Great Expectations 17th June 2018 Madingley
1 Sam. 15:34-16:13 2 Cor. 5:6-10 Mark 4:26-34
Recently we have been living with a time of heightened expectations in the political arena. The much-hyped meeting between the leaders of the USA and North Korea, with the prospect of not only improved relations between those 2 countries, but a reduction of the danger of catastrophic world war, produced early on Tuesday morning a communique reporting their momentous agreement. Except that for many, the four points were little more than vague aspirations. But as human beings we are used to making the best of things, and interpreting events in the best possible light.
There’s nothing new under the sun. In our OT lesson last week, we heard how the people of Israel rejected the idea that God was their king, and demanded that Samuel should find a human ruler from their midst. In wonderfully reassuring, even tender words, God tells Samuel that the people have not rejected him, Samuel, but they have rejected God himself. So they should be given their human king, with the proviso that they be warned what the consequences of that would be; basically, a loss of their freedom. So the Kingdom of Israel became an ordinary human construct, quite unlike what God’s perfect will for them would have been if he had remained their king. Yet another set of expectations squashed.
Samuel selects Saul and anoints him as king, and all is well for a while. But it becomes clear that Saul suffers from some sort of mental problem, so that he has bouts of severe melancholia which can only be soothed by a certain young man named David playing his harp. Saul has other flaws too, spiritually, and his downfall comes as he seeks the guidance of a witch, rather than God, as to whether he should go into battle against another nation. By that point God had already told Samuel that Saul was to be replaced, and we heard the account this morning of how that selection process went forward.
For Samuel this was a time of great distress; he clearly loved Saul, and longed for him to be the king God would have desired him to be, but he has been disappointed. Even Samuel’s own life, which had started out with great promise as he was dedicated to the service of God from his birth, and was taken by his mother Hannah to grow up in the Temple once he was weaned, even that life seems to have been fatally flawed. God tells Samuel that his sons have behaved appallingly in seizing the best of the animals brought for Temple sacrifices, using them for their own consumption. Their behaviour has been arrogant and greedy, not commensurate with those who could have followed in their father’s footsteps as priests. The possibility of Samuel founding a priestly dynasty is brought to an abrupt end. However, he does have this one last, and very important duty to perform, in the seeking out, and anointing of David as the next, and ultimately greatest, human king of Israel.
Even David was not perfect, as became apparent when his eye lit upon Bathsheba, and he engineered the death of her husband in battle so that he could have her. But one of the things which the Bible reveals again and again is that God is able to use fallible human beings so that his ultimate will is not flouted. So generations later, the gospel writers were able to trace back Jesus’ human lineage to David, revealing his royal connections, and the remarkable work of God in our world.
In the centuries between the rule of David and the advent of Jesus, the kings of Israel had proved to be a motley crew; some, [a very few], were devoted to God, and did their best to return the people to a more faithful way of life after periods of back-sliding. Others were more concerned with the threat to the nation from surrounding countries with territorial ambitions, and were more inclined to make disastrous alliances with powerful nations in the hope of being protected. This led to periods of subjugation and exile, and those prophets who had remained faithful to God writing of their longing for God’s chosen leader, the Messiah. He would restore Israel to being the sort of nation God longed for it to be, living in peace and equity, and revealing to the rest of the world what God’s will is for us all.
Finally, as the Messiah arrives, we hear his teaching about the true Kingdom of God, and what it is like. The problem for human beings is that it bears little resemblance to the sort of nationhood which most countries aspire to: power; independence; prosperity; international leadership. Instead, in the parables we heard in today’s gospel, Jesus speaks of insignificant beginnings, of hidden growth, and of mighty achievement brought about eventually, not by our own deliberate intervention, but by the quiet and hidden work of God. It is not the “seed”, which is the disciples and all followers since their time, which causes the growth of the kingdom, but the power of God himself. It is nothing other than the saving presence of God, which for so much of their history, the people of Israel had not dared to trust in.
And this kingdom will bring all other kingdoms of the world into its sphere of influence, not through force, but by the power of love; not just human love, but the love of God himself. Our problem as human beings is that we have failed to comprehend how that could possibly be the way to bring about world peace, and equality of opportunity for everyone. For in the Kingdom of God there are no outcasts, no rejects, and we fail to see how that can be brought about given our experience of how nation states and global economies operate.
But the difference is that this kingdom is not physical, a place with land borders, but it exists within the hearts of believers, through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “The Kingdom of Heaven is within you.” It is not time-limited either. It exists in the present through the community of believers, but it also has an anticipatory character, looking for its complete fulfilment in the future.
We are like partisan troops, operating in a yet-to-be conquered territory, but the cause is advanced every time we act in accordance with the will of our leader. Every donation to the Food Bank, every minute devoted to prayer, every use of our God-given skills in furthering the West End Development Project, and every act of kindness to those we meet in our daily lives, all of them further the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth.
That Kingdom exists as a longing in the hearts of humanity, often unconsciously, but it is there. As citizens of that kingdom, we commit ourselves to recognizing that longing in everyone we meet, and finding ways of helping them to give expression to it, and meeting Jesus who is King. There will be no need for us to sigh and make the best of things in thisKingdom. For Jesus supplies so much more than we could have hoped for. We dare to dream of that perfect Kingdom of God because we know him in whom we have trusted, and we know without a shadow of doubt, that we will not be disappointed.