Sunday, 10 July 2011

Saul, David and what it takes to be king

Note: these are rough notes of a sermon preached at Highbury on Sunday evening, 10th July.

So what were you up to 40 years ago?

I remember it well!

It was one of those summers for me with not a care in the world. School was over and done with. My exams were over bar the shouting. And because I only needed two E’s to get into University, I was not too concerned about the results that would come a month from now.

A holiday beckoned – one of the last as it turned out with my parents.

It was when I first did a serious study of these chapters in 1 Samuel. For my RE A Level I studied Genesis through to 1 Kings, and the first Three Gospels.

What I found fascinating was putting that study alongside the other two A Levels I was doing: History and English Literature.

We did three history papers. English History from 1815 to 1945, European History 1789 to 1945, and English Social History in the second half of the Nineteent Century.

What appealed to me about that History course was that it helped to give an understanding of how the world we were living in came to be as it was. That was the thrill of history for me.


The history I was studying I was studying from my perspective. The world of the 60’s and 70’s was the world of the cold war – the study of European history from 1789 to 1945 helped give an understanding of the roots of that.

The world of the 60’s and 70’s was the world of the end of Empire, the big controversies regarding immigration, the days of Apartheid in South Africa, the Rhodesia crisis, Idi Amin and Uganda was just round the corner. The study of British history from 1815 to 1945 helped me to understand the interconnectedness of all those countries that had made up the British Empire and the roots of so much that was going on in that world.

The 60’s and 70’s were the period of the see-saw between Ted Heath and Harold Wilson – the study of British History 1815 to 1945, and of English social history helped me have some understanding of that world of controversy over women’s rights, the rights of workers and employers.

The same range of history, I believe, should be taught today.

It helps understand why there are the mix of cultures we have in our cities today. It would help in the understanding of Iraq and Afghanistan, it would help us understand what the peace process is about in Northern Ireland.

I was studying the history of my nation in order to understand its problems now.

When I read the stories of Genesis through to 1 Kings 11 and as I later went on to study them through to the end of I Kings I see a very similar process going on.

I find myself standing with the people in exile at the end of II Kings – and thinking what it would be like for them to be studying at that moment the story of their nation.

It is by seeing how we got to where we are that we can better understand how we should seek to shape the world of today. That’s exactly how they felt.

And that is exactly what they were doing. They had rescued the law codes and also the state archives when Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians. And now they pored over the story of their nation to make sense of the calamity that had befallen them.

Some of the principles they draw out of their history then help them to understand how to shape their future.

Those same principles seem to me to be remarkably relevant to our day and age as well. By looking at the overall sweep of the story things emerge that are fascinating.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in this moment of significant change for the people of Israel.

This is the moment when they enter into a five hundred year period of their history.

The way they made sense of what happened in that period, then helps us to understand what was so important for Jesus when he brought in the Kingdom of God.

For this was the period of the Kingdom of Israel.

And we have reached the moment of the anointing of the first King.

Samuel plays a major role. The last of the judges, and himself a prophetic voice who speaks truth to power, he is highly critical of the peope’s request for a king just like all the other nations around.

It is, Samuel believes, tantamount to a rejection of God.

But a king they shall have.

The insight of 9:1-2 is an insight that is timeless. And as those people looking back from a vantage point so much later told this story it goes a long way to explaining what went wrong.

There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

Appearances, as we shall find out can deceive.

Even as Samuel present Saul to the people he reminds them they are rejecting God – in 10:17-19.

The story of Saul unfolds and very soon goes wrong. Then it is fascinating that these prophetic historians weave into the story of the first king the story of the one who will subsequently take his place.

It is fascinating and stands with any court intrigue of any period of history.


At first Saul does reasonably well leading the people, but then he succumbs to the temptation to build up his own wealth and to go against the ways of God.

He keeps back sacrficies that are to be made to God.

And that is the beginning of his downfall.

It is not long after that Samuel identifies David.

The finding of David could not be more different.

How often have we told that story to the children. But we miss the impact it makes if we don’t put it alongside Saul.

For David is very different.

The youngest son, he doesn’t even reckon in his father’s calculations.

Forgotten in the fields.

yet he is the one.

Here there is a turning upside down.

Not appearances, not power, not first born. Not the one who in the world’s eyes should be it.

But a reversal.

This is an observation that is a very significant insight into the nature of God’s way of ordering things in society, in his Kingdom.

When Jesus comes along many are looking for one who will be all powerful.

That’s exactly the perception James and John have even after they have been with Jesus for three years.

They want the positions of power.

What they are looking for is what the other nations have. Notice the way Jesus comments about the other nations –Mark 10:42ff.

This is what other nations want.

This is the kind of power that Saul craved.

And it’s not what Jesus offers.

His kingship is a servant kingship that gives of himself to set the people free.

A ransom for many – an image of setting the people free.

We look to Jesus the one who is servant.

But this is also a model for the kind of leadership we should look to.

It is the leadership that gives itself in the service of others – not in self-agrrandizement, power and wealth.

This gives us something to look for in Christ.

It gives us something to seek for ourselves.

But also it gives us something to seek in those who would shape our society.

Maybe we should be looking for a spirit of public service, not least when it comes to identifying who is ‘fit and proper’ to organise the country’s biggest broadcaster.

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