even so, all is not well. There will still be a cost. For most of the kings in Israel’s history, like most rulers in world history, have been more inclined to be scum and scoundrels than servants. So Samuel issues a warning: kings will on the whole be a bad lot. There will be conscription to build an army, confiscation of property, consolidation of power, even enslavement of their own people. Sooner or later the people of Israel will regret this decision; they will cry out to God, and they will discover that it is too late. They will suffer the consequences of this fateful choice that seemed at the time to be such a good one.
This always happens, you know. We think some solution is a magic bullet. We imagine its success but refuse to consider the risk of failure, the unintended consequences. We go to war, assuming victory. But something always happens. It would be amusing if it didn’t usually end so tragically. Both sides thought the Civil War would only last a few months, so confident were they of victory. Four years and 750,000 deaths later . . . . Well, you get the idea. There are always hidden costs.
Enough of the historical background. I think you understand the point. What I really want to do is to think about this phrase in light of Whitworth’s 125th anniversary.
“Like all the nations.”
The obvious problem with this story is that Israel really did have a legitimate reason to want to become like all the nations, for Israel was in fact a nation. And nations by definition do a lot of things alike. “Like all the nations,” Israel had to have an army to defend its borders, it had to create and sustain a vital economy, it had to build and keep up an infrastructure, it had to make laws and enforce those laws, it had to establish as well as maintain order. These things are the responsibilities of nations. So what really is the problem here?
When you think about it, this is true of many institutions. It is true in fact of Whitworth. We have good reason and much pressure to try to be “like all the universities.” We do our business in a very competitive environment.
I know our president refrains from making too much of the rankings that come out every so often in national periodicals. Still, he does keep an eye on them and mention them as a passing gesture when the ranking is favorable, which, I am glad to say, occurs most of the time. Whoever puts out a ranking applies the same standard of comparison to every institution across the board, including Whitworth, no matter what the identity of the institution happens to be. If U.S. News & World Report issued a statement like the following: “Whitworth might have a second-rate academic program, but its students sing exceptionally well at Hosanna,” Beck Taylor would probably not mention it in an edition of Mind & Heart. No, we want to be academically competitive; we want to be “like all the universities.” Actually, we want to be better than the universities, according to conventional standards of comparison.
We have won the all-sports trophy in a very competitive athletic conference seven years in a row. The standard is as objective as it can get. It is a matter of tallying the points based on the record in every sport. Simple math here. I am pretty confident we would not earn extra points, nor would we want them awarded to us, if athletics directors awarded us bonus points because our athletes prayed during halftime. No, we want to win because we are better, not because we are more pious, though of course we are more pious.
I am currently serving on a search committee to appoint someone to a biblical studies position in our department. Again, I am pretty confident we will not spend a great deal of time on candidates who earned a Ph.D. in an online program that took six months to complete, start to finish, especially if the title of the dissertation is something like “My Current Feelings about the Trinity.” And our own president, appointed some four years ago, would not have landed the job if his primary qualification was “I really, really like people.” Though we are glad he does.
Do you see what I mean? In this world – including our academic world – we have to compete. We compete against governments and institutions and people according to measurable standards of achievement. We don’t have the luxury of developing standards that are entirely unique to us, and employers and graduate school committees would not accept it if we tried. The elders who complained to Samuel 3,000 years ago were right, at least in part. What was true for Israel then is true for Whitworth now. It is true for you and me, as well. We are forced to be “like all the nations” and “like all the universities” and “like all the doctors or teachers or retailers.” In fact, not “like” but better. Or we are sunk.
And yet. . . . And yet. Something is not right here. God did not like their request, even though he did concede to it and in the end used the monarchy to accomplish his redemptive plan. So what was wrong? It seems almost too obvious. They had rejected God. That is what was wrong. The monarchy they wanted was less a problem than their attitude about the God who in pure grace had called them into existence in the first place.
They wanted an institution that would make God unnecessary.
Let me repeat that. They wanted an institution that would make God unnecessary.
No more genuine worship, just token; no more prayer; no more faith; no more repentance; no more waiting and trusting; no more dependence; no more accountability and obedience, at least to God. Just relevancy and competitiveness. They wanted to establish a system that would allow Israel to go it alone and make it independently. “Like all the nations” really meant no need for God. We hear echoes of Babel here, don’t we?
Here, I think, is the genius of Whitworth; here is also its fragility and vulnerability. As it turns out, they are one and the same. We really want to be “like all the universities,” or better. And yet fundamentally different, too. Like and unlike, simultaneously. It seems a ridiculous idea. And perhaps it is.
