Sunday, 24 July 2011

Michal's Moral Dilemma - a strategy for reading the Bible

Between preparing these notes and preaching the sermon, the awful attrocities in Norway hit the news. In our services today we have been sharing in prayer for all those so tragically bereaved and injured. Our thoughts and prayer were with them.

News that the perpetrator of these authorities had spoken of political leanings and of a Christian faith, I found myself beginning my sermon by reflecting on the dangers there are in reading the Bible.

Some have read the BIble and based a life-time of commitment to the good. Others have read the BIble and it has inspired hatred and all manner of evil.

Everyone approaches the Bible with a strategy for reading the Bible. But that strategy is not always thought through.

I believe it is absolutely necessary for us as Christians to have a strategy for reading the BIble that we have worked out and worked through. In this series of sermons on the Old Testament I am drawing such a strategy from Jesus and the Gospels.

This evening I want to draw on Luke 10:25-37 and the conversation between the expert in the Law and Jesus that leads up the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and 1 Samuel 19:10c - 18a, a passage that tells of Michal's moral dilemma.

From those two passages, I believe, we can glean the makings of an approach to reading the BIble that values its authority, its inspiration and draws on the inspiration of Jesus, and yet at the same time faces its difficulties.

In it all I want to explore how we arrive at a decision about what is right and wrong.

How do we decide what is right and what is wrong?

One way, and it has a certain attractiveness to it, is to suggest that there must be a set of principles that are timeless, unbreakable, that in all circumstances must be adhered to.

There is something attractive to such a proposition.

It simplifies matters. It sees things in black and white. And it is no bad thing in the face of corruption, wrong on a large scale, to see things clearly.

A lot of people are attracted to such an approach and find those clear principles in a religion that sees things in black and white and sticks to the letter of the law, the word of the Bible.

So, take a command, take any command. It is written in the Bible. That’s what the Bible says. It must be adhered to. End of story.

I think it is telling that Jesus handles the Bible differently. Indeed, in handling the Bible differently he reads his Bible in a thoroughly Jewish kind of way.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan goes to the heart of the Christian way of life taught by Jesus, the conversation leading up to it goes to the heart of Jesus’ way of reading the Bible.

The expert in the law asks the big question

What must I do to inherit eternal life? What must I do to receive my inheritance from all those who have gone before me of life lived to the full here and now, life that is not bounded by death?

Notice the two questions.

What is written in the law? What doe you read there?

Those are two of the most significant questions to ask in reading the Bible.

What is written there. What is in the text. What do the words say.

But then, What do you read there? What does it boil down to? What is the nub of the matter.

The expert in the law is quite used to that approach.

He is clear … it boils down to two things

You shall love the Lrod your God with all your heart, and with all your sould, and with all your strength, and with all you mind; and yourneigbour as yourself.”

Other experts in the law might have reduced the law to another principle – racial purity, true sacrifices … but Jesus stands four square with this expert in the law – that’s what Jesus reads there too.

You have given the right answer.

Now then … do this.

This is what must be done to fulfil the whole of the Law.

The expert in the law then poses the key question. Who is my neighbour.

Then what Jesus does is significant.

He tells a story.

In Judaism it would be known as a ‘midrash’ on the text. It is a story that throws light on the principle that h as just been enunciated.

The reality is that there are different conflicting alleigiances. The priest and the levite face a moral dilemma. They answer the question about what you read in the law differently. For them it has to do with purity, the right sacrificial system. And so they pass on by on the other side.

Interestingly the Samaritans hold the law in common with the Jews – the Torah, albeit in a slightly different version. But it is as long. It is as complex.

It is the Samaritan who goes to the nub of the matter.

He recognises what is at the heart of the law and he acts accordingly.

The key thing is that we need to enter into the story. It is very easy for us to do that in a dismissive way. IN reality the Priest and the Levite were faced with major decisions to make – and to do as the Samaritan did would turn upside down the world they knew so well – a world shaped by the words and the letter of the Law.

This century has seen a massive rise in fundamentalism in many religions, not least in Christianity.

I believe the Bible is fundamental to our Christian faith.

But what I learn from this passage is that we must ask two questions of the Bible … not only must we ask, what is written there? But we must also ask, what do you read there?

