St. John's Uniting Church Wahroonga

Kingdom?

2 Samuel 7:1-17 | Luke 1:30-33
[My apologies that due to a technical error, there is no audio recording this week]

The Bible has a very ambiguous attitude to the emergence of the kingdom of Israel. When the people first start asking for a king, the prophet Samuel warns them – if you have a king, he will lead you into wars, he will take your sons and fight for him. And why would you need a king to rule you? You have your God, you have the Torah to show you how to live. What will a king bring you except grief?

But the people wanted a king “like all the other nations”. They had looked at the nations around them, those with whom they had fought and those they feared, and seen powerful leaders bringing security and strength, and they wanted to be like that. For years God had looked after them, raised up leaders when they needed them, but it wasn’t enough. Relying on God to provide for them when there was a need was scary; it wasn’t like having a strong figure, a powerful centre, something you could rely on.
All the other nations around them had kings that they could look to; in what seemed like dangerous, frightening times, the people wanted a powerful person to rule them and keep them safe, and if that person might, for his own glory, lead them to unnecessary war, reduce their freedoms in the name of national security, crush internal dissent and criticism, build great monuments to advance their own glory, well that was all a price worth paying.

How little times – or rather, people – have changed.

They asked for a king because all the other nations had them. And Samuel’s rebuke: you were not called by God to be like everyone else. You were called to be different. You were called to bring blessing to all the nations, to stand out as a beacon of hope and an example of what might be, what could be.

And God speaks to Samuel and says “they have not rejected you, their prophet; they have rejected me, their God. But I will give them what they ask.”

And so they get Saul. Who pretty clearly illustrates the whole problem. He’s a great choice of leader, for a while; he unites the people, and leads them to military victory. But power corrupts. Jealousy, paranoia, deteriorating mental health tear him down, bit by bit, proving every word of Samuel’s warning about what it can mean to have a powerful leader. In fact, one might even wonder if God – or Samuel – chose Saul to make a point.

But of course, once power has been centralised, it has a strong tendency to stay that way; the fall of Saul sees the rise of David. David, the great king, the shepherd, the poet, the man after God’s own heart. Also the adulterer, abuser of power, and murderer, but we’ll let that go for now.

And in today’s reading, David declares his intention to build a great Temple for God.

“I live in a house of cedar,” he says; his political power is absolute, and for the time being, at least, the nation is at peace. He has built himself a palace to reflect his success, his power, a symbol of his rule.

“But the ark of God is in a tent.” For all David’s faults, he has this sense that it was wrong for God to have a less inspiring, dramatic, powerful symbolic building than he himself had. And the prophet Nathan’s first reaction is to agree. Build God a Temple.

It seems right, doesn’t it? That God should have a place, a symbol, a house, at least as glorious as that of the King.

But God, it turns out, wasn’t interested, and speaks to Nathan. “I haven’t ever lived in a house, and I’ve never asked for one. I have moved around with the people, in a tent like theirs. Have I ever given any indication that my people needed to build a house for me?”

Just like when the people saw that the nations around them had kings, and said “how come we don’t have one”, David has made the fundamental error of looking at the nations around, seeing things that they are doing, that they have achieved, and seeking to emulate them. “All the Gods of the other nations have great houses, temples, statues; isn’t our God bigger and more important than theirs?” he asks.

And God’s rebuke is the same. “That’s not how it works, not how it is supposed to work.”

Look at how God’s words to Nathan repeat the same idea, over and again: “I have been with you … I will make you great … I will appoint a place for my people … I will build a house for you”

We don’t build houses for God.

And I don’t just mean that in the trivial sense that God doesn’t need a place to live. We have a tendency, sometimes, to look down on the primitive faith of the people of David’s day, to laugh at the idea that they thought God lived in physical place. But neither David, nor Solomon, who would finally build the Temple, believed that God needed a roof over God’s head; Solomon made that quite clear in the prayer of dedication: “Lord you do not live in houses made by human hands”. They knew that a Temple was not the true home of God, but a symbol. They wanted no more than those who set out to build the great cathedrals; to create a place that reflected the glory of God. Places which we need, not places that God needs.

And just as with the demand for a king, God’s response seems more one of sadness than anything else; as if God is shaking God’s head and saying “will you never get it? It’s not about having a king and power and being like the other nations (but better). It’s not about building me big houses, temples, great symbols of how mighty I am.”

