Sunday, 3 July 2011

What it takes to be King! Samuel, Jesus and God's Kingdom

It was wet. We didn’t linger long. But long enough to stand for a moment in awe. We were looking at the great West Door of Salisbury Cathedral. Towering above us the West Façade and above that pointing to the heavens the great spire. On that west wall are the figures of the great saints of the church, ancient and one or two modern as well. And at the top, in majesty over them all, if I was not mistaken a figure of Christ the King, Pantocrator, Ruler of All. It is humbling to approach such majesty … and have to enter the door that all these great saints and most of all Christ the King rule over. The very building itself speaks of power and majesty, awe and wonder.

And we hear again, better still, sing from Handel’s Messiah, King of Kings and Lord of Lords … or this evening we sing Hail to the Lord’s anointed, Great David’s greater son, the Lord is King, Behold the eternal King and Priest.

We look to Christ as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. And rightly so for from the very outset of his ministry as we read in Matthew 4:17 Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” Indeed so many of his parables are parables of the kingdom, so much of his teaching fill out the very nature of the kingdom that had come so near, and would with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus be established.

But we must ask, what kind of kingdom is it? What kind of King do we find in Jesus? How we answer that question will shape the priorities we have, the life we lead, and the way we share the Christian Gospel. And it does make a difference.

Jesus is not the first in the gospel story to have that message at its heart. Matthew 3:1 tells of John the Baptist appearing in the wilderness of Judea proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

What John wears, the words of Isaiah he is linked with and the content of John’s preaching make it quite clear that he is very much in the line of the Prophets of the Old Testament. Indeed, his clothing has suggested to some that he was what was known as a ‘nazirite’ dedicated to God, leading a very frugal life. What he says as summarised here and in Luke 3 is an indictment of the powers of be both Jewish and Gentile.

Jesus quite deliberately comes from Galilee to seek out John at the Jordan – John is convinced that he should be baptised by Jesus, but Jesus insists on being baptised by John – Jesus is saying loud and clear – I am with John, 100%. Then notice carefully when Jesus had been baptised just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven is heard.

The words of this voice from heaven are crucial in the sequence of the story.

“This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”

Those words are very significant. For Jewish people, steeped in the Old Testament those words would be familiar … the King was seen as the anointed one of God, and as in Psalm 2, often seen as ‘the son of God’. What’s more in the Roman world they would be readily recognised too for Augustus it was had styled himself as Emperor, as ‘the Son of God’.

At this point the King is coming into his Kingdom.

Jesus’ ministry can begin. Or can it? No it can’t. Something else must happen first.

Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil.

Three times the devil says, If you are the Son of God. We miss the point so easily and imagine the devil to be calling in question whether Jesus is divine or not. But that’s not how this narrative is unfolding. The question is very much more pointed. It goes to the heart of the very nature of the Kingdom Jesus is bringing into being.

If you are the Son of God, if you are the King coming into his Kingdom, then do the Power thin the whole world expects of a King of Kings …

Command these stones to become loaves of bread
Throw yourself for God will command his angels concerning you
Look at all the kingdoms of the world and their splendour – and the devil says, all these I will give you if you will fall down and worship me.

Be the all-conquering king that will take the world by storm.

Not once, but three times, Jesus refuses.

The kingdom he has come to inaugurate is not like that. Not at all what the world expects. Indeed the powers that be will not accept it.

And Jesus knows that too.

The powers that be silence John. But what John stands for is being fulfilled by Jesus … and Jesus will not be silenced. The very message of John will continue because the king is now coming into his kingdom.

Verse 12, the very next words … Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth, and made his home in Capernaum by the lake in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled.

Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.

Wow! Capernuam stands facing the Gentile, brand new Roman centre of power on the shores of the Sea of Galilee where the Herod Antipas who had had John arrested has his power base. Jesus far from withdrawing – is in a place that faces off that power base. John had been arrested by Herod as we learn later in Luke for speaking out against Herod Antipas. And now Jesus goes right into Herod’s territory. And it is a land of darkness. Where Roman power is exerting itself as never before.

And what does Jesus do, notice what Matthew tells us in verse 17.

From that time Jesus began to proclaim the very words that had got John into trouble, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

In a moment we are going to see just what life in that kingdom is going to be like for he calls his 12 disciples, ministers to Crowds of People and then within eight verses we get the Sermon on the Mount. And in the course of that sermon he makes an audacious claim that we so easily gloss over … that he has come to fulfil the law and the prophets.

I believe we need to seek an understanding of what Christ’s kingdom is like if we are to fulfil our calling as followers of Jesus and live our lives in a way that is shaped by the kingdom of heaven.

To do that we need an understanding of what shaped Christ’s understanding of the kingdom. And that is in so many ways what the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures are all about.

In Jesus’ day the scrolls of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings were kept with the scrolls of Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and the Scroll of the Twelve in the box labelled ‘prophets’.

A large part of those prophetic writings has to do with addressing this question: what shape should the kingdom take. What does it take to be a king, a son of God, who is pleasing in God’s sight.

