Sermon for Coronation Celebration Service.
1 Samuel 8, 1 – 22a
When Samuel grew old, he appointed his sons as Israel’s leaders. 2 The name of his firstborn was Joel and the name of his second was Abijah, and they served at Beersheba. 3 But his sons did not follow his ways. They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice.
4 So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. 5 They said to him, “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.”
6 But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. 7 And the Lord told him: “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. 8 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. 9 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.”
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 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. 12 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. 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 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.”
21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
A dispute also arose among them as to which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest. But he said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.
‘You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and you will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.
Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.
And all the people rejoiced and said:
God save the King!
Long live the King!
Words from Handel’s Coronation Anthem, ‘Zadok the Priest’, sung at Coronations since 1727, but actually based on words much older from 1 Kings in the Old Testament. That bible passage is an account of the Coronation of King Solomon of Israel, getting on for three thousand years ago. British Coronation services reach back not just through the centuries, but through the millennia, for inspiration and meaning.
But what has the coronation of an Old Testament King got to do with 21st Century Britain?
In our first reading we heard the story of how the people of ancient Israel ended up with a King.
The Old Testament tells the story of how God generated a nation out of Abraham, and then rescued that nation out of slavery in Egypt, and gave them laws through Moses, and led them through the wilderness for forty years until they entered and occupied the Promised Land.
Which brings us to our passage from 1 Samuel. At this point God was their king, He had given them the law, He appointed Judges to administer the law, and had raised up warriors to defend the nation. However, the people of Israel wanted to be like other nations, to have a King. So they told the prophet Samuel they wanted a King, and Samuel passed on the message to God.
God was not impressed, it looked like the people were rejecting God’s Kingship, so God warns them of the consequences of having a man as King, saying to Samuel,
“He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses…and others to plough 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.”
Despite this lesson in the reality of politics the people of Israel still said they wanted a King. So God reluctantly tells Samuel, “Listen to them and give them a king.”
In the ancient world when you made someone King you gave them god-like powers over your lives. The King had the power to take your life, liberty and property. No wonder that in the ancient world Kings often proclaimed themselves to be gods.
Humans aren’t really cut out to exercise power, we are fallible, given to vainglory, and our understanding of justice is inevitably compromised by partiality. As everyone knows, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’
Down through the centuries we have have struggled to reconcile our perceived need to be governed, with our need to regulate those who govern us.
It’s not just a problem with Kings, any government that has the power to protect you, necessarily has the power to harm you.
God’s Old Testament solution was to make sure the king understood that God was the King of Kings. That is to say authority remained with God, and that the earthly king was just His servant. The law given by God remained a higher authority than the man appointed king.
Apart from his disastrous lapse into adultery and murder, King David understood this, and the nation prospered. His son Solomon, despite his legendary wisdom, let the notion slip, and thereafter the Old Testament tells a sorry tale of national decline as various Kings follow their own ways rather than God’s.
In our own nation we have a long history of struggling to regulate the powers of those who govern us.
Magna Charta, the Civil War, Habeus Corpus, the 1688 Revolution, the Bill of Rights, the gradual assertion of the power of Prime Minister and Parliament over the monarchy, so now we have a Constitutional Monarchy, the Rule of Law, and a Parliamentary Democracy. How much blood and strife has that cost?
You can make a reasonable argument that our constitutional arrangements are biblical, in that, like in the Old Testament, we seek to limit the power of government, and abide by the rule of law. We have not replaced the absolute power of Kings with the absolute power of Parliament, or Prime Minister, or even of the people, because we recognise that human beings are fallible, and corruptible, and we want those who govern us to be held accountable to the highest values – those of justice and truth.
The Coronation Service makes clear that the King is accountable to God. In a secular coronation who would the King (or Head of State) be accountable to? How would we conceive of holding those who govern us accountable to higher values in an age of moral relativism? In an age of many truths, instead of the one truth, what would be the standard? If there is no authority above our rulers, can we trust them to be the ultimate authority?
Of course these matters are never settled, times and priorities change, we can never perfect the constitution to everyone’s approval.
I notice republican campaigners have been using the slogan, ‘not my King.’ Everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but, ‘not my King?’ That’s not how Monarchy works. Like it or not he is your King.
I also noticed the controversy about the oath we were all invited to participate in, an oath of loyalty to the King. Such public affirmations of loyalty do not sit well with the British character, but if you pay your taxes, abide by the laws of the land, and do not intend over-throwing the Crown or His Majesty’s government by force of arms, then you have made a tacit oath of loyalty to the King. And what do you think the National Anthem is about?
Who is the King? Merely Charles Windsor? No, the King is not just a man born in random succession to the throne.
The King is us.
We the people.
The King is a representative person, not by being average, or by being typical, but by being himself. One person chosen by a long process of historical events, some glorious, and some exceeding dubious. Chosen to be the one person who stands for us all. You could do this by election, or even by lot, but we do it by history. At least then our identity is not determined by the passing moment, but by the passing of time.
As an Anglican clergyman I have to take an oath of allegiance to the Monarch. On such occasions I think of the millions of Britains who are my neighbours, and the millions who are my forebears. I also heartily thank God that I am not asked to live in the gilded cage, and unstinting public scrutiny, of the royal family. The 16th century essayist, Montaigne, wrote,”…if a man knew the weight of a sceptre he would not bother to pick it up if he found it lying on the ground.”
While Kings of the ancient world were claiming to be gods, Jesus said,
‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them…But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become… like one who serves.’
In the person of Jesus the Great King of Kings stepped down into human flesh to live and die as a servant of others. That is the highest standard. One which all should follow, but especially those in authority over us. To live in Christ-like service of others, that’s something our late Queen aspired to, and that so many recognised in her.
By the Grace of God, may Charles lead us in lives of loving, Christ-like service.