What we read in the Bible will depend on how we read the Bible.

I also see that for Jesus the commandments are not enough. You have to think through how those commandments play out in peole’s lives and the best way to do that is to tell a story.



How do you decide what is right and what is wrong?

One way is to look in the BIlbe for the law codes, the rules and the regulations. The Bible says this. Therefore you must do this.

The law is simple, black and white. Honour your father and mother. Do not kill. Do not lie.

But sometimes we can find ourselves in situations where there is a conflict. It is not black and white. There are areas of grey. We need to put alongside the law’s demands, a story, a narrative, and see how sometimes there can be a very real dilemma.

One such story is the story of Michal’s Moral Dilemma – the story that is at the heart of Jonathan Rowe’s recently published book, Michal's Moral Dilemma It is in 1 Samuel 19:10c – 18a

David fled and escaped that night.

11 Saul sent messengers to David’s house to keep watch over him, planning to kill him in the morning. David’s wife Michal told him, ‘If you do not save your life tonight, tomorrow you will be killed.’ 12So Michal let David down through the window; he fled away and escaped. 13Michal took an idol* and laid it on the bed; she put a net* of goats’ hair on its head, and covered it with the clothes. 14When Saul sent messengers to take David, she said, ‘He is sick.’ 15Then Saul sent the messengers to see David for themselves. He said, ‘Bring him up to me in the bed, that I may kill him.’ 16When the messengers came in, the idol* was in the bed, with the covering* of goats’ hair on its head. 17Saul said to Michal, ‘Why have you deceived me like this, and let my enemy go, so that he has escaped?’ Michal answered Saul, ‘He said to me, “Let me go; why should I kill you?” ’

18 Now David fled and escaped;

Jonathan does a detailed textual study of this passage and observes the structure between the two 'bookends' describing how David fled and escaped. The passage starts and ends with a similar statement. The second and the penultimate line of the story are similar and so on - it is a carefully crafted structure.

He then goes on to look at the culture of Michal's society and other cultures today and reflects on anthropological insights into the way the story unfolds.

He then also touches on Ethics and the principles behind arriving at ethical decisions.

He identifies a real and painful dilemma that Michal has to struggle with and suggests we should not under-estimate the struggle she is faced with. Maybe we need to realise that actucally within the BIble itself is every indication that we have to struggle with many issues. And in that struggle we need to draw on the insights of Christ, but more on the presence of Christ with us and the promise that the Spirit who is the inspiration of the Scriptures is the Spirit who guides us today as well.


Michal is Saul’s daughter and David’s wife.

Saul has turned against David and is trying to kill him.

David flees to the safety of his house.

Saul’s men are in pursuit.

Michal warns him that he must flee if he wants to save his life.

She helps him escape.

She then places life-size idols in the bed adorned with a wig of goat’s hair and tells Saul’s men that David is sick in bed.

Saul insists they carry the bed out of the house with the sick David on it, at which point Michal’s ruse is discovered.

Saul asks her why she deceived him. She tells him that David forced her to.

David flees and escapes.

We can read that story and simply say that Michal put her husband over her father and had a simple decision to make.

Jonathan explores the biblical text, the way ethical decision making is done, and the way different cultures have different practices, and suggests that actually Michal has a much greater dilemma to struggle with than we might imagine.

The Ten Commandments state: Thou shalt not kill. Michal knows that if she doesn’t help David escape he will be killed. To us it is a no-brainer. But in Michal’s culture there is a real conflict here – for obedience to her father, obedience to the king can very much takes precedence.

The Ten Commandments state – Thou shalt honour thy father and thy mother. This places an obligation on her to obey her father. That commandment then is reinforced for Michal by her culture which places great store by absolute obedience of a daughter to her father. That is made even stronger, when the daughter’s father is also King. The law, the culture, demand obedience to Saul.

The Ten Commandments state: Thou shalt not bear false witness. This too is a very powerful tug on Michal. Can she lie? Or can she not? Many cultures, maybe Michal’s included, place great store by telling the truth. Michal’s culture gives even greater priority to telling the truth to your father, and even more so when your father is king. But to tell the truth will result in the death of her husband.

