Guest Preacher, Daniel Sack ~ 1 Samuel 8:4-22, Matthew 25:31-46 ~
Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent. As you may know, in the church world that is the beginning of the liturgical calendar, a schedule connecting the feasts and fasts of the Christian story. The year begins, appropriately, with days of quiet waiting for the birth of a little baby, and concludes today, with the feast of Christ the King, a big festival celebrating Christ’s reign over the entire universe–and a week later we go back to the quiet waiting for the birth of a little baby. I like how that works. Christ the King gets less attention than many festivals of the Christian calendar. We don’t have a Christ the King tree, and no one sends cards. I wonder why. Tell me what you think of when you hear “king.”
- Gender language issues: some churches calling this a festival of the Reign of Christ.
- Whole idea of kingship: We are a country founded on the idea of overthrowing kings. The whole idea of Christ the King clashes with our self-image as free Americans and liberated Christians.
Kings play an ambivalent role in the Bible–especially in the preaching of Jesus. Today I want us to think a bit about the idea of kingship, how Jesus talks about kings, and how all that sets us up for Advent. But first, let us pray. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
This morning’s somewhat lengthy and strange lesson from the Hebrew scriptures comes at a crucial point in the history of the people of Israel. As you may remember, they were a small group when they went into Egypt, basically just Jacob, his twelve sons, their wives and their children. They left Egypt as a large nomadic band–all of Jacob’s descendents, plus probably some other ex-slaves who joined the exodus. God led them out, working through Moses. After decades of wandering in the desert, the story tells us, they settled in the land of Canaan.
By the time they got to the Promised Land the tribes of Israel had had their fill of pharaohs and kings. Instead of a king who wanted to be a god, they embraced God as their king. They remained a loose confederation of tribes with no central government, but faithful to God as their leader. This was a new model for a nation, true to the law of Moses. When a crisis arose, a charismatic figure, known as a judge, would step up as their chief. Although they were called judges, their focus was more on war than justice. When the tribes were threatened by other peoples, they would call out to God for salvation, and God would raise up a judge to lead them into battle. After the crisis, the judge would return to his or her normal life. The book of Judges, appropriately, tells the stories of these judges. You might recognize some of their names, including Gideon, Samson, Deborah–yes, a woman–and Samuel.
This worked well for about a hundred and fifty years, but as this morning’s Hebrew scripture passage makes clear, the people eventually started to get restless with this arrangement. The presenting issue, as therapists say, was the corruption of Samuel’s sons. Samuel himself had been a good judge, leading the people with justice and compassion, but he wanted to appoint his sons as his successors. The boys, it was clear, however, were not up to it. They were in it not for justice but for themselves, taking bribes and showing favor.
So the elders of Israel go to Samuel to say, this just isn’t working. But their speech shows that there’s more going on here than just Samuel’s sons. They don’t say, we need a different judge, a better judge, a judge that doesn’t take bribes. They say, we want a king. They look at all the nations around them, and they’re kind of jealous. They see people who are regularly attacking the people of Israel. They see big, important nations with strong borders and powerful armies. And they see kings. While the people of Israel are led by God and a rotating cast of temporary, charismatic judges, real nations have kings. They want to be a real nation, too. And the key, they conclude, is to have a king.
Samuel is dubious, but he takes this to God. And God, understandably, gets a bit huffy. “Fine!,” God says to Samuel. “They want a king, give them a king. This is really about me, not you,” God tells Samuel. “They are not rejecting you, but rejecting me from being king over them.” God really gets going here. “I brought these people up out of Egypt, freed them from slavery, led them through the Red Sea and the wilderness, fed them with manna and gave them the Ten Commandments, defeated their enemies and brought them into the promised land. And this is how they repay me? After all I’ve done, they reject my kingship and go chasing after other gods. Now they want a king? Fine! Give them a king.”
“Before you give them a king, however,” God continues, “tell them what having a king is really like. Kings may look impressive. Having a king may make you feel powerful. Having a king may make you feel like a real nation. But a king will eat you alive. He will draft your sons into his armies. He will conscript your daughters to work in his businesses. A king will take your land and your crops to reward his cronies. He will take your sheep and your donkeys, and you will be his slaves. You will be slaves, just like you were in Egypt. And you will come crying to me, wanting to be freed of this king of yours,” says God, “and I will not listen.”
This is a pretty extraordinary speech from God. God is angry, and it’s hard to blame him. God is feeling hurt and betrayed. After all she’s done, the people have rejected God’s leadership and gone chasing after a different kind of ruler–one who relies on power rather than justice, on armies rather than miracles.
Samuel takes this message to the elders, but they do not heed God’s warning. “We’re determined,” the elders say. “We want to be a nation like all the others, which means we want a king. We want a real king–not some mysterious spiritual figure, but a real king who will fight our battles.” God again says, “Fine! If they want a king, give them a king.”
