Kings and Shepherds: Power Corrupts… (1 Samuel 9; 17:33-37)

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This post has spun out of material I heard in the Mars Hill Bible Church Sermon ‘How To Use The Bathroom in a Cave’ by Kent and Ed Dobson. I go to a different place with it, so it’s worth checking out the original sermon here.

Kings are shepherds.

That’s the metaphor the Bible uses, for kings and priests and people in authority. The flock needs someone to lead, someone to defend, someone to care. The shepherd is in charge and the flock follows.

That’s why it’s important to note that, when David shows up, well before he takes the throne, he’s depicted as a literal shepherd, and a good one at that. When explaining why he thinks he can take on Goliath he describes how he got between his sheep and wolves, bears, lions, how he fought wild animals and won and protected his flock. Even if you don’t know how the story turns out, David’s obviously already a hero in waiting – he’s a good shepherd, surely that means he’ll make a good king?

But the Bible has a problem with kings. Sure they’re anointed by prophets and appointed by God, but the whole monarchy thing seems to be a Plan B at best. After all, look at how we’re introduced to Israel’s first king, Saul, long before the heroic David turns up. Saul’s looking after his father’s donkeys, but they go missing and the only reason he gets them back is that he encounters a seer during the search. The guy can’t even look after a bunch of donkeys, we should be asking questions about how well we should expect his reign to turn out.

And that’s how the story goes – the bad shepherd proves to be a bad king, and needs to be replaced by the good shepherd who goes on to become Israel’s greatest king. It just goes to show that you should always pay attention to the metaphors.

But power corrupts, so they say, and it’s true. David was a good shepherd, a man after God’s own heart, yes, but one day there came a point when he saw a beautiful but married woman bathing and decided that, as king, the rules didn’t apply to him; the shepherd who refused to kill an enemy in order to take his throne is now a king who plots to kill a friend in order to take his wife. As a young man he sought to end the oppression of the Philistines; as an old man he doesn’t even act to get justice for his own daughter.

If the man who wrote Psalm 23, who toppled giants, can fall so far, is it any wonder that the Bible has an ambiguous attitude towards kingship?

And so maybe the idea of power is one of our idolatries. Many Christians love the idea of getting together to vote for ‘their’ candidate, or ‘their’ party. We follow mega-pastors who can declare an internet war with a single tweet, we want to proclaim our countries as ‘Christian’, regardless of the atrocities in which they’ve been involved. We love our kings, so much so that we’re inclined to turn a blind eye to when they’re less than noble shepherds. Because, when it comes down to it, we want our leaders to kick ass.

And yet there’s the key to all this. After all, it’s not the idea of a king itself that the Bible has issues with, it’s that there’s already a King and we’re too quick to try to put someone else on his throne. God is King, and, through Jesus, his throne is a cross. When he’s tempted in the wilderness with the trappings of kingship (“Rule the nations! Never see you or your people go hungry! Never suffer for your rule!”) he rejects the short cuts of temporal and economic and political power. When he needs to demonstrate what a true king looks like, he wraps a towel around his waist, washes the feet of his friends, then heads out into the night to face the nails of Calvary.

That’s why such a big deal is made over Jesus being the Good Shepherd.

Because that’s what a real King looks like.

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Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-43)

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It is the day of the Transfiguration and four young men climb an unnamed mountain for an encounter with… What exactly?

The Transfiguration is epic and mysterious; Peter, James and John see Jesus’s face shine like the sun, meet Moses and Elijah, hear the voice of God Himself. But what did it all mean, what exactly was Peter experiencing that day?

A moment of beauty, yes, but maybe beautiful like a waterfall, rendering him speechless with awe in the face of majesty, and overwhelming urge to throw himself in, against every thought of self-preservation. The apostles are suddenly thrown into a different world, one in which Heaven and Earth are dancing.

We hear how Jesus is transformed by this moment, but that’s not the whole story. He was fully human, sure, but also fully divine, and here we catch a glimpse of that ultimate reality, both natures wrapped around each other, different spheres of existence locked together in the figure of a thirty-something carpenter.

The Transfiguration is a moment at which the whole scandalous message of the gospel is revealed in its power and beauty: God is present with his people, not living at a sacred distance as he did in the Exodus desert all those years ago, but getting his feet dirty and drinking wine and talking and laughing and dying and rising. His omnipresence becomes more intimate and personal, back when the glory entered the Temple, the priests fell on their faces and saw it as an expression of goodness and love; here three fishermen see all this and realise that it’s personal as well.