What Jonathan suggests is that Michal faces a massive moral dilemma in arriving at her decision to disobey her father, the king, lie to her father, and preserve David’s life. What she decides to do goes counter to all the expectations placed upon her by her culture.

But this suggests Jonathan, is part of the theme of 1 Samuel. Hannah’s song right at the outset of 1 Samuel in Jonathan’s words ‘attributes to the Lord the power to turn the world upside down, to reverse the status of the powerful but wicked, and the poor but faithful.”

The way Michal resolves her dilemma is within God’s way of turning the world upside down.

It is not enough simply to ask, what is written in the Bible and identify the commandments in order to help us make decisions on right and wrong.

We have to go on to as What do you read in the Bible?

And then you have to put the narratives alongside the commandments and see how people struggle with difficult decisions.

Jesus gives us a very real indication of what is at the heart of the Bible when he says to the expert in the law that he has given the right answer.

What do you read in the Bible – love God, love your neighbour.

That is the principle that Jesus offers us to help us through the moral dilemmas that we can face. How important it is that love should always be there.

But the reality this story tells us is that in some decision making on ethical issues there is going to be a massive struggle. We have to grapple with our faith, wrestle with our conscience at times … to arrive at God’s way for us.

The Bible is fundamental to that – but it needs us to reflect on the way we are going to read it, if we are to be true to Jesus and follow in his footsteps.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

Saul and David - the power of music to heal

AFter three and a half years as our Pastoral Assistant, Becky has moved on and today we were joined in our evening service by the Rev Robert Pestell of St Luke's and St Michael's to wish Becky well for the future and to pray God's blessing on all that lies ahead.

There is something about music that has caught the imagination in every generation … and yet remains an enigma.

Today’s a significant day as we say farewell to Becky – and got Becky to welcome on our behalf as her last task in church with us James and Sheila into church membership.

Thank you so much to James for sharing martin Luther’s views on music in the magazine – what an inspiration!

To all lovers of the liberal art of music Dr Martin Luther wishes grace and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

With all my heart I would extol the precious gift of God in music, but I scarcely know where to begin or end.

There is nothing on earth that has not its tone.

Even the air invisible sings when smitten with a staff.

Among the beasts and the birds song is still more marvelous.

David, himself a musician, testifies with amazement to the song of the birds.
What then shall I say of the voice of man, to which naught else may be compared?
The heathen philosophers have striven in vain to explain how the tongue of man can express the thoughts of the heart in speech and song, through laughter and lamentation.

Music is to be praised as only second to the Word of God, because by her are the emotions swayed.

Nothing on earth is more mighty to make the sad gay and the gay sad, to hearten the downcast, mellow the overweening, temper the exuberant, or mollify the vengeful.
The Holy Spirit himself pays tribute to music when he records that the evil spirit of Saul was exorcised as David played on his harp.

The fathers desired that music should always abide in the Church.
That is why there are so many songs and psalms.

This precious gift has been bestowed on men alone to remind them that they are created to praise and magnify the Lord.

But when natural music is sharpened and polished by art, then one begins to see with amazement the great wisdom of God in his wonderful work of music, where one voice takes a simple part and around it sing three, four or five other voices, leaping, springing round about, marvelously gracing the simple part, like a square dance in heaven with friendly bows, embracings, and hearty swinging of partners.

He who does not find this an inexpressible miracle of the Lord is not worthy of being considered a man.

Submitted by James Martin




Following in the footsteps of Martin Luther came Bach with the way he set so much of the Lutheran liturgy to music. How wonderful to sit in the newly re-furbished Lutheran Church in the heart of Dresden and hear a small orchestra and organ accompany the music with a prelude and fugue played as it was intended.

For Karl Barth it was Mozart who was the epitome of what is wonderful in music. Mozart had the capacity to balance the dark and the light, harmony and disharmony, and so touch the reality of the world of God’s creation. Often in his music light comes only out of darkness. Symphony 88 in G minor is such an example. It was significant for Barth that Mozart was composing at the time when the whole of Europe was profoundly troubled by the Lisbon earthquake. Many people called in question their faith, asking how God could allow such suffering. Theologians struggle to find words to express their response … and often failed. Karl Barth suggested that it was in the music of Mozart that a response was found where words failed.

