In Chapter 8 of 1 Samuel in the Old Testament, we learn about how the Israelites demanded that their leader Samuel appoint a king to rule them so that they could be like other nations. One of the reasons for them doing this may well have been because Samuel’s sons, who he appointed as Israel’s leaders, did not follow his ways and turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice. Another reason may well have been because the people of Israel thought that the ‘grass was greener on the other side’ and that if a king was appointed all their problems would disappear.
This was utterly tragic because it was effectively a rejection of God as their king. Not surprisingly, Samuel was displeased and gave the people of Israel a clear warning…any king that would be appointed would ultimately take advantage of the people under his rule, tax them heavily and take the best of everything the people had to offer. The people refused to listen to Samuel, and they persisted with their demand. ““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.”” (1 Samuel 8:19-20)
It’s with that context in mind that we can think about our reading from Jeremiah in which we learn how so many centuries later Jeremiah denounced all the leaders or rulers (“the shepherds”) of Judah for the ruthless way they treated the helpless people (vv. 1-4). Instead of leading the flock in love, they drove it mercilessly and exploited it. The shepherds didn’t visit (“care for”) the sheep, but God would visit the leaders with punishment. Because the leaders disobeyed the Law and refused to trust God, they destroyed the nation and scattered the flock among the Gentiles. What Samuel had said would happen if the people of God were ruled by an earthly King, did happen, over and over and over again. God, however, promised to regather His people and transform the remnant into a nation. Samuel’s warnings from centuries earlier had been realised.
Some years ago the Pastor and author A W Tozer said “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God.”
What image do we see in our mind’s eye when we think of Jesus, particularly as we approach Advent and consider the feast of Christ the King which we commemorate today on the Church’s calendar? Do we seek to understand and define Jesus from our experiences of earthly rulers? Do we think of gentle Jesus, meek and mild as a baby in the manger surrounded by the animals – as in a nativity scene? We can impose our own understanding and expectation of kingship and sovereignty on Jesus, born perhaps from the times that we live in, or even from our own experiences in the world, and what we see perhaps of social justice, war and conflict. Whilst our image of Christ may be influenced by our experiences as we grow up, I wonder what is our experience of Christ as King in our lives? No wonder Tozer said “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”
But it is on this day we have an opportunity to recall Jesus in His eternal aspect, as King and Ruler, rather than simply through the lens of His earthly life. It is in the light of understanding Christ as King that we may enter into Advent with expectancy, confidence and hope and look forward to the return of the King from a completely different perspective. Let’s remind ourselves of who Christ the King is…in Him “we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy.”
Jesus’ Kingdom is not of this world. And so our picture of Christ as King begins to unfold. His Kingdom is not built or maintained by military might. He is “the ruler of kings on earth” and is “before all things.” This is as difficult for us to comprehend, particularly in the here and now as we see the brokeness of this world. But a God who had the first word, will certainly have the last word and one day will say enough and all the wrongs will be righted.
Few take God’s rule seriously. But for those who do, a new world of hope and opportunity opens up – and that brings us to our Gospel reading from the book of Luke. The thieves who were crucified alongside Jesus had equal access to the Saviour. Both could read Pilate’s sign placed above Jesus’ head on the cross, “This is Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews,” and both could watch Him as He graciously gave His life for the sins of the world. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Jesus, taunting and mocking: ““Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” But the other criminal rebuked him. “Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”” We always have a choice about how we respond to Christ; we can accept him and his Kingship recognising his authority and power, or we can reject him. How do we respond when we have encounters with Christ? And whilst those who follow the King may often suffer injustice and share the sorrow that He experienced on the cross, as we await the return of the king we may join the faithful witness in announcing His Kingdom to the world.
Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Advent. As we enter into that season in which we look forward with expectancy and remember Christ’s first coming, let us also look forward with hope to His Second Coming – the return of the King. I want to close by leaving you with some words from the book of Philippians for you to carry in your heart through Advent.
“If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:1-11)