“I will build a house for you. I will establish a kingdom for you. And the house I build, and the Kingdom I establish, will last for ever.”

I’m guessing that when the Solomon prayed at the dedication of the Temple, he, and all the people, believed that God’s promise had been fulfilled: that this house, this kingdom, were the ones that God had promised.

But of course it was not to be. The prophecy of Nathan, the promise of an never-failing house, an eternal kingdom, was yet to come.

But it wouldn’t be a kingdom of political and social power.

And it wouldn’t be a house of great stones, awe-inspiring and mighty.

And most people wouldn’t even recognise it for what it was.

Because people get so caught up in structures and buildings, place so much value on physical artefacts and political systems as evidence of our influence, our power, our agency, that we too often don’t know the kingdom when we see it.

The kingdom which came in the life of Jesus didn’t make sense to a people who understood kingdom in those terms. Those who judge the work of God according to the measures of humanity will never see it.

The people of God were already living as the people of God before they demanded a king.

They were already worshipping the one true God before Solomon built them a Temple.

The Kingdom of God is not made visible by buildings, but by lives.

The Kingdom of God is not advanced by the wielding of influence by the powerful, but by the sacrificial love of ordinary.

God does not need our power, God does not need our buildings. If the kingdom of God is to be advance, if the love and peace, justice and reconciliation, forgiveness and hope are to be real in the lives of all people in God’s world, then what God needs is for us to make them real in our lives.

Don’t find a king to follow – live like a citizen of God’s realm.

Don’t build a temple – build a faithful life.

For God’s dwelling place is not a house built by human hands.

God’s dwelling place is human lives.

I’d like to finish with a poem, written by Thom Shuman

me –
a dwelling place for God?
my roof
leaks
with wayward thoughts . . .
my windows
look out on a world
lusting for more
and caring for less;
if any dare peek in,
they will see the same hungers . . .
my furnace
is filled
with the ashes
of dusty dreams
and hapless hopes . . .
my foundation
cracks
under the weight of loneliness,
ravaged
by the storms of sadness.
i would build you
a house,
my God;
rebuild me
instead.
Amen

Hannah and Mary

Listen!
1 Samuel 2:1-10 | Luke 1:46-55
It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a fan of the Magnificat, Mary’s prophecy setting the scene, in the gospel of Luke, for the social and religious upheaval that would begin in the life of her son, Jesus.

But Mary is far from the only woman in the Jewish tradition to have spoken words of this nature. Today, we heard a much, much older song, one which is far less well known, but every bit as powerful as Mary’s words. Indeed, you might even imagine that Mary had Hannah’s song in her mind as she prayed.

Hannah’s song comes at a time of relative stability in the life of the people of Israel. They have entered – invaded – the land, and established themselves as a loose alliance of tribes sharing a common identity through their history (especially the shared story of captivity in Egypt and freedom through the Exodus), and their monotheistic dedication to the one true God.

There was no formal leadership; the priests of Shiloh, Eli and his sons, were the nearest thing there was to a centralised priesthood, for though there was no temple, this was where Ark of the Covenant, the box holding the stones on which were carved the ten commandments, was kept. This was where people came, once a year, to fulfil their religious calling, to offer sacrifices to God, to give thanks, to ask for favour, to seek guidance.

When the people needed leadership, or disputes needed to be resolved, then there were the judges, men and women raised up by God as military leaders or to declare God’s judgement to settle the dispute.

And, as seems a universal feature of human society, there were the rich, and the poor. Those who by the fortune of birth or geography had found themselves with rich land, large herds, wealth to hire workers and further expand their influence; and those who scraped out a living or hired themselves out for a living wage.

But there was also (as also seems almost universal) there was also corruption. And particularly, in the context of our story, corruption within the system of religious worship to which the people looked. Eli’s sons, we read later in the chapter, were taking advantage of the advanced age of their father to abuse their positions as sons of the priest; to take the sacrifices brought to God for themselves, by threat or by force; to take advantage of the women who served in the house and those who came to pray (because you can do that sort of thing when you’re a powerful man), to take advantage of the piety of the faithful to live lives of relative luxury and ease, fearing neither God nor man.
And Hannah, the beloved but barren wife, came and sought of God her greatest desire – a child. And God granted her request.

But in our reading today she has come to give Samuel up. She had made this promise to God – grant me a child and I will dedicate him to you. As her husband had children by his other wife it may have been a move of wisdom – not for her family the sibling rivalry that beset the twelve sons (by four women) of Jacob.

