Sunday 16th June

1 Samuel 8:4-20

It is a key moment in the story of the people of Israel, God’s chosen nation. Indeed it might be viewed as one of the crucial turning points in their whole history, a moment much more significant than meets the eye. The incident takes place in the early days before Israel had a king, when they were ruled by judges. These were men and women who God raised up and anointed with his Spirit, but it was always understood that God was the true king and ruler of the life of their nation. And considering that God had released them from the tyrannical grip of one particularly oppressive king, Pharaoh, in Egypt – why would they want any other one?

Well, the fact is that at least some did, and so the elders of the people came to the judge, Samuel, who was ruling at the time, and they didn’t mince their words: ‘you’re old, your sons are a disaster’ – as indeed they were – ‘and we don’t want them ruling us, so appoint for us a king to govern us so that we can be like other nations.’ These guys certainly knew how to shoot from the hip! As we read on, however, we discover three things that are disturbing about this request.

Firstly, this demand is a kick in the teeth for God. God sees this as a direct rejection of him: as he says to Samuel, ‘they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them’. Indeed God sees this as just one more example of his repeated rejection by Israel. It smacked of ingratitude and betrayal.

There is, however, a second, deeper reason why this request for a king is so wrong, and the crunch comes when the elders say that they want a king to govern, ‘like other nations’. It’s those three words, ‘like other nations’ that are particularly troubling. You see, the whole point of Israel’s calling was they were not meant to be ‘like other nations.’ They were called to be different! God had led Israel out of Egypt, the great empire of the day, and had said to them, in effect: ‘you are not going to live like them!’ You are not going to be like other nations – you are going to offer to the world something different – an alternative! And so God had given them a law which was a counter to the ways of Egypt, a liberating alternative to Egypt’s deathly ways. And the other nations of the world were supposed to look at Israel and to envy them and to want to be like them. They would be drawn to Israel’s light. But now, shamefully, Israel’s elders are saying to Samuel, ‘give us a king like the other nations have – we want to be like them’- an utter betrayal of Israel’s entire raison d’etre.

There is a third reason, however, why this request for a king is so troubling, and that is that in God’s view kings as are a bad thing. ‘These will be the ways of the kings who rule over you…’, God says. And he goes on to warn of the oppressive ways in which the people will be ruled. Kings will send the nation’s sons off to war, and they will take the nation’s daughters and turn them into his servants and skivvies, and he will give favours and privileges to his commanders and officers and to his courtiers, and in no time the people will be crying out under the weight of exploitation. So whose interests do kings serve? Indeed, I would love to know who exactly was behind this request for a king. We’re told it was the elders who made their demand, but I suspect there were others as well: the privileged and the powerful and the elites who would be in the pocket of the king and who would benefit at others’ expense.

Well, for better or worse, this is what Israel is asking for and so God tells Samuel, with great reluctance, ‘OK – give them what they want – but don’t come crying to me when it all goes wrong, because you have made your bed and so you will have to lie in it!’ Now, what we see here is something that runs through the Bible – and that is a profound suspicion of power, and how it operates and who ends up as winners and who ends up as losers. You know the old saying, “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and we see it over and over again, and you don’t have to look so very far to see this operating in our world today. Quite apart from any number of pastors, preachers and priests whose abuses of power have been found out, I can think, immediately, of one prime minister of Israel, and one former prime minister of the UK and one ex- and possibly future president of the USA all of whom are or have been under investigation for various degrees of corruption. And how many nations of the earth are blighted by corruption and cronyism?

Well, power is one issue that the God of the Bible confronts head-on. We see it in the Old Testament in God’s law with its repeated concern for the widow and the orphan – the most vulnerable and powerless in society. But God is their advocate. And we see it in the ministry of Jesus who continually reached out to the victims of power dynamics – be it the power of religion or the power of the state or the power of social convention. And of course it was those whose power was most threatened by Jesus who did away with him, or tried to. Above all in Jesus, however, we glimpse a more radical, more profound transformation of power: in Jesus Christ the sovereign God exercises his power by becoming powerless. As it is put elsewhere in the New Testament – Christ ‘who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… he humbled himself and became obedient even to the point of death – death on a cross.’ Here power is reconfigured as cross-shaped. And if we had time we might jump to the Book of Revelation which is all about power and the powers of this world with their noise and their din and their clashing. And the writer, John, pulls aside the curtain of history to reveal the throne that is at the heart of everything, the throne of majesty – and power. And on it John sees – what? A lamb – a lamb slain from the foundation of the world. What kind of power is this?

Well, the answer is simple: this is power fashioned and formed by love. This is the real power revealed in Jesus’ Incarnation, and his ministry: it is power that is fired and formed in the flames of love and compassion. And this is where worldly power constantly needs to be called to account. You see, human power, turned in upon itself, has a tendency to become hard-edged and cruel and graceless. We see it often in attitudes to welfare and benefits – we are so determined that no-one should sneak a free lunch and so we construct every kind of barrier and hoop to eliminate the so-called ‘undeserving poor’. And we devise our immigration policies to make sure that only immigrants who can make money and contribute to the economy are allowed in. Well, let me just say that the widows and orphans in ancient Israel who God was so concerned about contributed precious little, if anything, to the economy. I don’t know – maybe I’m just getting old but sometimes the world seems to be becoming a harder, more graceless place, as the idolising of efficiency and competition and profit are reinforced and exacerbated by the technological revolution. The world becomes an ever harsher, hard-edged place because love and compassion simply aren’t cost effective.

The week before last I attended my work’s annual spring conference. My employer, ARSP, is part of the EKD, the Council of the German Lutheran and Reformed Churches and like many denominations here in the UK, the Lutheran and Reformed Churches in Germany are going through tough times, faced with chronic and relentless decline in a virulently secular age. There is much anxiety about the future and where the Church is headed. And of course at one level it’s all about power – about the loss of power in the slow death of a national institution. Well, given what the Bible has to say, I’m not sure that the loss of institutional power is such a bad thing. With such decline, however, there arises the question: what is the role of the church in a secular age? What are we here for? What is our mission? And there are many answers to that question, but surely one answer is that in an increasingly hard world, one that yields to the power of the fittest, we are called to embody and to practice the love and compassion of God revealed in Christ, the lamb upon the throne.

You may have heard, as is sometimes said, that one task of the church is ‘to speak truth to power’. Well, maybe, but in our secular world I am not sure that power is listening. Rather than ‘speaking truth to power’ maybe ‘demonstrating love to power’ would be better. That, after all, is how it all began. The church started as a small network of powerless communities at the mercy of a mighty, powerful empire. The only weapon they had was the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ. But they lived it out amongst themselves, they proclaimed it, they bore witness to it – and they flourished. And the ancient world saw something that they wanted, something that they needed, something different – an alternative: fulfilling exactly Israel’s ancient vocation.

Revd Sabrina Groeschel