- Zachary Helton
"Give Us a King," by Zachary Helton
From 1 Samuel 8
When the prophet Samuel grew old, the body of elders of Israel came to him and said, “Appoint a king to lead us as all the other nations do.” This made Samuel upset, so he prayed to YHWH. YHWH, however, responded, “Give to the people whatever they ask for. They are not rejecting you, they reject me as their king. They’ve done this ever since the day I brought them up out of Egypt. They desert me and worship other gods, as they are doing to you. Listen to them carefully, but warn them solemnly and let them know what will happen if they have a king over them.” Samuel went back to those who had asked for a king and told them what YHWH had said. He told them, “This is the type of king who will rule over you: Your king will take your youths and make them serve as charioteers or with the cavalry, while others will be made to run in front of the chariots. Your king will appoint some of them as commanders of troops of 1,000 and of divisions of 100. Others will be forced to plow and harvest the royal fields. Still others will work making weapons of war and equipment for chariots. Your daughters will be taken as cooks, bakers and makers of perfume. Your king will take the best of your fields, your vineyards and your olive groves and give them to various governing officials and attendants. You will have to give parts of your crops and your vineyards for the king to use these funds in support of the eunuchs and slaves. The king will take your workers, your best cattle and donkeys and take them for personal use. Your king will take a tenth of your flocks… and you yourselves, who are now free people, will become like slaves. “On that day, people of Israel, you will cry out against the very king you chose, and on that day, it will be on your shoulders.” The people refused to listen to Samuel’s warning, and insisted, “No! We must have a king over us. Then we will be like other nations who have kings to lead us and to lead us in warfare and fight our battles.” After Samuel listened to what all the people had to say, he relayed it to YHWH. YHWH responded, “The choice is theirs. Give them a king.”
I had never been to Washington DC before, so when the Alliance of Baptists decided to hold their annual gathering there last year, I jumped on the chance to go. Did you there are nearly one hundred museums in DC? That’s not even mentioning the landmarks and the memorials. We saw all kinds of incredible things, but… there is this one image that has been coming back to me – one piece of art that I’ve thought of over and over.
The day we toured the US Capital Building, we were split up into groups of about a dozen. We were given headsets to listen to our soft-spoken tour guide as he led us through the sprawling campus. When we entered the capital’s rotunda, that iconic cast iron dome towering over the city, our tour guide instructed us to look up. Now, I’ve probably seen that dome hundreds of times in movies or on TV, but I’d never seen it from the inside. As we looked up through the oculus of the dome, we saw, 180 feet above our heads, an enormous fresco covering nearly 5,000 square feet. It was a religious piece, something I’d expect in the Vatican, but not in the heart of our nation’s capital.
It was a painting of a circle of celestial figures, 15 feet tall, holding a divine council. I saw the goddess of liberty and the goddess of victory. I saw several tableaus featuring gods of war, science, marine, commerce, mechanics, and agriculture… and sitting in the middle, adorned in purple robes, was George Washington.
“Painted in the mid 1800’s,” our tour guide quietly explained, “this piece took nearly eleven months to complete. As you can see, it depicts President Washington seated in his place among various heavenly figures. The title of the piece,” he informed us, “is The Apotheosis of Washington.”
I looked over at him and wondered if maybe I’d misunderstood. I don’t remember all that much from my one required semester of Greek, but theosis is not a word you forget. It means “to make someone into a god.” The title of this piece, in other words, was “Washington Raised to God-Hood.”
I stood there looking up in awe, my thou shalt not have any other gods before me alarm going off, and I realized the building we were standing in was, as much as anything else, a temple. Before we moved on, as I gave Washington one last look, I thought, This is now how a democracy treats a president. This is how a monarchy treats a king.
Now, I knew about Washington refusing a third term despite pressure to stay in office, helping set the precedent that the office is more important than the personality occupying it… but there were other things I didn’t know. Until that tour, I didn’t know that the earliest drafts of the president’s residence didn’t refer to it as “The White House,” but “The Palace.” I didn’t know that from the very early days of our founding, there was a push by some to crown George Washington as the King of the United States – a push from which Washington recoiled in horror.
In a nation founded on the principles of democracy and freedom, in a nation where the leaders work forand answer to the people… there is no room for a king. And yet, like Israel of old… there is something in us that cries out for a king just the same.
Thousands of years before the advent of the United States, the children of Israel, a loose confederation of tribes, were learning how to govern themselves. Having been set free from Egypt’s tyrannical monarchy, God set before them this radically new option. “I will be your God,” the voice told them from Sinai’s summit, “and you will be my people. I will dwell, not in some far-off place, but among you. I will speak, not through some priest, but to you.” And to that offer, the people said, “No.”
“What?” I can imagine Moses asking, baffled. “Why??”
“Because it’s too much!” Israel said. “It scares us! It intimidates us! You speak to God and we will listen to what you say God says. Be a mediator for us, as other nations have!”
“But... a mediator will obscure God’s presence!” I can imagine Moses protesting. “They’ll skew God’s words towards their own interest! They will abuse their priestly position! You, who are now free to commune with God, are giving up your own freedom! Mark my words, soon you will cry out against the priests and false prophets you have chosen, but on that day, it will be on your shoulders.”
But the words fell on deaf ears. So God said, “The choice is theirs. Give them a priest.”
