Sermon for Evensong & Benediction Sunday 20 November 2016
Sermon preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Readings: 1 Samuel 8.4-120; John 18. 33-37
“Appoint for us, then, a king to govern us, like the other nations.”
Samuel faces a popular uprising against the status quo in government. The people want strong leadership from someone who will defend them from their enemies. Sounds rather familiar, doesn’t it? When Samuel reports this to God in prayer, God responds, “Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you: for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” Samuel, says God, is to agree to their request, but first he must warn them of its consequences. He is to spell out the nature of monarchy, to tell them how a king will treat them. If they want a king to defend them, then he will need an army and so he will recruit their sons to it and tax them to pay for it. A king will want to maintain a court and prestige, and will need both revenue and personnel which can only come from them. Even constitutional monarchy costs money, as we know from the recent report about the sums needed to restore Buckingham Palace. The defence of the realm costs a great deal more, and that is before we add to the budget the many other things which government is now expected to do. All this will come true in the life of Israel within a couple of generations.
Samuel tells the people this, but they refuse to listen and repeat their demand for a king. First, they will be given Saul. He is a success to begin with but will fall out of favour with God because he fails to obey God’s commands. He will be replaced by David – Israel’s ideal of kingship – and he in turn by Solomon – the personification of wise government – at least, until he ceases listening to God and begins to ape the ways of other potentates: including exacting forced labour from the people for his building projects.
After his death, the people will protest to his son Rheoboam about this and ask him to lighten their burden. The advisers he has inherited from his father, the establishment, the experts, urge him to accede to this request; doing so will strengthen his popularity and so, his authority. But his young friends think differently. They tell him to show the people who is boss, to crack the whip, to make things harder still for them. The consequence is rebellion and a kingdom divided.
Much of the history of the Old Testament lists kings of Israel and Judah who are judged according to whether they have listened to the voice of the Lord and obeyed his will. Few of them pass the test. The consequence is the destruction of the kingdom. The independence of the nation is snuffed out, the people sent into exile.
Samuel tells the people the truth about power, but they refuse to listen. As the poet T.S. Eliot would say in the last century, people cannot bear too much reality.
In John’s account of the trial of Jesus before Pilate, the Roman governor would seem to have all the power and Jesus to have none. Yet in the drama acted out at the governor’s headquarters, we see the process of judgement being reversed. It is Pilate, and what he represents, imperial power, political power that is on trial. When he questions Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” he finds himself being interrogated in turn: ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” This representative of worldly empire finds himself nonplused by this strangely commanding figure who says: “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”
Each time Jesus speaks of his kingdom, he uses not the normal Greek for “my” but an emphatic form which literally means “The mine” – which could be translated as “My particular kingdom” – as if to draw attention to its uniqueness. Jesus’ kingdom is like no other. Other kingdoms are rooted in this world and its ways; but not his.
A bemused Pilate asks, “’So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.’”
Jesus is the one who is able to testify to the truth because he is “the Word made flesh.” In him we hear God speaking. In him we see God acting. In him we see the truth of what God is like. In Christ we see the image of God in which we are made. We see authority and power as they are meant to be exercised. In him we see, as we heard in the Gospel at Mass today (Luke 23.33-43), that true power consists in forgiveness and mercy: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do,” Jesus says of those who crucify him; When the penitent thief say to him, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom,” he hears Jesus say, “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”
For some reason, our reading omits Pilate’s final response: “What is truth?”
In the midst of last week’s news you may have noticed reports that the latest edition of the Oxford English Dictionary includes among new words: “Post-truth.” This is described as an
“adj. Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”
These examples of its use are given: ‘in this era of post-truth politics, it’s easy to cherry-pick data and come to whatever conclusion you desire.’
and ‘ some commentators have observed that we are living in a post-truth age.’
In fact, this is not exactly new. It is just that we are living through a particularly brazen version of it, with no attempt made at correction or apology for misleading people; and an audience, a public often all too ready to think that truth and facts do not matter – especially if they questions their own prejudices – or we want to believe promises to make Ruritania great again, or recover independence for Pimlico.
Political spin is as old as politics itself. Those in power or seeking it will always try to present their case in the best light. The word propaganda, which used to be used of Christian mission: the “Propagation of the Gospel” as in the restored title of the mission agency we support; “Propaganda Fide – propagation of the faith,” the title of the Vatican’s congregation for the evangelization of peoples. It was appropriated by the likes of Joseph Goebbels to spread the Nazi message, and we have had ominous echoes of that in recent months in the demonization both of refugees, with a blatant use of one of Goebbels’ anti-Jewish images and of judges as “enemies of the people.” Again, something straight out of the Nazi, Soviet and Maoist playbook.
Newspaper magnates and media proprietors, too, have often had axes to grind. However, commentators have pointed out in recent years that the line between reporting and commentary, between facts and opinion, which used to be kept on separate pages, has become increasingly blurred; often to disappearing point.
New, so-called social media, have made matters even worse, because so much of what is posted on them goes unchallenged. It is not submitted to public correction and objective scrutiny. Who is to take seriously Pilate’s question, “What is truth?”
But take it seriously we must, because we have been down this route before. It is the railway track which leads to the gate of Auschwitz or the Gulag.
Fr. Michael is reading a heavy-weight book on remembrance in the Eucharist at the moment. When I looked through the list of contents the name of a German Roman Catholic theologian called Johannes Baptist Metz caught my eye. 40 years ago, I had to write an essay on him when he was a divinity student in Edinburgh. Metz taught that the Church and Christians live Ex memoria passionis, that is, from the memory of the passion; the cross of the Christ who stands before Pilate and all he represents of worldly power to challenge it with the question of truth. Our calling as Christians, who live in and by the memory of the passion, is to care about truth in a world where it is often in short supply; to ask questions of power.