Worship of the One True King
By Nicholas Zork Last Sunday, I filled in for a colleague who leads worship at a Lutheran Church in Queens, New York. The guest preacher that morning began his sermon by describing a nation filled with anxiety and fear about their porous borders, economic hardship, government corruption and the safety of their citizens in the face of repeated attacks by their enemies. He was talking about ancient Israel as described in the Book of Samuel. We all knew he was also talking about present-day United States. In the Book of Samuel, the people, in their insecurity and anger, ask for what they believed to be the solution to their problems: a king. “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have,” the the elders demand of Samuel. (Sam. 8:4 NIV)
Samuel is not pleased and prays to God, who responds with a concise analysis of the problem: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” (Sam. 8:7-9 NIV)
Samuel makes the case against having a king to the people: “He said, ‘This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves.’” (Sam. 8:11-17 NIV) Samuel assures them that a king will not help them but will, rather, use them to help himself.
But the people will not listen. They are discouraged and scared and are determined to find someone who will make them win again: “‘No!’ they said. ‘We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.’” (Sam. 8:19-20 NIV) In desperation, they turn from God and put their hope in an ostensibly strong man who they believe will fight their battles for them, someone who will make them great. Despite Samuel’s warning that he will be self-serving like other kings, the people are determined to proceed.
So Samuel anoints a king whose chief qualification is that he was “as handsome a young man as could be found anywhere in Israel, and he was a head taller than anyone else” (Sam. 9:2 NIV)—superficial characteristics that might reasonably qualify someone for reality television today but are nonetheless regarded as compelling assets for even this most important of positions. Unsurprisingly, little has changed over the millennia. When times get tough, we lose faith in a mysterious God and start looking for someone more like us to exalt, hoping this person might save us. This human tendency is not expressed along any political party lines. Republicans and Democrats alike are, along with all other human beings, susceptible to such false hope.
So in this political season filled with excessive fear-mongering and exaggerated promises of societal salvation, gathering to worship the God who alone can truly restore all things is as essential as ever. For the story we rehearse at political conventions is precisely the opposite of the story we’re invited to embody in Christian worship. In political rituals, we exalt human beings in hopes that they will deliver us from our difficult circumstances. But when we gather to worship God, we tell the story of the one true King, Jesus Christ, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8). Our false kings are often elevated to a divine-like status they do not deserve. But the one true King set aside the privileges of his divinity to serve and suffer as he did not deserve for our sake.
Not all politicians, party platforms or political policies are equal. Our involvement in the political processes of our nation is important. Our participation and votes matter and should reflect our deepest integrity and conscience. But all political figures do share one thing in common: they are unable to truly save us. Not all leaders will fail as miserably as Saul. But even the very best elected officials do not merit the allegiance that God alone deserves. There is but one King who truly values all people and can bring healing and reconciliation to all communities. But this King isn’t running for president of the United States. For his Kingdom is not drawn along party lines or national borders. There are no foreigners or immigrants in the Kingdom of God. There is no “us” and “them.” There is only one “us” and one true God who welcomes us all as one human family.
So as we worship over the coming Sabbaths, may we be transformed by God’s love to participate in our society—politically and otherwise—in ways that extend the healing, unity and hope that God alone can offer and has already provided.