Too much “like all the universities” and we lose our historic identity and compromise our Christian mission. Too much “unlike all the universities” and we, well, lose our historic identity and compromise our Christian mission. We have chosen not to draw hard and fast boundaries at Whitworth. No statements to sign, no pledges to make, no rules to follow, at least not many. We would in fact gain some advantage if we followed those practices. But it would not fit us; it would confine our mission too much to externals. It would no longer be MY or OUR responsibility but only THEIRS, whoever the “they” are. Instead, we try to focus on the bullseye, not the boundary. We think that by doing so we can be both very much like and very much unlike all the universities at the same time. Oh, how delicate this identity is!
There is historical precedent. Those of you who know me well knew I would eventually use an illustration from church history. A document written in the middle of the second century, “The So-Called Letter to Diognetus,” puts it about as eloquently as any document I have read.
“For Christians cannot be distinguished from the rest of the human race by country or language or custom. They do not live in cities of their own; they do not use a peculiar form of speech; they do not follow an eccentric manner of life. . . . [In short, they look like everyone else, at least on the surface.] Yet, although they live in Greek and barbarian cities alike, as each man’s lot has been cast, and follow the customs of the country in clothing and food and other matters of daily living, at the same time they give proof of the remarkable and admittedly extraordinary constitution of their own commonwealth. They live in their own countries, but only as aliens. They have a share in everything as citizens, and endure everything as foreigners. Every foreign land is their fatherland, and yet for them every fatherland is a foreign land.”
How can Christians maintain that same kind of identity today? How can we at Whitworth? How can you and I? The Apostle Paul gives us the answer. At this point Paul does not draw boundaries, though of course he does elsewhere; he aims straight at the bullseye. He emphasizes the one essential that sets Christians apart. The answer is the gospel itself, no more and no less. Humanity always wants a god in its own image, a god to reinforce its idols and idolatries, a god to disguise its egoism. A god “like all the gods.” But the true God simply did not and does not cooperate because God defines himself. God came as Jesus Christ. Not as a wise man, like Socrates, not as a strong man, like Hercules, not as a powerful man, like Augustus. But as what appeared to be a humble, foolish, weak man who was born in a stable and who suffered on a cross.
This is how God chose to save humanity. Paul says that Jews demand signs; Greeks seek wisdom; Romans look for power. What was true then is true today. Republicans want one kind of God; Democrats insist on another kind of God. Fundamentalists have their own version; so do progressives. Feminists, liberationists, traditionalists, pluralists, academics, postmodernists, capitalists, communists, jihadists. We all have our preferred vision and version of God. And the real, true, only God exposes all of this as egoistic sham, as idolatry and fashion, as self-reliance and self-interest and pride. He comes to us as Jesus Christ in order to save a humanity that cannot, under any terms, however enlightened and educated and organized, save itself. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom; the weakness of God is stronger than human strength.”
I can promise you this, at least from my very limited perspective and influence. Whitworth will in fact keep trying to become like the other universities, and then some. We will educate as best we can and do our best to get our students into good internships and grad programs. We will do our best to care for students. We will do their best to keep up to date in our fields, do good research, and remain active in the marketplace of ideas. We will disagree and debate, sometimes civilly, sometimes not.
But if these things become the sum and total of our life and identity, Whitworth might appear to succeed but in the end will fail, and fail miserably. For Whitworth to remain at its best, for Whitworth to remain itself, it must do more than become “like all the universities.” For what we do apart from the power of the gospel to redeem humanity will fall to the ground as surely as all the schemes of the best and brightest throughout human history have. The one safeguard that will keep us from becoming “like all the universities,” but nothing more, is not to do our job less well, but to do everything in light of what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. Not statements, not pledges, not rules. Well enough. But gospel: only and always gospel.
The burden of responsibility rests at this point on all of us – faculty, staff, students, alums, parents. But is it really a burden of responsibility? No, I don’t think so. How could a gift of grace ever be a burden, except to our pride? This is in fact amazing grace, pure freedom, complete joy. We strive to be like all the universities. That is our burden, I suppose. But it is God who makes us unlike all the universities because he embraces us in our need and helplessness, in our brokenness and sin, and makes us his. It is the foolishness of God in the cross that proves wiser than our loftiest schemes and ideas; it is the weakness of God, again in the cross, that proves stronger than our greatest plans and achievements. Like, yes. But also unlike. The difference is the gospel.