When Israel first asked for a king, they went to the prophet Samuel and said, “give us a king to govern us like all the other nations have,” and Samuel was angry and had words with God, and God said, “don’t be angry on your own account; they haven’t rejected you but me; but do give them fair warning as to what getting themselves a king will mean for them.”
So Samuel told them straight: the king will take your sons to run his cavalry; he will reap from you labourers for his own harvest; he will tax your grain and your vineyards, poach your best servants and your daughters; and you will be under his yoke, and you will regret it and cry out, but God will say, “I told you so.”
But the people said, “No, we want a king so that we can be like everyone else,” and God and Samuel talked again, and God said, so be it. (1 Sam 8)
So Israel came by a king.
First they got Saul, but he didn’t work out, so Samuel replaced him with David, whose name still haunts the city to this day, David the anointed one, the favoured younger son, the shepherd of his father’s flocks and of his people, who stole another man’s lamb. Even David died without building the temple which he longed to give to the Lord, and he left it to his son, Solomon, who would never rise to his ordained high position today, at least around here, because those on the religious right would object to his hundreds of wives and concubines, and those on the religious left would blanch at his showy and opulent displays of his excessive wealth.
And there were reasonable kings and there were lousy kings, and kings who married Jezebel, and kings in captivity, and there were child kings, and there were foreign kings whom God appointed to do God’s will: Cyrus, king of Persia, received word from God that the people must be sent back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, and he let them go.
But you have to wonder, by the time Jesus stood before Pilate, after generations of occupation and oppression, when Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” how much cachet did the title have left? What power and authority did Herod, the nominal king of the Jews, wield or claim; how much did his Roman overseers allow him? What would it have meant, even, for Jesus to answer with a simple, “Yes”? What would it have changed?
Of course, Jesus almost never answered anything or anyone with a simple, “Yes.”
He asks who gave Pilate the question; he tells Pilate that he understands what he is asking and that if Pilate and his puppet-masters were correct, there would be the kind of political uprising and unrest that Pilate feared; he hints that instead, there is even more going on here before Pilate than Pilate can even ask or imagine.
And Pilate is bewildered: “So … you are a king?”
Jesus answered, “You may say so. I was born to testify to the truth. If you hear the truth, you hear my voice telling it.”
And in the verse that our gospel selection omits, a dizzy and puzzled Pilate walks away wondering, “What is truth?”
We’ve come a long way in two thousand years. Here, we have two hundred years of distance to help us to put the reign of royalty into perspective. We have the histories of the Bible and the ages beyond to help us to discern the truth about our relationship with kings, with royal power and authority, with their allure and their fine facades, and with their clay feet. We have either ditched them for democracy or curtailed their coattails to make them figureheads, emblems of authority instead of true seats of power. Although many of us still enjoy them as spectacle.
Yet even with all of our sophistication and post-monarchical religious democracy we can still come out with nonsense like the vote against women bishops across the pond. Still, some are too powerful and some are powerless. Still, with all of our revolutionary talk of equality and liberty and dignity we know that some are more equal than others, that we incarcerate a greater proportion of our population than any other developed nation, that our liberty is costly and unequally shared, that dignity is too often a commodity, rather than a civil right.
We have given up on the idea of one ideal king as the holder of all wisdom and truth – Solomon is long gone, and even his wisdom was ruthless – but where do we look instead, where do we listen instead for the voice of truth, for the one testifying to the truth before Pilate?
The history books are full of kings and queens, human beings elevated above their station as children of the living God, brothers and sisters of their people, flawed and faithful and petty and prideful, generous and dutiful, despotic and deadly, frail and powerful, the stuff of both comedy and tragedy.
The irony is that Jesus stands before Pilate, a human being divine in his essence, the Son of God humbled below his station as a child of the living God and the forerunner of us all, frail yet powerful, faithful and generous, dutiful and dreadful, the stuff of the greatest story ever told; and Pilate struggles to recognize him. “So … you are a king?”
The one humbled and hobbled and hauled before Pilate is the one who tells the bold truth to demons and to doctors of the law alike, who sees the true worth of a woman with a pound of perfume, who sees through death to the life beyond. The one who tells the truth knows the hunger of the crowds and feeds them, knows the pain of the stranger in the multitude and heals her. He is not served by squadrons of soldiers, like a king, but he serves the people of God; he speaks for God, as the one true king.
Since the days of ancient Israel, we have repeatedly proven that we are not great at doing the king thing. Our religious ancestors really should have left the king thing up to God.
But God did not abandon us to our own devices. God sent us Jesus Christ, to make out of us, as Revelation says, a kingdom of priests to his God and Father, because he loves us, and by his blood has freed us from our sins. And in this kingdom the law is one of love: love for God, love for one another; and the oath of fealty that we make is our baptismal covenant, to love God, to repent of evil, to prayer and proclaim the word of God, to seek and serve Christ in all others, to uphold the dignity of all; not to lord it over one another or trample the poor in the pursuit of power, but to seek justice and mercy; not to earn the accolades of the empire, but to accept the crown of thorns, the humility of the servant leader.
The people asked for a king; and the king that God gave us, whom we celebrate today, and every Sunday – every day – he is not the king we might have expected. He is the ruler of the kings of earth, but he was beaten and bowed before Pilate. His is above all other names on earth, yet his was the most common name in his village. He is wise beyond learning, but his closest cabinet of advisors is full of simple fishermen and women. He is the king of kings and lord of lords, and he chose to live among us as a brother, a teacher, a friend.
That is not the king that the people were asking of Samuel, of God. But he is the king whom God gave us, freely, despite what we deserved, because of God’s great love for us, which is weightier than gold, more solid than thrones, which lasts beyond the dynasties of humanity, the Alpha and the Omega, who is and who was and who is to come. Amen.