Who is a King? (Pentecost 3B)

This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Yallourn Parish, gathered at Newborough, on Sunday 10th June 2018.

1 Samuel 8:4-20; Psalm 138

I am not a parent.  This news is not a surprise to you since those of you who know me know that I have never been married and I have never had any children of my own.  It is impossible that I would have had flesh of my flesh until this point, and whilst as a man of middle age my clock is not ticking as fast as those of my female friends of middle age, the idea that I might be a father to one of my own is receding in possibility with each passing year.  Nonetheless it cannot be said that I don’t have children: I am an uncle, I was a “big cousin”, and I was once a school teacher.  So, I know more than a little bit about children and their reasoning.  And I know that there is one fail-proof argument that a child can fall back whenever he or she is not getting his or her way.  There are modifications on this argument, it can be adapted for the circumstances, but basically it goes like this: “ohnh! everyone else is allowed to!!” or “ohnh! (insert name of another adult) lets us!!”

Who’s heard that before?  Who’s said that before?  Hopefully you said it when you were a child and not in the last few days, but still.  “Ohnh Damien!  Our last minister used to let us put our feet up on the pews during the sermon, and drink beer for morning tea!!”  I doubt that Newborough, I doubt it.

Well in today’s Old Testament reading we find the people of Israel doing the whingeing thing, and sadly they are all adults as they do it.  The leaders of Israel have come to Samuel, who is both prophet and judge, and they demand that a king be appointed to reign over them so that they can be like all the other nations.  In other words, “ohnh, but Philistia and Egypt have kings”, and “ohnh, but Baal and Osiris let their countries have kings”.

It is true that Israel was not like other nations at this point; other nations did have kings and Israel did not, but that was because God was Israel’s king and God reigned through the agency of judges as and when required. Israel was the holy nation, set apart from all other nations by God to serve as an exemplary nation and the demonstrate the Kingdom of God, literally the kingship of God, on earth.  So, when Israel asks for a human king they are not only asking to give up their unique status as first nation of the earth, they are specifically rejecting God’s kingship, seceding from the Kingdom of Heaven, and rejecting God’s lordship as their God.  Samuel only addresses the executive part of this rejection and he warns the people that human kings are oppressive.  God has set these people free, saved them from Pharaoh, and now they are choosing to enter servitude under their own military autocrat. Samuel doesn’t address their blasphemy, only their mutiny, and the people reject his advice and repeat their demand to be treated like all the pagan nations, the not-Chosen nation, and to have a narcissistic, bureaucratic, corruptible, nepotistic war-lord like the nations they have conquered.  The king they got was Saul.

Samuel was the last judge over Israel.  We can read of the exploits of the judges in the book named after them and what we read is that they were not a constant presence.  In times of peace there was no need for a national leader holding together an alliance or coalition of armies, the people of Israel just got on with cropping and parenting and going about life as they knew it.  When a threat arose then God would intervene in history and call forth a judge – names like Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah and Samson.  A man or woman born for such a time as that, who lead Israel to military victory and restored the worship of God in place or Baal or Astarte or whomever it was.  Then when the need was met, and the peace was restored, everyone went home again, and they lived happily ever after, for a short time anyway.

A king on the other hand, warns Samuel, will always be present.  Even when there is no need for national defence the monarchy will continue taxing the people and holding a standing army thereby being an unnecessary burden in times of peace and prosperity.  (And no, a king does not preserve peace and prosperity, that’s the Lord’s work.)  Dynastic kings are takers, there are six “takes” in 1 Samuel 8:11-17, whereas God’s appointed judges are givers and saviours.  “Don’t go there”, says Samuel, “God has given Israel a better way”.  But, sigh, Israel does go there, and they get Saul, and Saul gets them into fights.