And we know how it went from there.
Again, many years later, this story would play out again. Having established themselves in a region, God set before them this radically new option. “I will be your king,” God had said. “Every tribe, community, and individual will answer directly to me and live by our covenant. You will answer, not to some power-hungry monarch, but to my commandments, written on your heart.” And to that offer, the people said, “No.”
“What?” Samuel asking, baffled. “Why?”
“Because it’s too much!” Israel said again. “It scares us! It intimidates us! It would be much easier for you to just give us a king to rule over us, as other nations have! Give us someone who will just tell us what to think and what to do, someone who will bring order and unity!”
“But… a king will take your children and make servants of them!” Samuel protested. “They’ll take the best of your fields for their own use! They will abuse their power! You, who are now a free people, are giving up your own freedom! Mark my words, soon you will cry out against the very king you have chosen, but on that day, it will be on your shoulders.”
But the words fell on deaf ears. So God said, “The choice is theirs. Give them a king.”
And we know how it went from there.
The story plays out again and again and again. Freedom, you see, means responsibility… but there is something in us that fears that responsibility, is intimidated by it. There is something in us that would rather cry out for a king.
Eric Bridges, in a piece written for Baptist News Global, wrote, “It’s almost always unwise to compare modern nation states to [Ancient] Israel. Still, one parallel between ancient Israel and modern democracies is irresistible. The Israelites of Samuel’s time didn’t lose their freedom to outside forces, despite their constant conflict with invaders... They gave it up willingly, even eagerly. They wanted someone […] to tell them what to think and do, to bring order… A king would solve everything!” Except, of course, that’s not true. Moses knew that. Samuel knew that. Washington and the founders knew that. A king is not a shortcut, because there are no shortcuts. Freedom means doing our work.
If I’m honest, this story has hit me hard the past several days because I’ve recognized that, during this election season, this is exactly what I’ve been doing. I’m hiding and I’m crying out for a king. Deep down, I know that my call is to serve my neighbors. To have hard conversations with my neighbors. It’s to engage people who disagree with me about LGBTQ rights, about a woman’s right to choose, about racial reconciliation... I know my call is to listen well, to speak empathetically and honestly because that is how minds are changed. I know that my call is to think local, to get in touch with the culture of my own city and state and advocate for policies and leadership who will practice the kind of freedom I believe in here, where it’s achievable.
I know my call is to criticize the bad through the practice the better… but that is hard, and it is intimidating, and it is much easier to cry out for a king. It’s easier to cry out for someone to fight for me, to do the work for me. It’s easier to obsess over a presidential election as though if my champion won, everything would be okay, as though I wouldn’t still have to share this nation with the 50% of it who bitterly disagree with me, who will not be silenced and aren’t going anywhere.
So I cry out for a king in the false hope that if they win, I won’t have to do my work… and these stories we’ve read tell me that I’m probably not the only one.
Now, please don’t misunderstand me. The office of the president is important. It is important who holds that office, who commands the armed forces, who appoints the heads of federal agencies, who implements and enforces laws written by congress. This is not a “Jesus take the wheel,” “whoever wins God is still King”kind of sermon. It is the opposite. What I am saying is that whether your candidate wins, or your candidate loses, we are not electing a king. What I am saying is that we must never avoid the work that, at the end of the day, is ours and only ours to do. Claiming that “God is our King” does not release us of responsibility. It is a commitment to the service of love and justice.
I will admit to you that I have not followed this wisdom. I have, for far too long, acted to trade the work of my freedom for lure of simplicity. I’ve obsessed over one position, hoping for someone to fight the battles for me. I will admit to you that I do not know the names of our local representatives. I do not know the names of our city council people. I am not aware of what our mayor even does or what, if any, non-discrimination policies are in place in the town that we live in. I do not regularly read about these things or converse with leaders and citizens who disagree with me… and that is not acceptable. I have not be practicing “politics worthy of the gospel.” I have instead hidden behind the cry for a king… and again, I suspect I am not alone.
So, if, over the past week, you have found yourself feeling disproportionately helpless, relieved, or overwhelmed as I have, then may it be a sign. May it be a sign that we have lost sight of what is ours work to do – that we have lost sight of the power and freedom we truly have if we would only claim it. Because I am not helpless, and neither are you. It is important who sits in that office, but it far from most important fight. It is imperative that find the courage, together, to embody our values here… to allow God to work and heal through us here, on the ground level, starting with whatever is right in front of us in this season, wherever we are.
So, People of God, may we heed the warnings of Moses and Samuel.
May we heed the warnings of Washington and our founders.
May we be a people dissatisfied with kings, political parties, easy answers and shortcuts, unintimidated by the work that is ours to do.
May we be a community of prophets, animated by nothing less the Pentecost Spirit burning at our core.
May we recognize that within us that cries out for a king,
and may we say, “No.”
Invitation to Respond
On paper, or with someone in the room, reflect on one or more of these questions:
· Many of us believe that if our “king” prevails, then all will be well. Is this really true? How do you act when you believe that thought? What is the reality of it?
· How would you act if you did not have that thought? What sort of work would you be doing?
· Given what is in front of you in this season of your life, what is your work to do now?
Feel free to share your thoughts in the live chat, or to continue the conversation in the “Narthex” chat after the service.