And yet this moment isn’t permanent; God’s presence goes on to be seen and felt in other ways. At the height of the experience, Peter wants to build tents for everyone. It sounds a crazy, mundane thing to say, but it echoes the Feast of the Tabernacles and Zechariah’s prophecy that universal celebration of this feast will be a mark of the Messianic age. Maybe Peter thinks that day has finally arrived, God come down to put everything right.

In a sense he’s right; the Messiah is here, and the Now-And-Not-Yet Kingdom is at hand. But it’s not going to be as easy as the Transfiguration may have made him think. Peter doesn’t want to think of his Messiah, his friend, going through pain and death, but there’s another hill still to climb. On that day, the people alongside Jesus will be dying terrorists, not honoured prophets; instead of speaking out loud, God will appear terrifyingly silent. Maybe that’s why here God chooses only to say “This is my Son – listen to him!”. Take the hint guys.

We see something of this at the foot of the mountain. Peter and the others can’t stay up there with Moses and Elijah, and as NT Wright points out, every telling of this story is followed by an encounter with a demon-possessed boy. From the heights of the Transfiguration, the group are brought back down to earth with a bump; there’s no time to contemplate what they’ve just seen before the fear and frustration and busyness and confusion of the ‘real’ world comes crashing into them. And yet even there we see God’s presence; the boy is healed and restored to his family. The beams of light and the ancient heroes may be hidden once more, but God’s presence remains. And now the moments in which the Kingdom breaks through serve to transfigure the world.

Never Assume Anything… Jesus anointed by the ‘wrong’ sort of person (Luke 7:36-50)

Mary Magdelene Anoints Jesus Feet 03Never assume anything – it makes an ass out of u and me. I first heard that at school; the person who told it me was a Christian and couldn’t bring himself to say it out loud, so he wrote it down. That was twenty years ago. It’s taken me a long time to learn that lesson.

In Luke 7, Jesus goes to dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee. Somehow a ‘sinful’ woman gets in and pours a jar of expensive perfume over Jesus’s feet in an act of anointing. Needless to say, this does not go down well. A lot of that is down to people’s assumptions.

For instance, why was the woman sinful?

The traditional assumption is that she was a prostitute, but that’s not mentioned in the text. Church history as her sins pegged as sexual, but for all we know she’d been robbing banks with a sawn-off shotgun. And yet we look at people, see how they act and how they dress and how they look and assume we know everything we need to know about them. It’s tragic how our image of people can be reduced to a short skirt and a couple of tattoos.

This woman certainly had a reputation, and it’s that reputation that, in the mind of Simon the Pharisee, also confirms Jesus’s own status; after all, if Jesus was the prophet everyone thought he was, surely he’d know that the woman was a ‘sinner’? Surely he’d send her away in disgrace and preserve the sanctity of this occasion, the dignity of this meeting between two religious authorities? No, the woman was a sinner and Jesus was a fraud.

Never assume anything.

Jesus basically takes Simon’s assumptions – which he seems to know about even though Simon hasn’t voiced them out loud, showing that yes, Jesus is a prophet after all – and drop kicks them over the horizon. “If you’re forgiven a lot, you’re going to love a lot,” Jesus says, highlighting that, while the woman’s undignified actions are socially inappropriate, she’s displaying a depth of love and emotion that Simon is incapable of.

After all, Simon’s committed a few social faux pas of his own – he doesn’t treat Jesus as an honoured guest, which is an epic failure of hospitality. Maybe he was being lead by his assumptions again – did he assume Jesus was a fraud all along, hence the dismissive way in which he treated his guest?

“Do you see this woman?” Jesus asks, and the answer, although Simon couldn’t very well miss her, seems to be ‘no’. Simon sees her sins, her past, her reputation, but he seems  to miss out on seeing her as an individual looking for grace. Jesus, on the other hand, sees her as someone worth honouring, someone to forgive rather than someone to condemn.

Our assumptions, prejudices and arrogance keep us from God; worse, they also keep others from God as well. Constantly seeing the ‘sins’ of those around us blinds us to our own, leaving us like Simon the Pharisee, a man so intent on recognising sin that he missed the Messiah right in front of him.