This story raises questions for us about the phrase “what God intends”, especially when it comes to who our rulers are.  Sometimes things happen that are not the will of God, and God does not intervene when human systems driven by selfish men drive against what is best for humanity.  God does not desire a kingship in Israel, but God chose not to intervene other than to send a prophet to speak the truth.  In 2018 some of the nations have rulers whom God has raised up, other nations have rulers in place because they were elected by people who ignored God’s wisdom and the voice of the prophets.  The trouble is we often don’t know which leader has which story, who is God’s woman or man and who is not, and some proclaim a leader to be God’s appointed while others see that same leader as a threat to God’s people and mission.  This is as true for Joel and Abijah the corrupt sons of Samuel who Samuel tried to set up as hereditary judges, as it is for Saul who became king.

In Psalm 138 we read a song traditionally thought to have been composed by David who was king after Saul and who took on the rule of God’s people around forty years or so after the story told in 1 Samuel 8.  In King David’s song of personal thanksgiving and praise to God who is his Lord we hear how God is good, generous and glorious, and how God will be worshipped and adored by every one of the Earth’s kings because God is gracious and wise in majesty.  God is the protector and God’s presence is the assurance of safety in a dangerous world.  The promises of God are certain, and the plans of God are good.  True kingship is found in God: the best human kingship follows God’s methods of rule and all human kings, queens, presidents and governors attest to that.  We read in Psalm 138:5 that God is the exemplary king, and that this is personally attested to by the greatest ever of human kings, David of Israel.  In Psalm 138:7 we read David’s remembrance of his personal history and the history of Israel, including the circumstances of Saul’s coronation and the military threat posed by Israel’s coastal neighbours from Philistia.  God is the safeguard of Israel’s security, not David himself nor the thousands of men and bows and chariots at his command.  All the security, all the governance Israel needs is found in God, so says the king.  I don’t think David sees himself redundant at this point, what I see is that God as king is ruling through David, and David acknowledges and welcomes this development.  Where the LORD had to work around Saul, and around most of the later kings of the divided kingdoms, the LORD can work with and through David, the good and godly king, just as God had worked through Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson, and Samuel.

Well that’s great for all of those kings, but what does it mean for us?

As I listen to God and for what God is saying to Yallourn and Moe-Newborough I hear the message for us as stay close to God.  The Kingdom of God was Jesus’ great topic, it’s the first thing he says as an adult in his first sermon and it remain his great theme.  Jesus was not specifically talking about the Kingdom as a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith: although there is a literal Heaven for Christians who die in faith.  No, the point of the Kingdom of Heaven or the Reign of God is as I have often told you before: live today as if God was the king of Australia and the sovereign of you.  That doesn’t mean you show disrespect for Elizabeth Windsor, Peter Cosgrove, or Linda Dessau who you did not elect but who reign over you in various degrees of authority.  Neither should you be unduly disparaging for Malcolm Turnbull or Daniel Andrews, whom you also did not elect but for whom others voted.  The regard God as king is to show respect for those who serve us as rulers, no one is called to mutiny or rebellion in ordinary circumstances, but we are called to honour God above all else.  God above the queen, as she herself does.  God above the parliaments and councils, as they claim to do.  But most importantly, God above our own ideas of what we would like and how we think the world should be done.

The reign of God says that you don’t get to decide anything, except to follow God. God is king and not only a judge, God is always in charge and does not pop up for danger and pop away for peace, and to treat God like an emergency service is not honouring.  But neither is God a king like Saul who taxes your produce and takes your children as slaves.  God’s rule is good and of benefit.  Why would you want a king other than God?  Today’s message therefore is not about avoiding making Saul king of your life, but about allowing anyone else to take God’s place.

And that includes you.  You are not the best boss of you: God is.

Well may we say “God save the King”: because God alone is the saviour king.

Amen.

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One Day in The Temple (Lent 3B)

This is the text of the message I wrote for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 4th March 2018, the third Sunday in Lent.

1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-22

I am an uncle to three magnificent children with whom I caught up in South Australia last weekend, but I am not a father.  However, in the light of today’s reading from the gospel I want to start with a “dad joke”.  Are you ready, is your excitement building?  Okay, here it is: what is the highest jump recorded in history?  What was it, do you know?  Are you ready for this, are you sure?  Okay, here it is: it’s when Jesus cleared the temple.  Bahahaha!

Okay, you’re not laughing but I get it, it’s okay.  It probably sounds better in Aramaic.  No worries.