That resonated for me thinking of the awfulness of the Japanese earthquake, hard on the heels of the Haiti and Chile earthquakes. On the night of the Japanese earthquake Daniel Harding, whose parents once belonged to Highbury, was In Tokyo conducting the Japanese Philharmonic orchestra in Mahler’s 6th symphony. The orchestra insited on going ahead with the concert. Fewer than a hundred people made it to the 2000 seater venue. Among them, an elderly man who had struggled to walk across the city. It was, commented Daniel Harding afterwards, a most moving experience. Not least because Mahler’s sixth is all about death and resurrection – the light only emerging from the dark. Composed out of the maelstrom of Mahler’s only personal anguish at the lost of a child.

I was intrigued in making comments about music in one service when Richard Sharpe lent me a book I must return by Norman Goodall, Big Bangs – The story of five discoveries that changed musical history. In that book Howard Goodall explains the way Western musicians four hundred years ago adapted nature and its sound as a result of which we westerners regard everything that is not tuned in a way we would call proper to be out of tune, dissonant. The music of the’rest of the world’ often sounds alien to our ears because it does not manipulate nature in the way western music does.

But for us it is a triumph.

Music has a power to resonate deep within in a special kind of way.

I know how much Becky has valued music that means a great deal to her.

Today is the release of music track and video that is going head to head with Lady Gaga’s single on Judas – Tara Matthews Just three days – sounds fascinating – I am hoping Becky might be able to track it down and download it! www.in3days.org
There is music to inspire, to challenge, to rouse us to action, to soothe us and calm us. Music to relax by. And each of us will have that special music that means so much to us.

It is something that goes back a long way.

Saul was deeply troubled.

And one was found who could soothe him.

An ancient tradition that associates David with music.

I guess middle eastern music, Hebrew music, Arabic music will give a taste of what it must have been like.

About a third of the |Psalms are attributed to David – some of them are linked to moments in his life that are precious.

The headings are much later than the Psalms – but interesting – they suggest the kind of music and the kind of musicians that would have sung them in the temple.

I feel they give us a glimpse of how that music worked – and how soothing came.

It’s interesting that the book of Psalms is in fact five books. Each book of Psalms concludes with a doxology. And you can have the feeling that there have been ordered in theh way they have been for a set reason.

I love collections of poetry that seek to do that. I have fallen in love with a trilogy of modern poetry volumes that do just that after hearing their editor, Neil Astley present a poetry reading at the Literature Festival.

Staying Alive, being Alive and Being Human are three anthologies that follow on from one another and take you three the various moods and seasons of life.

I love the sub-heading to the first anthology Real Poems for Unreal times. It was put together hard on the heels of 9/11 and caught the mood of anxiety that has been around in the last decade.

The poetry responds to that mood and captures a hope for life.

It is exactly as the poetry and if only we could access it the music of the psalms works too.

I want to dip into three of the psalms that are attributed to David and reflect on the way these may have been the kind of psalms, the kind of music that Saul found so soothing.

Psalm 22, Psalm 23 and Psalm 24.

Psalm 22 begins in the bleakest of ways, and touches on the awfulness of life at its worst.

Psalm 22
Plea for Deliverance from Suffering and Hostility
To the leader: according to The Deer of the Dawn. A Psalm of David.
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.

Yet you are holy,
enthroned on the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
they trusted, and you delivered them.
To you they cried, and were saved;
in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

But I am a worm, and not human;
scorned by others, and despised by the people.
All who see me mock at me;
they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
‘Commit your cause to the LORD; let him deliver—
let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
On you I was cast from my birth,
and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
Do not be far from me,
for trouble is near
and there is no one to help.

Many bulls encircle me,
strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
they open wide their mouths at me,
like a ravening and roaring lion.

I am poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
it is melted within my breast;
my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
you lay me in the dust of death.

For dogs are all around me;
a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;
I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
they divide my clothes among themselves,
and for my clothing they cast lots.

But you, O LORD, do not be far away!
O my help, come quickly to my aid!
Deliver my soul from the sword,
my life from the power of the dog!
Save me from the mouth of the lion!

