Sermon for Second Sunday after Pentecost
Readings: 1 Samuel 8:4–11, 16–20; 2 Corinthians 4:13–5:1 & Mark 3:20–35
Life in the world in 2021 is very different to life in the 11th century BCE, when Saul was anointed the first King of Israel by the prophet Samuel, and it’s also very different to life in the time of Jesus in the 1st century CE.
Obvious differences include the population of the world today (estimated to be 7.8 billion people, compared with perhaps 50 to 100 million in the time of Saul and Samuel), technology, and of course COVID-19. However, I wonder if there isn’t at least one significant similarity, which is the increasingly secular nature of the world today, particularly in Western countries such as Australia? When I use the term secular, I am referring to the absence (or lack) of any connection with religious or spiritual matters.
Much has been made in recent decades of the decline in church attendances, and the diminished relevance of the Church (and God) in the lives of people in the 21st century CE. I would like to suggest however, that this is perhaps not really that different from the situation in Ancient Israel in the 11th century BCE. Why do I say that, you may ask.
Well, let’s look at today’s Old Testament reading, from the first book of the prophet Samuel, which describes the situation in Israel leading up to the anointing of Saul as the first king. From the time that Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt, until the time of the prophet Samuel, Israel had essentially been a loose affiliation of twelve tribes, which had been variously led or guided by influential figures such as Moses, Joshua, Deborah, Samson, Gideon and Samuel. The one thing that each of these individuals had in common, was that they had been called by God to lead the people.
However by the time the prophet Samuel had become an old man, the people of Israel worried that there was nobody fit to replace Samuel, and so they asked him to appoint a king for them. Israel was constantly under threat of attack from other nations and had seen the advantages of having a centralised government to coordinate defence efforts, and a permanent leader around whom they could rally. It appears the people were happier to put their trust in a human king, rather than to trust in God’s kingship.
Trusting in God can be difficult and, some might even argue, impractical. For example, with all of the political and military tensions in the world at present, how many of us think it would be a good idea for Australia to put aside its arms and military alliances, and trust that God will protect us in the event of any hostile foreign intervention?
We needn’t go as far as the possibility of armed conflict to see examples of where people today no longer put their trust in God. One of the biggest challenges facing religion, and particularly Christianity, in Western countries such as Australia today, is people’s perceived need for God. I think it’s fair to say that the majority of people in Australia today live a reasonably comfortable life, and therefore many may not see any need for God in their life. They have family, friends, a home, a car (or several cars), other material possessions, and a nice lifestyle. Why do they need to trust in God? What can God do for them? What does it actually mean to trust in God?
If we return to the situation of the people of Israel wanting their own king, we are reminded of the saying “be careful what you wish for”. Samuel had warned the people of Israel of the danger of excesses, privileges, and abuses of power which are inherent when you bestow such power upon any individual. History is littered with examples of leaders whose desire for glory, wealth and power caused untold ruin and hardship for their people. The same is still true today, not only in terms of political leaders but also business leaders. We need look no further than names such as Alan Bond, Christopher Skase and John Elliott.
In the end, the monarchy failed to bring long-lasting stability to the nation of Israel. After the glory days of David and Solomon, the monarchy began to disintegrate until the nation was split in two parts. Both Israel and Judah eventually would fall to foreign powers. The Israelites were scattered all over the world, and for centuries after, with brief respites, Israel was ruled by foreign kings.
Even so, many of the exiled people still pinned their hopes on a king, someone from the line of David who would unite the people, overthrow foreign rulers, restore the land, and reestablish justice and righteousness. In the first century, many Jews believed they had found this messiah in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and followers of Jesus today still profess his kingship. But Jesus did not bring an end to worldly injustice; Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world.
The gospel reading for the last week of Easter, which was from the gospel of John, spoke of this when Jesus prayed to God on behalf of his disciples saying, “They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world.”
H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic book Christ and Culture explores the relationship between church and society, in particular the dilemma that the church is called to be in but not of the world. To what degree then should Christians settle in and conform to society, and to what extent should we stand apart and critique it? How do we as individuals, balance these conflicting roles?