Samuel will be a child of the house of the Lord, and will grow as the godly and honourable son that Eli never had.

A promised child. A corrupt religious system. A faithful woman of no particular importance.

And a son who would turn the system upside down.

In Hannah’s prophesy, all the marks of power and importance are inverted

The bows of the mighty are broken,
but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
but she who has many children is forlorn.

not so different from Mary’s words

He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

The promise of God, given through these two women of faith, is that things can change, things can be changed. God can change things. The status quo, the corruption of religion, the abuse by the powerful of the powerless, can be changed.

And it was. For Samuel would grow up speaking God’s words, and one of very first acts would be to declare the corruption of the sons of Eli, and pronounce God’s judgement on them. To cleanse the Temple, one might even say; a house of prayer which had become a den of robbers.

God’s promise is to restore justice, to remove the one who have abused their power, to raise up those who have been oppressed. And it happened, in the life of Samuel, in the life of Jesus.

But then what happens next?

By the of Samuel’s long life the people have rejected him; they still honour him in word, but insist that there must be a king; and so they get Saul, and then David, neither of who were exactly paragons of justice and virtue – the people might have looked back the kingdom of David as a glorious time, but not so much if you were Uriah or Bathsheba. And even that was a relative high point; for in the generations after Solomon the cycle of conflict, the struggle for power and the abuse thereof, the corruption of religion to those political ends, would all start again. The voices of the faithful women and men of God would be silenced by the voices of men of power.

And, sadly, the same has all too often been true of the movement of Jesus, the Church, the kingdom of God. The voices of the faithful, of those who seek justice, reconciliation, love of enemy, peace, all that hippy stuff, become replaced by the megaphone of those who would use religion to justify actions that are the exact opposite of the gospel of Jesus: the rejection of those who are in need and seek our help; the justification of discrimination; the protection of the status quo and the privilege of those who benefit from it.

We are called, each year, when we hear the words of Mary in the run up to Christmas; we are called as we hear the older words of Hannah ringing through the story; we are called as we come to this table to share together the meal at which all are equal as welcomed guests of God; we are called to reject, to speak out against, to condemn the use of our faith in the name of division, in the name of violence, in the name of oppression, in the name of discrimination, in the name of fear.

We are called to raise up the poor from the dust and sit them with princes; to fill the hungry with good things, even if it means that we, the rich, go hungry. We are called to break the bows of the mighty oppressor, and empower those who have been downtrodden.

Amen

Hummy Mummies

The Hummy Mummies are back! If you missed the Hummy Mummies choir last time they came to St. John’s you won’t want to make the same mistake again… December 4th, at 2pm, followed by afternoon tea. The concert will be raising funds for the Hornsby Women’s Shelter, which is just one more good reason to be there!

Tickets are $15 (or $10 concession), and can be bought from Mandy (mandyspollard@gmail.com)

Carols in the Park

Pu the date in your diary – from 6pm Saturday December 10th – Ku-ring-gai Carols in the Park will be held in Ku-ring-gai Bicentennial Park. This is a huge event, with many thousands attending, organised by Ku-ring-gai churches of all denominations. This year the performers include Andrew Chinn, the acclaimed Australian Waratah Girls Choir, a Vivid light show, The Golden Kangaroos Concert Band, a community choir, and choirs from the Bush School and Prouille.

Volunteers are needed both before and on the day – talk to Chris if you’d like to help out.

Rethinking Passover

Listen!
Exodus 12:1-13 | Luke 22:14-20

So welcome to another episode of “what on earth are we going to do with this story”.

A story in which we are told of God committing an act of terrorism. Systematically killing the firstborn of every family in an entire nation, in order to get the political leadership to change their direction.

However great the injustice, however wrong it was that the people of Israel were being held as slaves by the Pharaoh, it seems to me unimaginable that such an action, in human hands, could be justified. We would call it a war crime – the deliberate targeting of non-combatants, in many cases children, people who had no power in Egypt, no influence with the Pharaoh, no responsibility for what was being done.

So what are we to do with it?

We could, of course, ignore it. Put in that basket with all the other bits of scripture that we could really struggle with but would rather not. There are plenty of other bits of the Old Testament (in particular) that we choose to do that with.

But this story is harder to ignore. Because this story, the story of the Exodus and of the meal prepared by the people of Israel as they get ready to flee from Egypt in the aftermath of God’s slaughter, lies at the heart of the most significant religious festival of commemoration in the Jewish calendar – the Passover is even named for the way that the angel of death passed over the homes of the people of Israel – and that Passover meal lies at the heart of our most enduring Christian sacrament, communion.

