I preached this sermon nearly two years ago now, just before Advent 2016. In my mind – and in the mind of those listening – was the backdrop of the recent US presidential elections, and the lack of leadership in the world. It seems just as relevant now in both church and world, and I came across it looking for something else on the computer – so here it is:
That is what we remember today, according to the church calendar. But what exactly does that mean? Kingship is a hard concept to relate to. Our queen after all, fine moral example that she is, acts merely as a figurehead in today’s world.
And the Bible seem ambiguous as well – there’s all the stories and songs about David and the king to come. And then there are texts like this one in 1 Samuel where it doesn’t even seem like God wants them to have a king.
The key is found in those words of Jesus: “my kingdom is not of this world” – but what does that mean. Does it mean Jesus’ kingdom is a slightly vague non material reality with no real connection to this world?
The answer, as so often, is found in understanding the concept of king and kingdom in the OT, and so that’s why we come to this scene in 1 Samuel.
In understanding this, we will see what it means for Jesus’ kingdom not to be of this world. So here in 1 Samuel, Samuel is a prophet, but also a judge over Israel. That doesn’t mean someone with a funny wig who presides at trials.
It means someone who rules over Israel, who helps to deliver them from their enemies and to (hopefully) lead them in the ways God wants them to go.
The problem is in v1-3 and repeated in v4 (just to make sure we don’t miss it) – Samuel is old, and his sons don’t follow his ways. A crisis of leadership. The Israelite elders sum up the problem perfectly – but they jump to the wrong conclusion. And the root of their problem, according to v8 is that they were rejecting God and serving other gods.
By turning away from God’s way of kingship they demonstrated that they had forgotten who God really was, and from that wrong view of God came a wrong idea of how they should be led. In looking at this passage we will see that Israel made two key mistakes in their understanding of God’s kingship – firstly they wanted to be led like everyone else, and secondly they wanted someone other than God who would fight their battles and rescue them.
So first: Mistake one is wanting leadership like everyone else wants – instead we are to look to Jesus as the perfect example of leadership under God’s law, establishing God’s justice.
Look at 8:5, and again at 8:20.
Israel wanted a king so that they could be like all the other nations around – which is itself a tragedy, because Israel is supposed to demonstrate God’s kingdom by being distinctive.
Now, we need to be careful here. God, in Deuteronomy 17, makes provision for Israel to have a king – and he will even give them a king when they ask for one “like all the other nations”. But –
Deut 17:14 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,’ 15 be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses.
In other words: when Israel feels the desire for a king who is like the nations around then they need to stop and pick a king who is chosen by God – and who is not like the nations around. The nations around are pretty brutal: think of Pharaoh, or the Babylonian rulers in the Bible – think of Assyria and Sennacherib, these rulers were brutal tyrants, concerned above all else with their own reputation – and seeing themselves as divine beings with absolute rights over their populations.
By contrast listen to God’s instructions for Israel’s leader:
He must be from among your fellow Israelites. Do not place a foreigner over you, one who is not an Israelite. 16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’ 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.
18 When he takes the throne of his kingdom, he is to write for himself on a scroll a copy of this law, taken from that of the Levitical priests. 19 It is to be with him, and he is to read it all the days of his life so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God and follow carefully all the words of this law and these decrees 20 and not consider himself better than his fellow Israelites and turn from the law to the right or to the left. Then he and his descendants will reign a long time over his kingdom in Israel.
That is the sort of king Israel are to look for. It is radically different to the way leadership is done in the world – both then and now.
Going to Egypt for horses doesn’t sound bad – but it is all about relying on the wrong strength – it is the latest in military hardware, and going back to Egypt represents going back to the life they have been rescued from. Israel’s king is not to rely on military power.
Kings around have lots of wives – Israelite kings are not to be like that. Israel’s Kings should not give way to sensual pleasure or political machinations.
Kings around are wealthy – Israelite kings should not seek money for its own sake Israel, and Israel’s leaders are not to rely on military strength, or live for pleasure, or live for money.
The way they are to resist the the temptation of these three forces – money, sex and power – is to write the law down and memorise it in their hearts.
The way of the king God chooses will be to live out God’s law from the heart.
It’s a little different to the way the world does it isn’t it? Imagine actually doing it. For ancient Israel it would be the equivalent of our government cancelling Trident.
It would be like the US president elect giving away his millions and spending the next two months copying out large sections of the Bible.
For us today the people of God now are not a nation like ancient Israel – the church is the people of God, gathered with Jesus as their king. Yet in the church provision is made in the Bible for leaders under Jesus’ rule, and as God’s people today we should listen first to his Word for guidance on how to appoint and behave as leaders, rather than simply doing it like everyone else around us.
Leaders today, like Israelites kings of old are not to seek power over people on the world’s terms.
It is easy for some people to gather a following and manipulate crowds – but people’s faith becomes subtly dependent on the leader rather than on Christ – and that can happen in any church.
