Sermon for Evensong on the Festival of Christ the King, the 25th Sunday after Trinity, 20th November 2016
1 Samuel 8:4-20; John 18:33-37
Do you really want a strong man to rule over you? Someone who isn’t part of the ‘corrupt establishment’ in Brussels or Washington DC, someone who isn’t in that liberal elite who don’t know how we feel? We need to ‘take back control’: we don’t want all these foreigners coming and taking our jobs. Why are our factories closing and the business moving – to Mexico? Why is the Ford Transit made in Turkey?

But you Americans had such a thoughtful President, so careful to balance national self-interest with a care for the entire world: committed to countering climate change, and to providing proper healthcare for everyone. Are you sure?

And our British hospitals depend on doctors and nurses from abroad: our universities rely on the fees that overseas students pay, as if they just had what the government gives them, they would not be able to attract the top professors and researchers: restaurants, like Carluccio’s and Côte and Pizza Express, which we all love, have very few real Italians and French people working there – but they do have friendly and hard-working Poles and Romanians. We love our Lincolnshire potatoes and all the fresh fruit from Evesham: but it’s certainly not picked by Brits. Are you sure you don’t want people to be able to come in and work here?

What a can of worms to have opened. In the USA, Trump. Here, Brexit. And I suggest that in both scenarios, a factor is disillusionment with the people in government. Take back control, they say. Let’s have a businessman in charge. Let’s not have a general election. It’s more important to have stability, a safe pair of hands. We mustn’t show our hand in the negotiations, so you just have to trust the government to get the best deal. Are you sure?

Is anyone walking out yet? No, this isn’t a political speech. I haven’t strayed in from a meeting of Momentum or DiEM 25. I’m just struck at how the same sort of scenarios come up from time to time, over thousands of years. It wasn’t exactly like the movements behind Trump or Farage 3,000 years ago, but there were similarities. 

The tribes of Israel were suffering at the hands of the Philistines. They had had a wonderful prophet, Samuel, who had faithfully consulted the one true God and guided them by his prophecies. But he had got old, and his sons weren’t much cop as prophets. For a start, they thought that being a leader was a licence to make money from bribes, and that justice belonged to the highest bidder. You know, in ancient Israel the business of government, ruling, was called ‘judging’. 

But if the judges could be bought, there was no longer any proper government. So the elders of the tribes of Israel paid a visit to the old prophet Samuel, and they asked him to give them a king: ‘Make us a king to judge us’, they said (1 Samuel 8:5). Other countries had kings. Why not the Israelites?

Samuel knew that what they wanted was not good. He knew that, if the people listened to what the One True God would tell them, through his prophecy, God would want the best for his chosen people, and he would tell his prophets what they should do. Surely that would be the best form of rule.

But they didn’t want God to rule them any more. ‘They have rejected me, that I should not reign over them’ (1 Samuel 8:7). So God asked Samuel to spell out to the Israelites what a king would be really like. He would not rule for their benefit, but for his own. Trump University: learn to be a property developer like me – and pay me a fat fee. You can work in my factories; you can be my drivers and my cleaning ladies. You can be temporary help at harvest time: minimum wage, zero hours.

Look at the strange jobs the despotic king would give the people: wonderfully, ‘he will take your daughters to be confectionaries’; confectionaries, which I think is like working night shifts for Mr Kipling’s Cakes – on a contract copied from Sports Direct. Not much fun. ‘Ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you.’ 

But they thought Samuel was just a Remoaner. Now we live in the ‘post truth’ era, where you shouldn’t listen to experts. Just as they did: it’s nothing new. ‘-[T]he people refused to obey the voice of Samuel; and they said, Nay;’ nay, leave; leave that corrupt cabal in Europe; ‘but we will have a king over us’; we will have Trump, we will take back control.

Half way between then and now, Jesus was in front of Pilate. ‘Art thou the King of the Jews?’ he asked. Kings were an established fixture in Judaism by then. The Israelites had Herod at that time – probably Herod Antipas, who, by the way, wasn’t actually Jewish – but that’s for another time. By all accounts Herod was no saint. Think of what he did to John the Baptist. Jesus clearly knew that it wasn’t necessarily a good thing to be a king. He would have known what Samuel had said. 

If he had been king, in place of Herod, it would have been disruptive in the order of things. The Romans were in charge, and Herod was a client king. If Jesus had displaced him, obviously he might well not have liked it, and civil strife between his followers and Jesus’ might have resulted.

There was a bit of a worry that Jesus’ followers were claiming that he was more than just a claimant to the throne of David. The suggestion was that he was the long-awaited Messiah, the Anointed One of God: not just a king in the temporal, earthly sense, but somehow actually divine.

So Jesus rather let Pilate off the hook of his dilemma. He wasn’t a king, in the conventional sense. His kingdom was ‘not of this world’: if it had been, indeed ‘then would my servants fight’. But he wasn’t a terrorist, he wasn’t a threat to good order. Instead his role was to ‘witness to the truth’. And his followers would be attuned to his message. ‘Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice’.

I’m not sure where that takes us today. Where is the truth, where is the wise course of action? Do we follow Trump? He did after all get elected, albeit with a minority of the votes. Do we like Farage, who hasn’t managed to be elected to Parliament, but only to the European Parliament which he wants nothing to do with? Or Theresa May, who hasn’t been elected as Prime Minister? 

Or might it not be better, after all, to love our neighbours, as Jesus commanded? Even if they are, some of them, foreign? Yes, foreign – and still our neighbours. And perhaps we should listen to our prophets – are our bishops and archbishops prophets? Maybe the Pope is, too. And finally we should remember what Jesus himself said about how a king should behave, in St Mark’s Gospel, chapter 10:

Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them.

But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister:
And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.