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me.
I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the midst of the congregation I will praise you:
You who fear the LORD, praise him!
All you offspring of Jacob, glorify him;
stand in awe of him, all you offspring of Israel!
For he did not despise or abhor
the affliction of the afflicted;
he did not hide his face from me,
but heard when I cried to him.

From you comes my praise in the great congregation;
my vows I will pay before those who fear him.
The poor shall eat and be satisfied;
those who seek him shall praise the LORD.
May your hearts live for ever!

All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the LORD;
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before him.
For dominion belongs to the LORD,
and he rules over the nations.

To him, indeed, shall all who sleep in the earth bow down;
before him shall bow all who go down to the dust,
and I shall live for him.
Posterity will serve him;
future generations will be told about the Lord,
and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn,
saying that he has done it.


How wrong we are to imagine that the Psalms are full of praise.

This is a psalm that plumbs the depths. What kind of mood would this music have? It is dark, it is foreboding, there is a menace to it.

Jesus knew moments of anguish. We know at least three. AT the death of Lazarus. In Gethsemane. An on the cross. His cry of dereliction quotes the opening of this Psalm – was it that he valued its poetry, was it that he valued its music? Did it touch Jesus deep down?

Was this a song that David could have sung to Saul.

I feel sure it was.

Music that is real as it touches that unreality that we feel when overwhelmed by the world.

Sometimes it is good to find music that rages with us as we want to rage, even rage at God.

My God, my God why have you forsaken me?

As the music, the poetry and the prayer come alongside the one who is anguished.

Then the mood of the music changes.

There is a tranquillity and a calm that emerges.

And David moves on to the second of his sequence.

It is Psalm 23.

What wonderful words of calm!

Psalm 23 of David.

The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.

Yea, though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil:
for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me
in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.


From the rage, to the calm … and now comes the hope.

Things are in place once again.

There is that harmony that Martin Luther speaks of.

Things are put together again.

All is right with the world.

Of David. A Psalm.
The earth is the LORD’s and all that is in it,
the world, and those who live in it;
for he has founded it on the seas,
and established it on the rivers.

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
Those who have clean hands and pure hearts,
who do not lift up their souls to what is false,
and do not swear deceitfully.
They will receive blessing from the LORD,
and vindication from the God of their salvation.
Such is the company of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob.
Selah

Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory.

Is this the route the music and the poetry of David took Saul to help him emerge from the awfulness of the times he was in?

Is this the route taken by Jesus …

Poetry that touched his anguish.

A wonderful poem that he took to heart as the Good Shepherd.

And the confidence that comes – Father into your hands I commit my spirit.

I would make one observation that to me is so very important.

I am not so sure that you can always jump straight to Psalm 24 and its confidence.

I feel sure that at times it is good to find someone in music, poetry and prayer coming alongside you in your agonising about life and the world.

But the reality here is that you cannot get from the sheer awfulness of Psalm 22 to the Confidence of Psalm 24 without going through Psalm 23.

Here is a wonderful route for all of us to follow.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Saul, David and what it takes to be king

Note: these are rough notes of a sermon preached at Highbury on Sunday evening, 10th July.

So what were you up to 40 years ago?

I remember it well!

It was one of those summers for me with not a care in the world. School was over and done with. My exams were over bar the shouting. And because I only needed two E’s to get into University, I was not too concerned about the results that would come a month from now.

A holiday beckoned – one of the last as it turned out with my parents.

It was when I first did a serious study of these chapters in 1 Samuel. For my RE A Level I studied Genesis through to 1 Kings, and the first Three Gospels.

What I found fascinating was putting that study alongside the other two A Levels I was doing: History and English Literature.

We did three history papers. English History from 1815 to 1945, European History 1789 to 1945, and English Social History in the second half of the Nineteent Century.

What appealed to me about that History course was that it helped to give an understanding of how the world we were living in came to be as it was. That was the thrill of history for me.


The history I was studying I was studying from my perspective. The world of the 60’s and 70’s was the world of the cold war – the study of European history from 1789 to 1945 helped give an understanding of the roots of that.

