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.