Leaders today don’t usually have the issue of having many wives – but the possibility of misusing power for sexual gain remains. Leaders are not to use their position to gain prestige and admiration from the opposite sex – we see the scandal that results when that happens too often.
Leaders today also are not to seek ministry for financial reward – which might sound unlikely in our cultural setting – but it can still be a comfortable life, and there are still those who deal dishonestly with finances in the church. Those who lead, should not seek to get rich, should not seek wealth for its own sake.
That will be different to the world around, and it may mean leaders don’t initially look as impressive. It may mean things take longer to get fixed – because people are being dealt with, rather than an image built up.
So when God’s people stop believing that God knows best about how leadership works they want a king like other nations – and in 1 Samuel that isn’t rejecting Samuel, the human leader, it is rejecting God.
And so God gives them what they want – as a parent lets a child face the consequences of a bad choice by giving them what they want. This is the most sobering reality about life with God. Sometimes the worst thing God can do for us is to give us what we ask for.
Samuel describes for Israel in v11-18
the way the king will do things – the word for “do things” here is the same as the word for justice in v3, and related to judge or lead elsewhere in this passage. You could say the judgements of the king…
It shows that a king like other nations will execute justice as kings of other nations do centred on the king, and on how he will take for himself from all that the people have – look in these verses at what the king takes, and how it is used, with the end result that the people are slaves.
Even the best of Israel’s kings often lived out 1 Samuel 8:11-18 – you could write these words over much of Israel’s subsequent history. But always God had a better plan – Isaiah 11 speaks of David’s descendent ruling with righteousness and justice.
And on this Sunday we remind ourselves of the truth that Jesus is the perfect king, whose rule is perfect justice.
Mistake number two was seeking a king who would rescue them and fight their battles – the remedy is to trust Jesus to do that.
V20 displays the heart of the problem. The people don’t trust God. They want a king who will be a god for them, like those of the nations. A King who will fight their battles. Yet God is the one who is supposed to fight their battles.
Over and over again in the Old Testament this is hammered home.
It is there at the Red Sea, it comes in God’s instructions for war: Deuteronomy 20:4 – which is followed by a long list of people who can be sent home because they don’t need to fight -people who have just got married, people who need to harvest their crops – even people who are afraid – because Israel doesn’t need a big army –
it is God who fights their battles.
Because God fights for Israel. Even when Israel goes wrong and asks for a King, and when that king – Saul messes up, God still fights for Israel – read on in 1 Samuel and you will see 2 characters who see this with vivid clarity – Jonathan and David, both win battles against impossible odds because they know that it is God who saves, not us.
That is how God’s kingdom works – and it finds its ultimate fulfilment as Jesus stands before Pilate. My kingdom is not of this world means that it does not come in the world’s ways, or on the world’s terms – it does not originate from this world – even though it is fundamentally concerned with and about putting this world to rights.
Jesus is God’s King – and yet he goes to the cross – and it is on that cross that Jesus fought the battle that counts.
On the cross he defeated sin.
On the cross he defeated shame.
On the cross he defeated death.
So we do not need to fear what people say. We do not need to fear what people can do. We do not need to fear what Satan whispers in our ear about our worst failings. Jesus has fought the battle.
Believe that. Because if we don’t we’ll seek leaders who will do it for us. We will seek leaders who defeat our sin by giving us a set of rules to keep. We’ll seek leaders who will cover our shame and deal with our fear of people by telling us how to make the best of life now rather than following the path of a crucified King.
If you are involved in any sort of leadership today don’t be the sort of leader who wants to fight battles for people. You don’t need to win any battles, or fix any problems – that is God’s job not yours.
And we all know that don’t we – so often the most important thing is to be heard, because we know that the problem doesn’t have a quick fix, but we need to know that somehow in the midst of everything Jesus is still in charge.
So – if you are a Christian leader your job is to point people to Jesus. He is the one who can fix us, he is the one who fights our battles.
And he does that by coming as one of us, so he knows what it is like to live in this messed up, fallen world, he knows what it is like to feel hurt and pain. He does that by living the perfect life we cannot live, and taking all our sin and shame on him at the cross – and then by rising to new life, blazing the trail to a world reborn, a world made new, a world we will one day be part of, if by God’s grace we keep on trusting his work and his fight for us.
And so as we move into the season of Advent, looking back to Jesus’ first coming, and forward to the day he will come again, we see that Jesus’ Kingship gives us a model for all leadership – self sacrificing, self giving service rather than grabbing for self and abusing others – so that as we lead we seek to follow that example, and as we look for others to lead us we look for those who show this Christ-like character.
And more than that we see that Jesus’ Kingship makes this leadership possible –
that by giving up
our desire to be in control,
our desire to be the one who fights the battles
and rescues others
and instead trusting Jesus to do those things
we are freed to lead by being signposts pointing to the King
who has won the battle
and rescued us,
and will one day restore all things.