The world of the 60’s and 70’s was the world of the end of Empire, the big controversies regarding immigration, the days of Apartheid in South Africa, the Rhodesia crisis, Idi Amin and Uganda was just round the corner. The study of British history from 1815 to 1945 helped me to understand the interconnectedness of all those countries that had made up the British Empire and the roots of so much that was going on in that world.

The 60’s and 70’s were the period of the see-saw between Ted Heath and Harold Wilson – the study of British History 1815 to 1945, and of English social history helped me have some understanding of that world of controversy over women’s rights, the rights of workers and employers.

The same range of history, I believe, should be taught today.

It helps understand why there are the mix of cultures we have in our cities today. It would help in the understanding of Iraq and Afghanistan, it would help us understand what the peace process is about in Northern Ireland.

I was studying the history of my nation in order to understand its problems now.

When I read the stories of Genesis through to 1 Kings 11 and as I later went on to study them through to the end of I Kings I see a very similar process going on.

I find myself standing with the people in exile at the end of II Kings – and thinking what it would be like for them to be studying at that moment the story of their nation.

It is by seeing how we got to where we are that we can better understand how we should seek to shape the world of today. That’s exactly how they felt.

And that is exactly what they were doing. They had rescued the law codes and also the state archives when Jerusalem had been sacked by the Babylonians. And now they pored over the story of their nation to make sense of the calamity that had befallen them.

Some of the principles they draw out of their history then help them to understand how to shape their future.

Those same principles seem to me to be remarkably relevant to our day and age as well. By looking at the overall sweep of the story things emerge that are fascinating.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in this moment of significant change for the people of Israel.

This is the moment when they enter into a five hundred year period of their history.

The way they made sense of what happened in that period, then helps us to understand what was so important for Jesus when he brought in the Kingdom of God.

For this was the period of the Kingdom of Israel.

And we have reached the moment of the anointing of the first King.

Samuel plays a major role. The last of the judges, and himself a prophetic voice who speaks truth to power, he is highly critical of the peope’s request for a king just like all the other nations around.

It is, Samuel believes, tantamount to a rejection of God.

But a king they shall have.

The insight of 9:1-2 is an insight that is timeless. And as those people looking back from a vantage point so much later told this story it goes a long way to explaining what went wrong.

There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish son of Abiel son of Zeror son of Becorath son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. He had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else.

Appearances, as we shall find out can deceive.

Even as Samuel present Saul to the people he reminds them they are rejecting God – in 10:17-19.

The story of Saul unfolds and very soon goes wrong. Then it is fascinating that these prophetic historians weave into the story of the first king the story of the one who will subsequently take his place.

It is fascinating and stands with any court intrigue of any period of history.


At first Saul does reasonably well leading the people, but then he succumbs to the temptation to build up his own wealth and to go against the ways of God.

He keeps back sacrficies that are to be made to God.

And that is the beginning of his downfall.

It is not long after that Samuel identifies David.

The finding of David could not be more different.

How often have we told that story to the children. But we miss the impact it makes if we don’t put it alongside Saul.

For David is very different.

The youngest son, he doesn’t even reckon in his father’s calculations.

Forgotten in the fields.

yet he is the one.

Here there is a turning upside down.

Not appearances, not power, not first born. Not the one who in the world’s eyes should be it.

But a reversal.

This is an observation that is a very significant insight into the nature of God’s way of ordering things in society, in his Kingdom.

When Jesus comes along many are looking for one who will be all powerful.

That’s exactly the perception James and John have even after they have been with Jesus for three years.

They want the positions of power.

What they are looking for is what the other nations have. Notice the way Jesus comments about the other nations –Mark 10:42ff.

This is what other nations want.

This is the kind of power that Saul craved.

And it’s not what Jesus offers.

His kingship is a servant kingship that gives of himself to set the people free.

A ransom for many – an image of setting the people free.

We look to Jesus the one who is servant.

But this is also a model for the kind of leadership we should look to.

It is the leadership that gives itself in the service of others – not in self-agrrandizement, power and wealth.

This gives us something to look for in Christ.

It gives us something to seek for ourselves.

But also it gives us something to seek in those who would shape our society.

Maybe we should be looking for a spirit of public service, not least when it comes to identifying who is ‘fit and proper’ to organise the country’s biggest broadcaster.

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 Fa├žade 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.