1 Samuel 8
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Questions of leadership seem to be very much in the air these days, not least this week. Sepp Blatter’s re-election seemed extraordinary to many of us, like a newly invented alloy that never wears out whatever is thrown at it or how bent it is. Indeed, it seemed a power of survival on a par with cockroaches after a nuclear explosion, or Robert Mugabe. And then the seemingly inevitable happened, and he resigned, but then he hadn’t, or at least he was staying for another six months. Whatever was going on?
All this came at the same time as the shocking news of the death of Charles Kennedy. The sudden death of a comparatively young man, with a young child, can only be called a tragedy, none more than for his family. The universal outpouring of grief from across the political spectrum, without almost no-one having a bad word to say, showed someone who captured the public imagination in his life and work, someone who was anything but a grey man in a grey suit. Of course, one cannot ignore his troubled personal life, indeed that was why, ultimately, he was unable to lead his party any longer, and had to resign, but it reminds us that leaders are just human beings, like the rest of us.
In that long and complex gospel reading, one of the many things in there was Mark asking what the unforgiveable sin was. We’re never told what the unforgiveable sin is – if I’m having a stressful day you might be forgiven for thinking the unforgiveable sin is abusing the parking arrangements in our lay-by. Of course, the point is where regret is real, God can forgive just about anything. And Charles Kennedy had flaws, as we all do, but it seems most people forgave him those, as we hope we forgive each other, and ask God to forgive us.
It was ten years ago when Charles Kennedy resigned, but resignations have been in the air recently. On the morning of 8 May, it seemed as if leaders of political parties were queuing up to take a turn in reigning. Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, and Nigel Farage, although Nigel Farage seemed to be back again quite soon. It never used to be like that, Neil Kinnock lost two general elections before resigning. Clement Atlee held on to the leadership of the Labour Party for twenty years. Winston Churchill lost two successive general elections with no intention of resigning. It seems now, that we require the resignations of political leaders who fail to win elections, assuming the problem must be with the leader.
None of this is new. Thousands of years ago people were blaming their leaders for all their problems. That is Samuel’s point in his warning about the way a king will exercise leadership or authority. The problem is endemic in giving authority to people, whether the authority lies in a monarchy or an elected body. You do not avoid problems by not having a central government. When “there was no king in Israel” and “people did what was right in their own eyes,” Israel experienced moral and social chaos. The grievous opening to today’s reading from the Hebrew Bible underlines the point in reporting that, like Eli, Samuel did not manage to bring up his sons in his own ways.
We know all too easily how pressure groups or individuals can influence decision makers with every kind of brown envelope, gratuity, incentive payment, perk, fringe benefit, or whatever you call it. Samuel could resist that, but his sons could not. They hadn’t had the experience of God’s waking them up in the night to turn them into prophets.
And how often do we think that a change of government will make all the wrong things right? Perpetually our hopes are disappointed, if we assume yet another change of government will make all the difference. Samuel points this out, reminding the people that being governed by kings rather than by people like Samuel’s sons will make no difference. But they reject not only Samuel’s sons, but also God.
Earlier in the history of Israel, Gideon’s people once proposed that he should “rule” over them. “Rule”, they said, not “reign”, but Gideon declared, “I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. God is the one who will rule over you.”
When the people now say they want a human king, and thus reject God as king, one might have expected God to tell Samuel not to accept this rejection, but in fact God gives what they ask for. They reaffirm their desire, they want a king to go out ahead of them and fight their battles. In one sense, this simply restates what it means to have a king. One theory about the very idea of central government is that its single, indispensable job is to defend the nation’s existence and freedom, its integrity and its borders, in relation to other nations that imperil these. The Israelites’ experience of God’s kingship in this connection has been mixed. Sometimes God has given them amazing victories. Sometimes God has let them experience notable losses. How can they function as a people if they are subject to God’s whim about what happens between them and their enemies? They want the freedom to safeguard their own destiny. Okay, says God.
And isn’t this what we see so very much in our world today? With corruption scandals and leaders believing they are unassailable? And yet also when we demand the resignations of everyone who doesn’t achieve all we want? And what of our own lives? Do we try too hard to maintain our own destiny, without god, perhaps even deliberately without God?
We don’t live three thousand years ago in the Middle East, yet I wonder if we’re falling victim to just the same human frailty as we always have. Is this what Jesus meant when he talked about peoples being divided by the Satan? Will we hear his call to treat the people around us as our family? Will we even vaguely take that seriously?
Thank goodness we’re not alone, and have God’s Spirit with us, within us, alongside us, giving us the energy and the encouragement, strength beyond our own.
And we’d do well to remember the experience of Paul, which we read in today’s reading from 2 Corinthians: when we come to faith, when we come to believe in Jesus Christ and in his message a great and wonderful thing happens – we are made new creatures – day by day, bit by bit, and we begin to share in the victory of Christ over sin and death, over the evil one, until at last we inherit an eternal weight of glory that is beyond all measure, as millions of people do each and every day.
Look not simply at the things that seen, but look at the things which are unseen – the things that are eternal – and open your hands – and leave them open – so that the Holy Spirit may land upon you, and remain with you, and give you life in this world and in the next.