Just over three thousand years ago a group of Israelite Elders approached their aging spiritual leader Samuel and demanded that he appoint a king over them.
The temptation for us in hearing this archaic story is to simply say ‘so what?’
Yet at the heart of the story of this confrontation – this demand for a king – is a lesson for the church at this the beginning of the 21st century.
I have been following a theme over the past 2 weeks focused on the purpose and meaning of the church and today I want us to think about showing others Jesus by the way that we live.
At the heart of how any of us lives are the stories that we have been told, and that we have taken on board as our own and for me the question which confronts us is, which stories are we actually listening to.
A few years ago I read a book by the Australian sociologist John Carroll called “The Western Dreaming”, whose subtitle is more to my point “the western world is dying for want of a story”.
Carroll’s basic premise is that the Enlightenment, dominated by humanist philosophy, had caused the Western World to lose its way because it lost its centre, which was in his estimation the story of Jesus.
Now Carroll would not necessarily describe himself as a Christian, more likely an agnostic, yet his book opens with a retelling of the walk to Emmaus.
In this sociologist we hear a critique of the Western World and its descent into the mire and clamour of post modernism in which everyone’s story is valid and no one’s voice has priority – there is no bigger story only many, many stories.
This in itself is the grand story, the meta-narrative if you will, of the West.
It is a story which gets even more complex in the highly globalized environment in which we find ourselves living.
I am currently reading Zygmunt Bauman’s book “Does Ethics have a chance in a world of consumers”, a book in which Bauman also critiques the loss of any centre for our existence, the loss of a grand narrative in favour of the rights of the individual and “my story” and “my story” and “my story”.
It is fascinating that in his analysis of this complex world Bauman, a Polish sociologist, begins his first chapter by discussing the precept to love thy neighbour as thyself and goes on to quote the second century lawyer and theologian Tertullian.
Both Bauman and Carroll appeal to the Christian corpus to critique the Western World, they give credence and value to our story, even when so many Christians are failing to.
If we are to ask how we are to live showing the good news of Jesus then we must remember the grand narrative, the story in which we are embedded, as the story shapes and teaches us.
By now you may be asking the question, ‘what, if anything, does all this have to do with that bedraggled group of elders hanging around demanding a king over 3000 years ago?’
When the elders come to Samuel demanding a king they do so because they want to be like other nations. I remember the first time I read this passage this phrase stood out like a sore thumb they wanted to be like other nations.
I could not help but think of Moses sharing the commandments “thou shalt not covet”. The elders were coveting the system of government, the way of thinking, the life of other nations. What God had given them in the judges and the elders and the priests was in their not so humble opinion ‘not good enough’.
Instead of living differently they wanted to blend in they wanted to be culturally relevant.
God’s response when Samuel approaches God with the request is clear, this act was a rejection of God and if the people were to persist and pursue this course of action the consequences would not be happy ones:
• 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.
• And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Despite this quite direct and dire warning the argument of the people with God goes on until finally we hear a few chapters later that Saul is made their king and everyone rejoices.
Now I do not intend to explore all of the consequences of this decision today, that is a far bigger enterprise, but I do want to drag us into the present and make comment about the kings which we would enthrone.
You see, what the elders did was become enmeshed in what the world around them was up to and they began to believe that there were better alternatives than what God had offered them in how they were to live and behave.
In our day, we as the church need to hear again the warning contained within the story if we wish to be faithful in our witness to Jesus Christ.
This is not because we literally want to enthrone kings but because in our quest for cultural relevance we have been listening to the story of the world, the story of the enlightenment, and it more than anything appears to have been reshaping who we are.
I mentioned before the work of John Carroll and of Zygmunt Bauman, two sociologists from opposite ends of the world, but I could have well mentioned many other authors and researchers who are critiquing the spirit of individualism and consumerism which dominates our age.
This spirit is reflected in behaviour of societies.
• Australia, amongst other western countries, has becomes increasingly litigious; people demanding their rights and blaming others for things which once would simply have been deemed sad accidents.
• Our politics has become increasingly focused on the individuals. Politicians seeking to respond to various people and groups who seek to exert their rights over others. Whilst at the same time being targeted for their imperfections. Our political scene, whilst still nowhere near as bad as some places in the world, is becoming dominated by vitriol and debasement of individuals.
• Personal happiness and success is associated with what I consumer and what I own.
• We are self made people. We rely on self esteem and self image and self love to define us.
• Our world teaches us that my personal story is the most important story and others are simply there as stepping stones or obstacles to the achievement of my self identity.
And in the church as we seek to be culturally relevant the great danger is that we like the Israelites three thousand years ago are simply enthroning a new king, a new political and philosophical view which is that it is all about me.
Over the last century this has been reflected in growing emphasis in the idea of a personal relationship with Jesus, which whilst it may exist, is not the centre. It has been reflected in the constancy of people treating their faith through the lens of what meets my needs. It is heard in the pietistic singing which has transitioned from songs of the community to self expressions before God where the dominant subject within the songs of our faith is not God, Father, Son or Spirit but me, mine, my, I and how I relate to and love this God.
We have reversed the trajectory of God’s movement in Christ towards us into our movement towards God. And this is all happening subtly, not deliberately, and maybe not even insidiously but accidentally, incrementally as we have sought be to be relevant to the world, which always runs the danger of becoming irrelevant to God.
So, where does this leave us if we are to live that grand narrative the story of our faith as we should?
The first stop is realisation, it is honesty and it is confession.
When God warned the Israelites of the consequences of their actions God declared that, “you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
Is not the cry of Jesus on the cross the culmination of this story “My God, my God why have you forsaken me”.
The abject impossibility of God’s desertion of Jesus on the cross speaks volumes to us in this moment. Jesus, who is God among us, experiences the loss of the relationship caused in every moment we enthrone other kings in our lives – be they Saul or be they ourselves.
Jesus travels this lonely road which we have chosen, a road that leads away from God and toward death, in order that we might be brought with him through that dark place and back into a shared hope in God’s future. The resurrection is the affirmation that despite God’s word that the Lord will not answer you on that day, there is a new day dawning.
This is the essential story which shapes how we live a story that reminds us that God’s way, not the world’s way, will prevail. The temptations we have to be relevant and to fit in are but an illusion for God’s story is bigger than the ones that we buy in to.
This is demonstrated simply yet poignantly in that scene we heard from Mark’s gospel:
31Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
God’s vision of who we are is revolutionary not bound by our biological ties but made brothers and sisters in Christ, a vision of a common humanity. We are bound by those of our acts which are of God’s will; not by a confession of belief but by grace and by behaviours which reflect God’s will.
Ironically, the humanist catch cry of the French revolution was to appeal to the French people amidst the terror and suspicion that they were fraternite “brotherhood”. Even as they sought to depart from the religion which was their base unwittingly they recalled people to Jesus teaching, our bonds are beyond biology because we are God’s creation, God’s people together.
If we are to live showing Jesus to others, then maybe the starting point has to be hearing again the story of grace, treating seriously the words of scripture, and hearing prophets both within and beyond what we might see as the Christian community critiquing the spirit of our age.
The good news is that Jesus calls us brothers, sisters, mother, father, so let us celebrate our inclusion in God’s family and in God’s way by living differently as if we too are brothers and sisters with one another!