12th May, Sunday after Ascension
Monarchs are a strange mixture. Nations inherit them, there isn’t much choice, and nobody quite knows how they will turn out. Some are benevolent and conscientious like the present Queen. But then there was King Henry the VIII, defender of the faith, disposer of wives. And King John who lost the crown jewels in the Wash. Sri Lanka had a particularly unsavoury story of an ambitious Prince who plastered his father, the King, into a wall. Lewis Carroll’s Queen of Hearts and Blackadder’s Queenie both enjoyed a good beheading.
Monarchs have fascinated people throughout history. The Israelites, too, were intrigued by the idea of a King. In 1 Samuel 12, we discover that they had a brand new King, not by royal lineage, but by choice.
The Israelites originally had no King, because God was their King. As today’s Psalm affirms: “The Lord is King: let the Earth rejoice. He was the most High over all the earth, and righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne. This High King chose the Israelites to be His people, to live by the values of His Kingdom, and to reflect His holiness to the world. But the Israelites weren’t quite satisfied with the arrangement. They didn’t think of what they needed – which was God as their King. They didn’t consider the consequences. They wanted what other nations had – a King.
Humanity hasn’t changed much. We are a bit like the Israelites. They had the “see it, like it, want it” mindset… a feeling we sometimes get when we go shopping. Consumerism, so much in the news these days, is exactly this kind of stimulation of wants, the belief that we should satisfy them, and the delusion that we can satisfy them by acquiring what we want. If you have watched “Superscrimpers” on TV, you have seen people whose consumption is out of control. Some ran up costs of £20,000 a year, on wants not needs. It is interesting to realise the underlying causes for this: inability to distinguish need from want; lack of foresight; and norms absorbed from the world around.
1 Samuel 8-12 tells the fascinating, terrible story of God’s people exchanging the Kingship of God for a human King and Kingdom. A human king would fix everything, they thought. No corrupt priests, and no persistent prophets to challenge their lifestyle with God’s message. Enough of this “God is King” malarkey.
But Samuel warns them: a human king will mean confiscation of land, subservience, taxes, forced labour. “In that day”, he says, “You will cry out because of your King whom you have chosen for yourselves”. And their reply? “No… we are determined to have a king over us… to be like other nations. He can govern us, go out before us, and fight our battles.”
In choosing a human King, Israel rejected the rule of God. As God tells Samuel, “they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being King over them. From the time I brought them out of Egypt to this day they have forsaken me and served other gods.”
In today’s passage, amid dramatic thunder and rain, the Israelites begin to consider what they had done. To their sinfulness before God, they had added the evil of demanding a King. But why was that so evil?
It was evil, because God had governed them, God had gone out before them, and God had fought their battles for them – but they had rejected God’s rule over them. The Israelites were called by God to be his people, but they wanted to be like other nations! They wanted the power and security of a visible human king – God was not enough. This is the disobedience of humanity: for decades, centuries, millennia, going back to Adam and Eve, we have chosen to ignore God’s rule over our lives and place our security elsewhere.
In the Old Testament, the Israelites were the people of God. In the New, Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God, and His rule as King. His followers are now, as 1 Peter tells us, “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation” – God’s Chosen people.
In Acts we read about the New Testament People of God. How they stirred things up. In Philippi, Paul sets a slave girl free from the spirit that possessed her. A spiritual healing, we think – how wonderful. But it was deeply political and unacceptable to interfere with other people’s property – their slaves. Paul had destroyed the income of the girl’s owners. They were furious. “These men are disturbing our city” they said, “advocating illegal customs.” Paul and Silas are attacked, stripped, flogged and imprisoned, where they spend the night singing and praying. The events that follow lead to the conversion of the jailer and his household.
Imagine it as headline news:
Prison Walls Breached By Earthquake – Prisoners Refuse to Escape!
Jailer Takes Praying Prisoners Home!
Jailer joins Prisoners’ Cult!