In all seriousness Jesus clearing the temple is one of the surprisingly few stories which occurs in all four gospels, but it is unique even among those stories because of its timing in the life of Jesus.  Mark, Matthew and Luke each locate this story specifically on Monday in Holy Week, the day after Palm Sunday, whereas John puts it right at the start of Jesus’ public ministry.  Did he actually do it twice, did Jesus throw a hissy in the courtyard two times, three years apart?  That’s a good question; it’s not one I’m going to answer today, but it’s still a good question.

Biblical scholars Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan suggests that in clearing out the traders Jesus did not actually “cleanse the temple” as the language about this episode often goes, in fact Jesus symbolically abolished the temple[1] and the temple-way of doing things.

Borg and Crossan make this claim regarding the activity of Jesus in the week before he was murdered, so it fits better with the time of the year we are in now rather than the time of John 2, but it’s worth making the point for that since we are in Lent right now.  I’m not going to get into the depths of what these theologians say, but the basic story is that Jesus is not bothered by the different ways people worship God: be that by sacrifice or by praise; by sitting or standing; by singing or silence; in Aramaic or Latin or Shakespearian or Australian English.  Activities of the religious community presented to God for God’s pleasure are never of themselves a problem for Jesus, no matter how strange they might appear to Protestant Gippslanders.  However, when any supposedly worshipful act becomes a substitute for activities of justice and gracious-welcome then that act is a problem for God.  Our God, the God of our people, is the God of All Nations; so, if our church-stuff excludes other types of people from God’s company then we shouldn’t be surprised when the Word-became-Flesh, God-with-us immediately shuts down this counterfeit worship.  To sing to God, to pray, to sacrifice, yet to resist and not allow justice is not pleasing to God; therefore, whatever goes on in church must empower disciples for acts of justice, it must never excuse them from it.

The blaze of Jesus’ anger in the temple therefore had nothing to do with merchants doing honest business, or even with merchants doing dishonest business.  Jesus is not bothered by a parish fete making use of this room, (although I am), and he’s not fussed if our fundraising garage sale takes place on this property.  That’s not the issue here, and it never has been.  Rather the issue at hand, and the reason behind Jesus suddenly going boonta in Jerusalem’s holiest building, it is the shift in emphasis of the temple authorities away from prayer to cosy up to the imperial oppressors.  Borg says in another book, one written without Crossan, that it’s not the sacrificial-animal sellers and coin merchants who Jesus names and flogs as thieves, it’s the priestly collaborators who are using their social status to cosy up with Rome[2].

The people of God are supposed to stand away from the rulers of the world: not to ignore them or to rebel against them, but to make sure that we are never implicated in human schemes of oppression and greed.

As with almost all Christians who will allow the name “Evangelical” to be pointed at them I understand and proclaim as truth that Jesus was crucified because of human sin.  But this is not as obvious a statement as it might seem.  It’s not just that Jesus died as a sacrifice for us, it’s that he was murdered by individual sinful men acting sinfully.  Jesus died because of the envy and corruption of a group of Jewish religious leaders, and the cowardice and injustice of the Roman imperial governor.  These men who were supposed to care for God’s people as God’s appointed leaders instead established a system in which religion and government, high priest and governor, temple and empire operated in life-destroying ways.  Jesus was killed by the powerful men of his day.  Part of the story of Easter is that like Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero, and millions of brutally silenced other men and women of God, Jesus was assassinated by the powers that be in an attempt to shut down his God-centred summons to their repentance.

In the light of this different view of the death of Jesus, a view which expands what we were taught about the cross and sin but in no way undermines it, the New Testament writers offer another way of responding to Jesus.  Salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection is not about life inside a broken system of injustice and corrupt self-interest but with a new and handy reset button called “confession and repentance”.  No, Calvary says that the world is broken and a completely new way of doing life which turns domination on its end and affirms God’s Kingdom justice above human imperial injustice is required.  If you follow the Easter story through Mark, Matthew or Luke what you find out is that it was this activity that lead directly to Jesus’ death.  When Jesus called out the injustice and corruption of the temple and shamed the Jewish leaders as collaborators with the Romans, that was the last straw.  “He needs to be shut up and shut down: let’s kill him embarrassingly” says the Sanhedrin first to each other and then to Pilate.

