What Does it Mean to Be King
Sermon by Rev. Steven McClelland on 1 Samuel 8: 4 – 5, 7 – 22; Matthew 21: 1 – 5, 9 – 13. Focus on what it means to be the King. Check out Kelly Crandell & the choir following the sermon.
No other Sunday in the church year is like this one. It’s a schizophrenic Sunday. One minute we’re shouting “Hosanna” and the next we’re crying, “Crucify him!” How do you move from the one extreme to the other in such a short time?
And to fully understand this we need to look at 1 Samuel for our answer. Here’s the scene. The elders of Israel demanded a king so that they could be like all the other nations. So Samuel, following God’s direction consents to their wishes. It is emphatically stated, never the less, that the Israelites were rejecting not only Samuel but God. As the writer points out having a king is a double edged proposition. A king would provide Israel with a centralized military organization, able to more efficiently deal with threats to her national security. A king would provide certain benefits, but would also take certain things. Take is the key word in verses 11 through 18.
A standing army and defense has to be paid for. That would involve conscription and taxation, a necessary expense; but above and beyond this function a king would want pomp and ceremony and the best of things that money could buy. And a king would need a forced labor pool to provide food and support for the royal court and army. In essence the institution of slavery, which eventually led to the downfall of Israel at the end of Solomon’s reign. As the saying goes power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But the worst feature in Israel’s demand, was the desire to be like all the nations. In the name of security Israel was committing the sin of idolatry. The sin of wanting to be the same as everyone else, but Israel was not the same as everyone else. Israel had been called to place her future, fate and security in the hands of an invisible God. Thus making a visible witness to the power and might of an invisible and loving deity.
In contrast to this view and reality of kingship comes the view that Jesus held of kingship. Jesus had thrown away the traditional conceptions of security by leaving his father’s business as a carpenter to become a wandering itinerant preacher with nowhere to lay his head. The birds of the air may have nests, and the foxes may have holes, but not the Son of Man.
Jesus had thrown away the traditional conception of personal safety, by preaching a message that angered his theological contemporaries and challenged the supremacy of Pharisaic law by continually breaking it in the name of a higher law. The law of love in relation to self, neighbor and God.
And Jesus had shown himself utterly indifferent to the verdict of society and the expectation of his disciples. He had shown that his definition of kingship did not depend upon what others thought or said it should be. Thus, those who cheered him as king on Palm Sunday came to betray and crucify him on Friday.
For most of us the voice and expectations of our neighbors is louder than the voice of God. “What will people say?” is one of the first questions that most of us are in the habit of asking.
The church of Christ still does not fully appreciate what Jesus meant when he said that his kingship was not of this world.
But this is nothing knew we see it happening in our text from Matthew’s Gospel. You are in Jerusalem to celebrate the grandest, biggest holiday of the year – Passover. Passover, the time when God took a slave people out of bondage from the world’s leading super power – Egypt. Egypt who had th largest standing army in the world. An army that was utterly destroyed by God at the battle of the Red Sea.
You know the story. You’ve heard it your whole life. Your parents have heard it their whole life. In fact you don’t know of anyone in your entire family lineage that hasn’t heard the story.
So when you come to remember this mighty military victory and you’ve heard of this miracle worker who is coming to town who raises people from the dead, restores sight to the blind, and literally walks on water you can’t help but believe that God is about to do to Rome as he once did to Egypt.
So here you are along the parade route for the conquering hero that you’ve heard so much about. The vendors are passing out palm branches for you to wave as a sign of homage to the conquering king. Some of the folk are even laying down their coats, but you’ve just had your tunic dry cleaned so you decide to wave the palm instead, but it doesn’t matter, because the atmosphere is charged with anticipation and celebration. After all he just might be as big if not bigger than King David who you know slew the giant of all giants – Goliath.
So we might excuse the crowd for failing to notice one significant detail. This Messiah is coming into the city on a donkey not a stallion. Conquering kings rode on stallions. Kings who came in peace rode on donkey’s. This king is coming in peace. But he’s also sending a signal to you and to Rome. He’s saying that his kingdom is not of this world and he’s not going to do unto Rome as Rome has being doing unto you.
And that’s the rub isn’t it? He doesn’t fit our expectations. We want life to be fair and we want a little pay back for the way Rome has been treating us. They have us living near the poverty level because of the taxes they extort out of us. They’ve crucified or terrorized someone you know. They’ve desecrated the temple, the holiest shrine you have, more than once.
And then you realize that this guy isn’t going to do what you want him to do. He’s not going to meet all those expectations. So you get mad because everyone else around you is getting mad and you are more like them than this guy who’s telling you crazy things like: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.
And pretty soon everyone is saying – there must be something wrong even demonic about this guy. After all no one else talks and acts like him. How could everyone around me be wrong? It’s Jesus who is wrong. Jesus is to blame. He’s responsible for misleading me. He’s responsible for my disappointment and anger. Yeah he knew what he was doing. So let’s show him. Let’s kill him. I mean if we only get to ask for clemency for one person, let’s ask for clemency for Barabbas. At least he fought for us against Rome.
When all of the profound words have been said over holy week what’s it all about? Am I to identify with the crowd on Palm Sunday who one moment are cheering the arrival of Jesus as the long liberator come to set us free from what ever it is I want to be set free from only to be crying for his death when he fails to live up to my expectation?
Maybe the meaning of Palm Sunday and Holy Week really boils down being honest with ourselves. I know that there are times when I’m no different than the crowd that gathered to cheer and condemn him, because there are times when I condemn people who let me down.
I know that there are times when I run away from things that scare me, just like the disciples, because it’s more important to save my hide or be liked than to take a stand for what I believe to be true.
The older I get the less I know and the more I wonder. I’m less interested in intellectual insight and more interested in the new life and transformation that is promised to all who follow this man of mystery. I have more questions than answers, but this much is certain when I’m in the midst of an angry crowd that’s going in one direction. I’m going to head in the other. As Kurt Vonnegut said: “Trust a crowd to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time.” Amen