Preached at St Gile’s Horspath on 14th June 2015 by Rev’d Dr Emma Pennington.
Readings: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34.
A question: what is the kingdom of God?
In our readings this morning we are presented with two, if not mutually exclusive, understandings of that statement. The first is from the book of Samuel. As we heard from last week’s reading, the people of God have rejected Yahweh and his prophet Samuel and demanded that they have a king of their own, so that they can be like other nations and have someone who will govern them but also fight their battles. God had warned them that the only thing a king will do is take their money and property and enslave them. Of course he was right, and we pick up the story at the end of the disastrous reign of Saul who, despite his military success against the Philistines, failed to keep the commandments of the Lord. Now the Lord sends Samuel out once again with a horn of oil to anoint the next king that he will choose. This time Samuel is sent to the house of Jesse where each of the seven sons is paraded before the prophet in the hope that one of them will be the next king. Yet each one is rejected in turn. Unlike Saul who had been handsome and tall, a naturally charismatic leader, now the Lord states he will also look upon the heart to ensure that the right choice is made. David, of course is again both ruddy and beautiful, but he is the youngest son and in terms of societal norms at the time, the one of lowest worth. So Samuel anoints him and he becomes the king of the people of Israel.
We have in this passage and throughout the history of the kings of Israel, the emergence of a kingdom, with a capital ‘K’, from the people of God, created and legitimised by God himself. God has chosen who he wants to be the king over his people and then given him the right and authority to rule by anointing him. The process of anointing is important for it sets apart the one who is anointed to carry out a particular role in the name of God. David is thereby God’s chosen king and is anointed with the authority and sanctity of God to fulfil his task. Yet at the end of the day he is still only a servant of the lord within God’s kingdom. The tension we find throughout the history of the kings of Israel is their inability to live up to their office: Saul disobeys God, David has an affair, and even Solomon denies the Lord by setting up altar’s for the gods of his foreign wives. Even in the perfect state of God’s kingdom, power seems to corrupt.
It is with this same notion of God’s kingdom that many of the English monarchs have ruled. Most of us will have heard of the phrase ‘the divine right of kings’. It encapsulates the notion, as set out in the Old Testament, that the king is appointed by and holds in his office a divine authority which makes him subject to no one except God. Even today the monarch will be anointed by the archbishop of Canterbury just as Samuel anointed David. But today this act is more a ritualistic gesture that holds little of the potency it did in medieval times, for even back in the 1200’s the fallibility of those who held the office of God’s king needed to keep in check by both spiritual and temporal powers. Of course, I am referring to Magna Carta which this week celebrates 800 years since the first copy was sealed, not signed, by King John at Runnymede. Those of you who have followed the radio broadcasts and exhibitions across the country over the last year will know, this was not the first attempt to circumvent the power of the throne. In 1100 just 34 years after the Norman Conquest Henry I set up the Coronation Charter legitimised the newly made barons and landowners in order to supply the king with all his needs. Now on 15th June 1215 it was the bishops, archbishop Stephen Langton in particular, who along with the barons, brought before the king a great charter that would safeguard their rights and privileges, a document that placed limits on the power of the throne and made the king subject not just to God but to his nobles and church authorities. This was but the first in a long line of Magna Carta’s which were copied and sent out across the country and updated over time. You can see one of the three 1217 versions of the Charter which the Bodleian holds in an exhibition in the new Weston library at the moment. The original tenets on which the charter was draw may have given security just to the rich and privileged, but inadvertently it also enshrined the principle that no one, not even the King, is above or beyond the common Law of the Land. So God’s kingdom has gradually developed in a secular democratic state which places the words of government into the monarch’s mouth.
In our gospel reading we find another, quite different understanding of the kingdom of God. Here there is no mention of nationhood or even of a person as the king. It is taken for granted that God is the King. There is no real notion of a place or even a people. Jesus does not use political, military or even religious language. Instead, he uses the images and experiences of everyday life. His use of a parable is illusive, bewildering and unsettling. What is the kingdom? Is it the ground in which the seed is planted or the fruit that is harvested. What is the mustard seed? Is it the Word of God, or faith, a calling to an individual to a special office, or membership of the church? Who makes the crops grow? Is it God, or us, or both of us? Many meanings can be read from these parables but Jesus gives us nothing definitive. Instead all we know is that the kingdom is something which is transformative, full of life and nurturing. It gives sustenance and security yet is mysterious and beyond our comprehending fully. It is as if Jesus wants to leave us with the wondering, the awe and to pin it down would reduce or limit the experience of encountering the kingdom for ourselves. Unlike God’s kingdom of Israel, Jesus dispenses with any notion of ownership, lordship, or membership with its own rights and privileges rather we are invited into a relationship with our Lord and King that will be transformative, and transfiguring. A kingdom that shimmers even beneath the mess we make of our world and through the laws of love and kindness breaks forth even when we can’t perceive it.
We never know what Jesus said to his disciples, how he explained these parables of the kingdom. Rather he left us the invitation to ask the questions, to search for the answers, on our own and with others, and in the seeking we will find him and so reveal his kingdom to others who have lost faith in kings. Amen.