The Bible’s story of salvation, and this is evident in the message of Jesus is not primarily concerned with life after death, but with life on a transformed Earth within the Kingdom of God.  Salvation is therefore about the life of the world to come, meaning this world in its restored state.  Salvation is Genesis 2, but better.  But this world, the Kingdom of God which Jesus inaugurated, must be healed.  The new Earth, by which the whole Bible means this Earth made new rather than an entirely different planet to replace the current, old one, is a place of completion rather than fragmentation, and wholeness and healing rather than brokenness, because of grace.  Salvation runs right through the Bible as a healing story, moving the people of God (and the persons within the body) from slavery under Pharaoh to the land of milk and honey with lots of walking and being upheld by grace in between.  Then Israel falls apart, becomes too corrupt for its own good, and the people are exiled.  Then God brings them back and starts again in a rebuilt Jerusalem.  Then Israel falls apart and God leaves them in Jerusalem but the Greeks, then the Romans arrive.  When Jesus comes he is the saviour in this repeated Jewish pattern.  Like God through Moses Jesus is the liberator who sets the captives free.  As he says of himself, and like the prophets in the model of Elijah who we met at Transfiguration three weeks ago Jesus is The Way who points the exiles toward home and gives navigation to homecoming.  And like the temple itself, and as reiterated by the authors and editors of the New Testament book Hebrews Jesus is the Sacrifice who once for all fulfilled and made obsolete the temple and its rituals for atonement, guaranteeing acceptance and forgiveness for all from God.

Beyond the gospels we read from the early Church how Jesus, the one murdered by Rome has been vindicated by God.  Peter says this in his great sermon on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2:23-24, 36.  Throughout his letters Paul repeatedly says that his primary purpose, his life’s work as a writer and a public speaker is Christ crucified.  Christ is wisdom where the world is foolish we began to read today in 1 Corinthians.  This story goes past where we finished today and for the full effect read 1 Corinthians 1:17-2:16 where for the first time in his life Paul writes about the cross from a theological perspective, not just an episode of history.  Where Paul sets up a comparison between the wisdom of the world practiced by some of the Christian factions of Corinth (that is to say, the broad way) and the wisdom of God (the narrow way which is foolishness to the academia of the Greeks and a stumbling block to the religiosity of the Jews) he does it within the framework of Christ as the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24, 30).

The human way of doing things is broken and it leads to brokenness.  The People of God: the people who honoured Abraham, Moses, Elijah and the prophets, David and the good kings, and Samuel and the faithful hearers and doers of the word of God; this People executed the Messiah for Blasphemy and the King of Kings for Treason.  Tell me how that’s a good system, if you can.  Calvary says that the human system is broken.  Jesus’ anger at how the system had pervaded and corrupted the very heart of God’s own nation’s worship shows how much that hurt him.  That the religious and national leaders of God’s own nation chose to murder and humiliate Jesus for calling them out is all the evidence and more that we are up against it if we choose to stand with Jesus.

This is a dangerous message, after all according to Mark, Matthew and Luke this is the message that got Jesus killed.  Yet in that we hear the heart-felt cry of the Word of God.

Resist evil, but do not rebel.  Let me be clear in saying that I have not heard calling us to storm the council chambers in Traralgon, or the parliaments in Melbourne or Canberra.  God is not calling us to picket the Uniting Church offices of Assembly, Synod, Presbytery, or Cluster.  Do not burn your flags, just don’t worship them either.  Listen to God, follow Jesus, and pray without ceasing for the Church and our nation.  Just don’t be surprised if when the world continues in the way that is going, without God, we who live according to the Way of Christ find ourselves headed for the high jump.

Amen.

[1] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan. The Last Week: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus’ Final days in Jerusalem. (New York: HarperOne, 2006), 48.

[2] Marcus J Borg. Meeting Jesus in Mark: Conversations with Scripture. (London: SPCK, 2011). 93