“Early reports say Philippi Jail was shaken by an earthquake, but all prisoners remained in their cells. Inmates described the two jailed preachers as serene, alternately praying and singing. They appeared unconcerned about their injuries and imprisonment. The prisoners say that they were calmed as they listened to the two men and when the earthquake opened the doors and unfastened their chains they didn’t feel the need to escape.”
People who belong to the Kingdom of God have an impact in our world!
Shortly afterwards, Paul and Silas are described as “turning the world upside down… defying the decrees of the emperor, saying there is another King named Jesus.” This was dynamite. The empire was held together by loyalty to Caesar. He was not only the Emperor, but one of their gods. These Christians undermined the very foundations of the empire. They worshipped Christ not Caesar. Christ not Caesar was their King. And they gave the emperor’s title “son of god” to Christ instead.
But it wasn’t just political upheaval. Society’s norms were overturned. In a male-dominated, racially-divided society, Christians were different. Hebrew men fed and ministered to Greek widows. In a culture where Jewish men in their prayers thanked God that they were not women, slaves or Gentiles, this was shocking.
What about today? How do we live out the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth…” Do our lives demonstrate that we belong to another King? Not so much, according to a recent survey. Like the Israelites, we choose to ignore God’s rule. And serve other gods. For decades, centuries, millennia, going back to Adam and Eve, humans have chosen to walk away from God’s rule.
But, we are still called to live as people of God’s Kingdom, with Christ as King. To turn the world upside down. This is not always easy, but as Dumbledore, the great wizard, tells Harry Potter, “we must choose between what is easy and what is right”.
Every Sunday we affirm our allegiance to God’s Kingdom as we pray the Lord’s Prayer, renewing our commitment to this Kingdom: “Our Father in Heaven,” we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on Earth as it is in Heaven”. And we conclude, “Thine is the Kingdom, the power and the glory”. An Eternal Kingdom… forever and ever.
Let me conclude with some examples of living the Kingdom life.
A vicar I knew once asked if we ever smiled or made eye contact with “Big Issue” sellers, or the homeless on the street. The greatest tragedy, he said, is for people to feel “invisible”. Jesus made friends with social outcasts and the morally dubious. Luke says He was called a “glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” I suspect we rarely run that risk. It is easy to stay in our comfort zone, but it might not be right.
Today’s world is deeply, and increasingly, divided: socially, racially, religiously, and politically. There are rich and poor, employed and unemployed, young and old, professionals and tradesman, Unionists and Nationalists. But the Apostle Paul proclaimed: “In Christ there is no male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free”. The early church cut through the divisions of their society. How should we deal with the divisions in ours?
The recent tragedy in Bangladesh highlights the forgotten moral implications of how and where we shop. We can make a difference in God’s world. Buying fairly-traded goods allows workers to afford education, medicine, food and shelter. A friend of mine searched for an engagement ring crafted from ethically mined and produced gold. Not so easy, but the right choice. As God’s people, how we live is as important as worship. Faith without works is dead, says James.
John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus was praying for us. He asked that as He abided in His Father, we might abide in Him. Why? So that the world might believe in Him. How? By acknowledging the Kingship of Christ in our lives and our world, and reflecting His glory and love. We are chosen people, like the Israelites in the Old Testament. As Samuel puts it “God’s people, called to serve God with all our hearts.”
The Israelites’ looked at the world around and forgot they were God’s people, and He was their King. The revolutionary lives of early believers earned them the nickname Christians. Would we do the same?
Let me end with words from our opening hymn, about restoring God’s world:
Beauty for brokenness
Hope for despair,
Lord, in your suff’ring world
This is our prayer.
Bread for the children,
Justice, joy, peace,
Sunrise to sunset
Your kingdom increase.
Lighten our darkness,
Breathe on this flame.
Until your justice burns
Until the nations
Learn of your ways
Seek your salvation
And bring you their praise.