When Samuel is born, Hannah offers him to God as a ‘nazirite’ – wholly dedicated to God, when he grew up the Lord was with h im and let none of his words fall to the ground and all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was a trustworthy prophet of the Lord. And he spoke out vigorously against those in power, Eli’s sons.

Can you see how John the Baptist is stepping into the shoes of the prophets who were just beginning with people like Samuel?

John the Baptist is speaking God’s word at a time when the Romans have conquered the land.

Samuel’s ministry takes place in the face of the rise of the Philistines. In chapter 4 of 1 Samuel Israel is defeated at the hands of the invaders, the ark is captured from the tented tabernacle shrine in Shiloh and Eli’s sons fall in battle. That news causes Eli’s death and his daughter in law dies in giving birth to a grandson for Eli who is called in that stark, and terrifying name, Ichabod, the Glory of the Lord has departed.

The people are indeed walking in the land of the shadow of death where a foreign power has got the upper hand.

The Philistines find the Ark of the Covenant too hot to handle. Wherever it is taken calamity falls on the Phililistines, their gods are no match for the Lord of the covenant people of Israel … and so they return the ark to Israel, it is set up at a place called Kiriah Jearim. And Samuel becomes an effective leader of the people. Effectively he is the last in the line of judges.

And for his lifetime there is comparative peace. When Samuel became old he made his sons judges over Israel. (8) And that’s when things begin to go wrong.

Remember Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings are not straightforward history books if there ever is such a thing. These are Prophetic writings. It is history with a message. The writers who have compiled this history look as if they were living at the very time Isaiah is speaking of in those words quoted by Matthew in chapter 4, when the people are in darkness, in the land of the shadow of death, at the time of the exile. And looking back they give a verdict on each ruler in turn. Either one who is power is pleasing to God or he or she is not pleasing to God.

In 1 Samuel 8:3 we have the verdict on Samuel’s two sons. This is why they were not pleasing to God. And it is one of a number of key verses that goes to the heart of the kind of rule God expects from those who rule his people.

Yet Samuel’s sons did not follow in his ways, but turned aside after gain; they took bribes and perverted justice.

Making money, taking bribes, perverting justice. These are the very things that John the Baptist criticises the powers that be and especially the Herodians and Herod the Great in Matthew 3 and Luke 3.

What it takes to be a ruler in God’s way is that you follow God’s ways, you are not in it for the money, you are not corrupt and you maintain justice.

So what do you do.

All the elders of all the tribes gather together and give Samuel an ultimatum.

Notice what they say …

You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint fus us, then a king to govern us, like other nations.

But the thing displeased Samuel.

What the people want is an all-conquering, all-powerful king like other nations.

That’s not the kind of kingdom that is needed.

The voice of the Lord speaks to Samuel – and sees their request for this kind of a king as a rejection not of Samuel but a rejection of the Lord God.

Now then, says the voice of God, (8:9) listen to their voice ; only – you shall solemnly warn them, and show them the ways of the king who shall reign over them.”

As these great prophetic writers share their history with a message what they are wanting to get across to the reader is that Kings can be bad, very bad for the people.

And then in 1 Samuel 8:11ff is an account of all that is worst in Kings who get power in a way that is so damaging. The tragedy of these verses is that all too often in the next five hundred years this is what the Kings of Israel are going to be like.

‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.

There is tragedy in the story that is about to unfold. For the people insist. And they are shown the error of their ways as they are given the opportunity to have a king like the nations and find out what the consequences will be.

But the people refused to listen to the voice of Samuel; they said, ‘No! but we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.’

If John was in Samuel’s shoes this is his indictment against Herod Antipas.

When Jesus lines up with John this is what he recognises has gone wrong.

And when he is confronted by the Devil in the wilderness this is the kind of kingship that he is being tempted with. All powerful. All conquering. But Jesus’ kingship is very different from this. It is the opposite.

For we know that the voice of the Lord says of Jesus This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.

It is against this backdrop that it begins to make sense – Jesus is a suffering servant messiah, who rejects the war horse but enters Jerusalem on a donkey, who goes to his death.

What difference does this make.

The architecture is impressive, but there is something inside me that says the Normans who gave us our great Mediaeval Cathedrals missed the point.

The Jesus I look to is not the high and mighty, majestic one towering above us beyond reach at the top of that west wall of Salisbury Cathedral. Ruler of All. Pantocrator.

The Jesus I look to is the Jesus who is with us in the mess of this life, suffering as a servant alongside us as we walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

He does not come to fight our battles with the weapons of war, he comes to love our enemies, and to be with us as we seek to do just that as well.

In the wake of the Japanese earthquake I found it moving to re-visit the novels of the great Christian Japanese novelist. How wrong the western missionaries were to present to the Japanese people a Christ in majesty, ruler of all, pantocrator.

In his novels, Shusaku Endo presented to the people of Japan a suffering servant Christ who is alongside people in their suffering.

That is the Christ we need to look to. For that is the very nature of the kingdom of heaven that Christ has ushered in for us.

How different it is from the way the world sees glory, and power, and authority and dominion.

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