The people wanted a king.
Sure, God had rescued them from slavery. Sure, he had done what they could never do for themselves, overcoming the mighty Egyptian army. Sure, he had provided his people will food that they never planted or worked for, and gave them water from wells that they never dug. Yes, he heard their complaints and listened to their fears and struggles, responding far more patiently and generously than they deserved. Sure, he led them victoriously in battle when they were overwhelmed and ill-equipped. Yes, he had set up a system of government for his holy nation, a society where there was provision made for the poor and the widow, for the sick, and even for the foreigner who reaches out for help.
Yes, yes, yes: God did all that.
But the people wanted a king.
You see, Israel was supposed to be different. All the other nations had kings – mighty men with impressive houses, strong armies, and large storehouses in which to put your trust. All the other nations had a face they could put on their battleshields and on their coins, they had images and statues they could look up to; works of stone or iron or bronze that gave the illusion of strength.
But Israel was supposed to be different. The message of God, going right back to that starry night when God invited a childless Abraham to trust in him, is at once radical and incredibly simple: ‘don’t trust in your own strength; don’t lean on your own understanding; don’t depend on your own plans, for you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. I will be your God, and you will be my people.’ The message of God is simple: trust in me. God says, ‘let me be your Father, and I’ll adopt you as my own; I’ll provide more than you even know that you need’.
God calls out through the ages: ‘If I say the fruit on the tree in the midst of the garden will hurt you: trust in me. If I say family is important and you are your brothers’ keeper: trust in me. If I say I have a plan to free you from whatever enslaves you: trust in me. If I say ‘go forward through the water, it will be ok’: trust in me. If I say I will not provide all you want, but I will provide what you need: trust in me. If I say ‘come to me as beloved children and open up about your fears, for I will strengthen and save you: trust in me”.
The message of God is unchanging through the ages. He calls out to all people.
…but the people wanted a king.
Part of God’s Plan
As we read in Samuel, Israel finally recognized that they wouldn’t put their trust in an Invisible God. Even after all that God had done, they knew their eyes and their hearts would continue to lead them astray. If they were going to be united as a holy nation, they told God’s prophet that they would need a human king.
Now, they already had a king – the king of kings, who went before them in cloud and fire and who led their armies into battle, seated above the ark of the covenant. But, in a moment of incredible self-awareness, Israel finally admits that they’re prone to wander, that they want a person in whom they can put their trust.
Now God, as we would expect, is disappointed: you’d think that providing heavenly bread in the desert and knocking down city walls with nothing more than a trumpet blast would be enough. Ideally, they would have faith enough to see the Invisible God leading Israel.
But even when God is disappointed, He’s never surprised.
You see, Israel has forgotten, but we know a man was part of the plan from the beginning.
Right from that day of disobedience in the garden, what was the promise of God when he cursed that lying serpent? The son of man will (do what?) crush the serpent’s head.
Israel had forgotten. They thought a human leader was their idea. But from the very start of humanity’s troubles, God promised that it would be the son of man who would free them from the devil’s lies.
That’s why, from the very foundation of the world, God had planned for his Son to take human flesh, to live and die as one of us, to be for us the image of the Invisible God, to be the king who is high and lifted up as he does what we could never do for ourselves, as the king who reigns from a tree, a king who offers himself as sacrifice for the freedom of his people, and in so doing destroys the selfish, self-centred, self-trusting power of the grave, if only we’re found to be trusting in him rather than clinging to our own false sense of power as it leads us to destruction.
Israel already had a king.
The problem was never the lack of a king… it was a lack of faith.
They wanted someone to defend them in battle.
They wanted someone to provide what they needed.
They wanted someone to hear their complaints when they were distressed.
They wanted someone to guide and direct their lives together.
They already had a king – but they couldn’t bring themselves to trust in him.
They couldn’t bring themselves to trust in one so radical that he would call a childless nomad to be the patriarch of his people; that he would call slaves to be a holy nation; that he would call a man with a speech impediment to be his spokesperson; that he would call a prostitute to protect his holy ones; that he would call – again and again – the lowliest member of the weakest tribe to be his chosen leader; that he would cast off those who thought they were mighty and of noble birth, only to welcome in strangers and foreigners who came in faith. They couldn’t bring themselves to serve the God who says ‘I will drive out your enemies, but don’t dare collect their plunder’; the God who says ‘I’ll fight your battles, but send your soldiers home, and take trumpets, not swords, because you can’t trust in yourselves and call it trusting in me.
You can’t trust in yourselves and call it trusting in me.
The Church and the Reign of Christ
Israel wanted a human king. Someone they could rally around. Someone they could complain about when things weren’t going the way they wanted. Someone they could look to and say “that’s his job”.
But, as we know, God’s people would go to the grave still refusing to accept that they – all of them – are a royal priesthood; that all of them, together, are the royal family of God, imbued with the responsibility to accept the work they’ve been given to do.
Instead, they wanted a king to look to. …And how often does the Church do the same?
Each of us are called to be messengers of that Kingdom. Each of us are equipped and given the words to simply and clearly reach out to our friends and family and invite them into the kingdom of God; but how often would we rather grumble, and wish we had some great leader to rally around, as our grumbling – whether it’s over bake sales or which pew we sit in – only sends people away.
My friends: the Lord is King. He has provided all that we need – I mean, seriously, it’s a pandemic, and we have the highest offering in years, and have a surplus in our budget even in the midst of a renovation that we only did one fundraiser for! God heals – we’ve seen lives changed through Celebrate Recovery and Grief Share. God opens our eyes when we ask him – we’ve seen incredible learning and growth; we’ve even seen minds blown as people read the scriptures with an understanding that they’ve never had before. And we’ve known the comfort of God, as God proves time and time again that he is gentle and kind when we stop pretending and finally pour out our hearts to a loving Father who runs out to embrace us.
The people wanted a king… but God had given them Himself.
The people wanted an army to lead the way… but God said “you are my people; follow where I lead”
The people want a sure sign of God’s presence… but the God who chooses the weak and humble said “I have put my word on your lips – I’ll go with you”.
The world looks for kings to rally behind. But Israel was to be different – a nation in whom God’s power is shown in spite of their weakness.
The message of God, going right back to that starry night when God invited Abraham to trust in him, is at once radical and incredibly simple: ‘don’t trust in your own strength; don’t lean on your own understanding; don’t depend on your own plans, for you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. But, I will be your God, and you will be my people.’
God says, I will be your king, but better still, I will adopt you as my own. I will put my Son on the throne, and you will be my royal family, with all the rights and responsibilities that go with that.
The one true king is known as the good shepherd, who leaves his throne to get his hands dirty with wayward sheep; the one true king fulfils the promise made in the garden, crushing that serpent’s head; the one true king comes among us as one who serves, offering himself as a sacrifice to redeem us – to buy us back – from whatever we’ve sold ourselves to.
But we can’t trust in ourselves and call it trusting in him.
May God give us the faith to see God at work in our lives, to accept the work he’s given us to do, and to put our trust in him, now and forevermore. Amen.