Barking Up the Right Tree

June 7, 2015

We have a very interesting situation brewing in our Old Testament reading for today. Samuel is a prophet who as been the Lord’s mouthpiece for the Israelites. But, the people are restless and unsatisfied with the Lord’s leadership through the His prophet. They say to Samuel, “You are old and your sons do not follow in your ways; appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like other nations.” We want to be like the cool kids. We want a King like everybody else.

This grumbling upsets Samuel so he tells the Lord about it. The Lord instructs Samuel to warn the Israelites about the cost of a King’s leadership. Do they really know what they are getting themselves into?

The King will take your sons away from you to operate his luxurious chariots and work his vineyards to produce his vintage wine. He will take your daughters away from you to cook and serve his feasts. He will confiscate the best part of your property as his own. And he will pay for his lavish lifestyle by taxing your hard earned cash. He’ll even take away your animals for his own use. Is this what you really want? The answer is yes. The people want a divinely appointed political leader to carry out their religious laws and fight their holy wars.

Fast-forward to our current world climate and we see some troubling examples of the marriage of religious and political power. ISIS is worrisome, to say the least. While the Islamic State isn’t the only expression of Islam’s relationship with political power, it is one consistent with its founding and its founder.

The Reverend David Marshall, a Duke Divinity School professor and an Islamic Scholar, says, “that Muhammad is both prophet and statesman. At first, at Mecca, he was simply a preacher, dependent only on the power of the word; but in the final phase of his life, at Medina, he founded the first Islamic state and presided over it as a statesman, legislator and military commander. Within Muhammad’s lifetime the early Muslim community achieved political power and so was able to implement its understanding of God’s will for human society.  Muhammad was his own Constantine.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that Islam inevitably leads to ISIS or that every Muslim endorses Sharia Law.  It just means that Muhammad expected to use political power as a means to a religious end. (FYI, Dr. Marshall will be coming to Christ Church in the fall for a lecture on this very topic.)

One of the distinctive marks of Christianity is the fact that it began at a great distance from any kind of political power.  In fact, the closest it got were its martyrs staring down the wrong end of the political barrel, which took the form of a lion’s jaw. St. Paul urges believers to be obedient with whatever form of government that ruled over them, just so they could live their lives in peace. Co-opting power for the sake of the faith was never an option, or even something that was desirable. 300 years came and went before Constantine legitimized Christianity as a state religion.

Many people would argue that Constantine’s edict wasn’t an entirely positive development for the faith or it’s believers. A too cozy relationship between political power and religious rule is deeply problematic.  A local man named Thomas Jefferson had some thoughts along these lines. You probably remember that he chose “author of Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom” as one of his accomplishments to be written on his gravestone, along with author of the Declaration of Independence and Father of UVA.

I would even say that any attempt to propagate the gospel through powerful people or powerful structures has strayed from the very core of the man who was and is the embodiment of the gospel. Jesus of Nazareth was born in a barn. He chose fishermen to be his followers and shady-types to be his friends. He had no money and less clout. He was deeply disinterested in political fanfare, and outright rejected an offer by the devil and the Israelites to rule the world with right-handed power.

Any attempt to build the Kingdom of God in cahoots with the kingdoms of this world is barking up the wrong tree. That’s because it’s not the tree that the Son of God was nailed on between two thieves with nobody watching but his mother, an ex-hooker and a teenager.

Before this sermon strays any more deeply and dangerously into political territory, let us return to the text from 1 Samuel. The deeper problem with the Give Us A King demand is that the request for a King is an outright rejection of God’s immediate and direct leadership of His people.

It is much like the younger son’s demand for his father’s inheritance in Jesus’ famous parable of the 2 sons. Give me my inheritance now and I’m out of here. I don’t want anything to do with you, Old Man. The Lord says as much in our passage today. “They have rejected me from being King over them.”  They are rejecting God flat out.

Now we have not only returned to the text, but we have returned to our very selves. For like the Israelites, we have all rejected God flat out. This is what it means to be a sinner. This is why another prophet says that Jesus was “despised and rejected among men.” This is why the gospel writer says, “He came to His own people and even they rejected Him.”

Give Us A King is another way of saying that we want a God who shapes up along the lines of our own projection. As the old saying goes, God created us in His image, and then we returned the favor. If this God starts acting strange, if this God favors weakness, if this God starts talking about forgiving our enemies and giving up our rights, if this God won’t even defend Himself when falsely accused, then we have no use for Him.

When Jesus healed the demoniac and sent the legion of spirits into the pigs who thundered down the hill to be drowned in the sea, did the people rejoice at the poor man’s healing? No, they counted up their pork loss in economic terms and said with a single loud voice, “Go Away, Jesus!” We don’t want you – give us a King. We want power and efficiency and accomplishment and prosperity, and God better deliver if He knows what’s good for Him. Just give us what we want, and nobody gets hurt.

Well, you know how the story goes. We rejected God and somebody did get hurt. This, by the way, is utterly incomprehensible to an Islamic understanding of God. God must work through victory. But, if the cross shows us anything, it shows us that God works by defeat. His Kingship is not of this world, the world of might and power. As one prophet says, “it is not by might that a man shall prevail.”

We may say “Go Away Jesus!”, but Jesus has heard that before and just isn’t buying it. We are like the toddler telling his mom to go away, or like the angry child screaming, “I hate you” in a moment of rage.  The mom will not go away. “Behold, I stand a the door and knock.” She waits outside the door until the anger melts away. She opens the door, comes in and wraps her arms around her hurting child.

In the same way, as one preacher says, “isn’t it strange–and marvelous–that somehow the more we plead with (God) to go away, the more surely he moves in upon us? The more we try to get rid of him, the more tightly he closes in with majestic constancy? We tried to get rid of him once and for all by nailing him to a cross. But that only means we can never get rid of him or be finished with him. We sealed him in a tomb, but the stone was rolled away and he came back to say, “Shalom.” Peace be unto you.”

In the cross of Christ, we are always barking up the right tree.


Bible References

  • 1 Samuel 8:6 - 6