So what are we to do with this story?

Well we might start by reflecting on the story came to be told. It’s pretty widely accepted that the stories recorded in the books of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, were preserved in an oral tradition for many generations. Old Testament scholars generally hold that there were, in fact, a number of independent oral traditions of the same stories, each holding currency with different parts of the community – this is why quite a number of stories seem to be told multiple times with different details, or why sometime a single telling of a story seems to be internally inconsistent, where details from more than one tradition have been combined into a rough consensus telling.
And it’s generally recognised that the Pentateuch came into their current form during the time of exile in Babylon; generations after the collapse of the Kingdom of David and Solomon, when the people of Israel were, once again, captives in a foreign land, far from home.

Our first step in coming to terms with the violent image of God in this story is this: to remember that these were the words of the powerless.
And obviously this goes a long way to explaining the great emphasis placed on the story of the Exodus – the memory of a time long ago when the people had been forced from the land, taken into slavery, but then rescued by the miraculous works of God, set free to once again be the people that they were called by God to be.

And it explains, too, the fact that the people of God were quite willing to include rather bloodthirsty details in the way they remembered and told the story; for people oppressed by military might and by violence, the idea of a military God, setting them free by superior violence, is understandably attractive (even if, from our perspective, ethically suspect).

It’s no coincidence that the story of the Exodus was one of the most loved and preached on by African American slaves in the southern states of the USA; it’s a story with great appeal to those who are powerless, but who hold onto faith in a God who is mighty to save.

And in a similar way, the festival of Passover and the story of the Exodus was very powerful in the memory of the people of Israel in Jesus’ time; another point in history where the Jewish people were, although not in exile, under the military power of a vastly superior empire.

And here we can take our next step: because for once, in this case, we can ask the question “What would Jesus make of this story? What would he do with it?”; because we have the record of just how Jesus chose to use the story of Passover.

For Jesus knew it was a story of redemptive violence, a story in which violence – God’s violence – was the pathway to freedom. And he didn’t, as we are tempted to, pretend that the violence wasn’t there, he didn’t gloss over the violence of the story.

Instead he did something far more radical. As part of a marginal and threatened group within an oppressed and captive people, he took a narrative in which violence was the pathway to freedom, and he made himself the object of that violence.

In keeping with his consistent record of preaching peace, preaching love of enemy, Jesus refuses to take this story of violence and apply it, gleefully, as so many did, to the oppressor; instead, knowing that the violence was inescapable, he chose to make himself the victim.

This is my body, broken for you.
This is my blood, shed for you.

Broken and shed to save us.

To save us from sin, to offer us redemption.

And to save us from the story we were trapped in, the story of conflict and redemptive violence, the story of us against them, they story of freedom for my people only at the expense of the other.

And to offer us instead an alternative to that story; in which the people of God choose to stand with the victims of violence, not with those who benefit. In which we can read the story of the Exodus and identify not with Moses, but with the parents in Egypt grieving for the death of their child. In which peace comes not through superior firepower, not through the exclusion of the other, but through love, self giving, hospitality, generosity, forgiveness, just, self-sacrifice.

For at the Last Supper, Jesus does not just reinterpret the story of the Exodus, he looks forward to a time in which that new meaning finds it’s fulfilment, in the obscure we generally skip over. He said to them, ‘I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’

The Passover, this powerful symbol of freedom, is to be fulfilled in the Kingdom of God. And until it is, he will not eat it. He has longed to share this symbolic meal with his friends, but this Passover meal is not the real thing. This Passover meal still recalls the sacrifice of a lamb and the gaining of freedom through the slaughter of the innocent.

The Passover Jesus longed to eat was the one in which the violence of the story has been drained by his self-giving, and love of enemy has replaced fear, love has replaced distrust, hospitality has replaced barriers.

The true and final fulfilment of the Passover is when the people of God are set free to be a blessing to all peoples, all nations, as the promise made to Abraham and Sarah.

The Passover will be fulfilled when all are welcome at God’s table, in the final fullness of the Kingdom of God, when God’s will for peace, love, justice, reconciliation, is done on earth as in heaven; when all God’s children are fed and clothed, healthy and educated, secure and loved.
And when man finally places aside the blasphemous myth that by violence against our enemy God’s will is served.

Amen