So Samuel does as he’s told–and God is proved right. Kings are bad news. Samuel finds Saul– whose main qualifications, according to the Bible, I kid you not, are that he was tall and handsome. Instructed by God, Samuel anoints the tall, handsome man as king. But soon God’s predictions come true. Saul forms an army and leads the people into battle. His ego grows and he ignores God’s commandments.So God tells Samuel to anoint someone else as king–young David, the shepherd boy. He dazzles the people as his army captures Jerusalem, and then he seduces a married woman and has her husband killed. His son Solomon builds the temple and then commits idolatry. His sons battle each other and divide the kingdom. In the years that follow, generations of kings fight with the neighbors, overthrow each other, commit adultery, and worship other gods. Within a few centuries the divided kingdoms are conquered by foreign empires and the people are dispersed. That is the end of the kingdom of Israel.
But that is not, of course, the end of the kings. Jerusalem is seized by a series of kings and emperors, including Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Necho of Egypt, Cyrus of Babylon, Ptolmey of Egypt (again), Alexander the Great, Antioches, and Pompey the Roman. Nebuchadnezzar destroys the Temple, Cyrus rebuilds the Temple, Antioches desecrates the Temple, and Pompey ransacks the Temple.
You might expect that by this time the people of Israel are tired of kings. They’re living on the far edges of the Roman Empire, ruled by a roiling squad of guys who call themselves kings but are really just toadies for the emperor. They are taxed by the occupying government. Their streets are patrolled by Roman soldiers. It’s not quite as bad as being slaves in Egypt, but it’s close.
But the people of Israel are looking for their salvation from this mess–in yet another king. They are waiting for the Messiah, literally, the anointed one, a second David, a king who will lead them to victory, will overthrow the empire and all the little kings who oppress them. They are waiting for a king who can, sorry about this but it’s true, make Israel great again.
Into this mix comes Jesus. He’s a nobody from a little town in the desert who starts to preach about the kingdom of God. He starts to challenge the religious and political authorities. Some of his audience, their ears carefully tuned by centuries of waiting for the Messiah, start to wonder if maybe this is the guy. That’s why they start telling stories about his miraculous birth, and his descent from David. That’s why they hold a parade when he enters Jerusalem. They think he could be the Messiah, the king of the Jews! And that’s why the empire crucifies him.
If they had listened carefully to his preaching, however, they would have heard a very different message. Now let’s hear the Gospel lesson for the day. Listen carefully, there’ll be a quiz.
This is a pretty well-known passage, particularly in our liberal Christian circles. This is where we get the phrase, separating the sheep from the goats. It’s known as the Great Judgment, when the Son of Man, maybe the Messiah, maybe Jesus himself, comes in glory to judge humankind. That’s the image on the cover of the bulletin, Jesus judging the world.
What did you hear in this passage?
Judgment, care for the least, identification with the least
I think that in this passage, Jesus is challenging how his audience thinks about kings. Remember that the people of Israel were waiting for a Messiah, a second David, a king who would lead them into war and lead them to freedom. Just like the story from Samuel. the elders of Israel wanted a king so that they could be a real nation like all the others. But Jesus is turning that upside down. The son of Man, the Messiah, the king of the Jews, what’s he like? He is not only caring for the hungry, the sick, the prisoner, he is identifying with them. When you see those people, he says, you’re seeing me! This king is not a mighty warrior but a beggar, not a ruler but a peasant. Jesus is trying to get back what the people of Israel threw away a millennium before. To become a real nation, a great nation, they discarded the kingdom of God. If they want to be the people of God again, to enter into God’s kingdom, he says, they too need to identify with the powerless, to care for the least of these. That’s what it means to be in the kingdom of God.
As I have written in a few Moderator’s Messages, we are living in strange political times. No matter where you stand or where you fall on the political spectra, you have to admit that our country is wrestling with complicated problems, of governance, policy, and leadership. The upside of this mess, I think, is that these weird times have forced us back to the basics. They have led a lot of people to ask some fundamental questions about how our country makes decisions, about how we live together.
And I think our lessons for this feast of Christ the King help us to think about answers to these fundamental questions. According to the gospel of Jesus, leadership is not about power. Leadership is not about armies. Leadership is not about building up the economy. Leadership is not about sexually harassing your staff. According to the gospel of Jesus, leadership is about service. Leadership is about caring for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned. Leadership is about identifying with the least of these.
For a millennium the people of Israel were waiting for their Messiah. They hoped for a king who would make them great. But maybe, Jesus tells them, they should hope not for power, but for compassion, for empathy. Maybe, Jesus tells us, we should hope not for a mighty king, but for a child. A child who can lead us back to the Kingdom of God.
And maybe that’s why this feast of Christ the King leads us back to Advent, leads us back to waiting for the arrival of a baby. For that child, and for the kingdom of God, thanks be to God, and amen.