Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on the Sunday before Advent, 24th November 2013
1 Samuel 8:1-20, John 18:33-37 – What it is to be a King

‘He will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.’ Confectionaries – from our first lesson, from the First Book of Samuel. I love the idea of one’s daughters being makers of confectionery, sweeties; Yum Yum.

But we’re not talking about the Mikado, but rather, about kings. This is the Sunday next before Advent, when we also celebrate Christ the King, so our hymns are all about crowns and kingship, and the second lesson has Pontius Pilate asking Jesus whether He is a king.

The relevance of this is in the very interesting conversation which Samuel the old prophet has with the elders of Israel, about the best form of government. At that stage in their early history, the tribes of Israel did not have an overall leader, a king. They just had their tribal elders, and they had judges. The judges did what judges do today. ‘Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life, and he went from year to year in circuit, to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places’. [1 Samuel 7:15f]

When Samuel got old, he appointed his two sons as judges under him. This is a forerunner of what we understand as the rule of law. Moses had received the law: the prophets and the judges who came after him interpreted the law and prayed directly to the Lord.

So in this discussion between the elders of Israel and Samuel, all sorts of things come up, which are still directly relevant and very topical today. You will remember the interview that the comedian Russell Brand had with Jeremy Paxman recently, when he said that he didn’t think there was any point in voting. There’s a lot of disillusionment with politics today.

It’s interesting to look at the list of things which Samuel brings up for discussion in this context. ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your way’. The sons were corrupt: they ‘turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgement.’ So the elders said, ‘We don’t want the judges any more to create policy for us: we need a king.’ I think they were proposing something like what Bismarck arranged in Germany and what Garibaldi arranged in Italy – and perhaps what the Romans did in relation to the city states of the Greeks.

Whereas in the time of Moses, the nation of Israel was made up of the 12 tribes, and there was no overall leadership, now Samuel is being asked to appoint a king, who will oversee all of them together, so that collectively they can be stronger.

Notice that there’s no discussion of democracy. Democracy came pretty late. It’s usually said that it started in classical Athens around 500BC, whereas this discussion with Samuel took place before 1,000BC. Interestingly, the ancient authors were not particularly enthusiastic about democracy. They thought it had tendencies to be populist, rabble-rousing rather than a wise way of governing.

So here the difference was between having a king, a monarchy, an absolute monarchy, and continuing in their small tribal units. The Lord told Samuel that the Israelites had rejected Him, the Lord; even though He had saved them from the Egyptians, they had turned aside and worshipped other gods.

Just as these ancient Israelites didn’t know about democracy, we don’t really know about theocracy; theocracy, which is, being governed by God. In the ancient world, nobody would do anything serious without consulting an oracle, or in the Jewish tradition, without consulting a prophet, to find out what the will of God was: whether in fact the proposed course of action was what God wanted.

The Lord accepted that the people of Israel were not going to continue to come to the tabernacle and worship in the old-fashioned way. The people of Israel were rejecting the idea of trying to discern the will of God as their main method of government. They simply wanted a king.

Today we in the west try to keep a separation between matters of religion and matters of politics or government, although the line does get blurred. In France they are very keen on saying that they have a secular state – but the state pays for the upkeep of the churches. In this country, of course, the Church of England is the ‘established’ church, the state church, and the Queen is the head of the church, so church and state are very much bound together.

God tells Samuel to warn the elders of Israel about all the things that could go wrong if they had a king over them. This is where ‘making your daughters to be confectionaries’ comes in. More seriously, he will ‘appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties … He will take the best of your fields and your 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.’ The King would lord it over the people.

Now we have Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman agreeing with each other to turn their backs on politics. I wonder if there could be the same sort of conversation if we had a prophet today, or if Jesus himself came among us and saw how we were getting on. Would the rulers of the world today, and in particular our rulers, be guilty of any of the things that Samuel was warning about? Or does democracy tend to rule out the worst excesses of an absolute monarch? Did King John at Runnymede get it right in Magna Carta, with the separation of the powers?

With the movement to have independence in Scotland and the popularity of UKIP, wanting to pull us out of the European Union, are we yearning for an era where we were like the tribes of Israel, small, standing by themselves with no overall king?

Remember that what was wrong with the Israelites at that point was that they had forgotten that they did have a King in heaven, that God was their King, and that they were supposed to worship the one true God alone. They had forgotten that, and they were worshipping all sorts of other gods who were not real.

So then we come to Pontius Pilate’s famous dialogue with Jesus.

‘So you are a king?’ ‘Art thou a king then?
‘Thou sayest that I am a king’. You say that I am a king.

Jesus points out that if He were the sort of king that Pontius Pilate had in mind, then his followers would be fighting for Him, to stop Him from being handed over to the Jews. Instead of which, of course, His followers had melted away: none more so than St Peter.

I wonder if Prince Charles is thinking about all this. Or Prince William, indeed. What is it to be a king today? Perhaps it’s sensible for anyone who is going to be in government, in any way, to think about all the reflections which these passages produce.

The government has a balance of power with the rule of law, the judges. It’s important that judges should not be corrupt. It’s important that the rulers shouldn’t oppress the people – take their sons and put them in the Army, forcing them to fight wars. Will the government take your daughters to be confectionaries?

What is the right tax rate? One tenth of your grain and in your vineyards to go to the civil service. The best products that you make, the Rolls-Royces, the Jaguars, pressed into government service. ‘In that day you will cry out because of your king whom you have chosen for yourselves, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

Do we think that Russell Brand was being somewhat prophetic, and that perhaps the original conversation between God and Samuel is the one to listen to – that the best way of government is a government that listens to God and forsakes all other gods?

As Jesus said, ‘For this I was born and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’ Let’s hope that our leaders will listen too.

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