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Trading God for a King

All the elders of Israel gathered and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “Look, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now set up a king for us to govern us like all the nations.” The word was evil in the eyes of Samuel when they said “Give us a king to govern us.” So Samuel prayed to YHWH, and YHWH said to Samuel: “Listen to the voice of the people, everything they are saying to you, for it is not you they have rejected, but me they have rejected from being king over them.”

(1 Samuel 8:4-7)

Dear People of God,

At the time of 1 Samuel, the Israelites had lived for generations in the promised land as a loose confederation of tribes. In general, the tribes had not been too involved in each other’s affairs, and there was minimal central leadership. While this lack of bureaucracy certainly had its advantages, it also meant that the Israelites could not muster much of an army to protect themselves from the kings of the surrounding nations.

According to the book of Judges, so long as the peoples stayed faithful to God, their military weakness was not a problem. Just as God had promised their ancestors in the wilderness, fidelity to the God’s covenant resulted in peace and prosperity, allowing them to flourish. On the other hand, when the people of a tribe or region turned away from their God, trusting in other gods for blessing, God would withdraw their protection and they would suffer oppression by the stronger nations which surrounded them.

When the people would realize their error and turn back to God for help, God would raise up a charismatic leader, called a “Judge,” who would govern the people and deliver them from their oppressors. Though these Judges did deliver the people, scripture makes clear that they were no replacement for God’s protection gained from covenant fidelity. They were deeply flawed people whose stories often ended in tragedy for themselves and those around them.

This cycle of fidelity leading to prosperity and infidelity leading to oppression repeated many times throughout the generations which followed Israel’s entry into the land. Finally, by the time of Samuel, the elders of the people wanted a change. Rather than relying on God for protection, they wanted to take matters into their own hands, to unite under a strong king who would enable them to resist their enemies.

Unfortunately, as God’s response to Samuel makes clear, Israel’s desire for a king was no different from the infidelity they had shown throughout their time in the land. Israel had once again rejected the God who brought them up out of Egypt, and they were once again turning to another for peace and prosperity. This time, instead of imitating the religious practices of the surrounding nations, Israel placed its trust in their form of government: a strong king who can defeat their enemies on their behalf. God’s reign is not sufficient for them: they desire a king.

Though we might not like to admit it, we in America are no different today. We, too, are always turning away from the God who provides and seeking our peace and prosperity by our own strength. Just like the society and culture around us, we do not trust in God as we ought, and so we chase after the idols of our culture: power, rightness, identity, politics, wealth, and more. And though we Christians should know better, this idolatry pervades the churches as well. We, too, desire a king.

In his recent book Losing our Religion, Russell Moore laments this trend among his fellow conservative Evangelicals. Moore is especially concerned with the way the idol of “Christian nationalism” has taken center stage in many churches, trading away a focus on Christ in favor of political power and influence. Some Evangelical pastors dedicate their sermons to promoting populist leaders like Donald Trump, putting political gains ahead of the teachings of Jesus. Rather than singing praises to God and praying for their political leaders, these churches are singing the praises of their politicians and praying for everyone else to get in line. As Moore puts it, “we are bargaining away…the blood of Christ for blood-and-soil, and that is not an even trade.” (p. 116)

Evangelicals aren’t the only ones. Despite the “E” at the beginning of ELCA, Lutherans are not Evangelicals in the American sense, and Lutherans tend to be much more politically diverse than Moore’s Southern Baptist convention. Though our churches as a whole are less likely to give into the call of Christian nationalism, there are temptations from all political directions.

While Christian nationalism is the current temptation of churches on the right, the temptations on the left tend to involve decentering the gospel in favor of advocating for progressive political priorities. Desiring to be relevant to contemporary culture, churches are pulled to downplay traditional teachings such as sin and forgiveness in favor of the trending values of the day: diversity, equity, and inclusion. While these values have their place, and while it is worth investigating the ways in which we exclude those who are different from us, they are not the gospel. The church cannot preserve its standing in the culture by pursuing these values any more than Israel could ensure its safety by demanding a king.

Of course, moderates like me are not immune to these sorts of temptations either. Rather than seeking power through nationalistic movements or relevance through progressive politics, moderate churches are tempted to seek safety through silence on political issues. We ignore the worrying authoritarianism of the right and the dogmatic moralizing of the left in the hopes that we never have to confront them directly. Instead of engaging in real dialogue on important political issues, we keep our mouths shut to preserve the illusion of agreement. We trade God’s powerful word of challenge and comfort for a falsely constructed peace, as though that alone would protect us from the divisive forces around us. It’s not exactly a king we are demanding, but it is a rejection of God nonetheless.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus addresses people like us, people anxiously seeking a way to secure their future. Jesus responds to their lack of trust with a promise: “Seek first the kingdom of God and its righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Do not worry for tomorrow; tomorrow will worry for itself.” (Matthew 6:33f). As Christians, we are citizens first of the kingdom of God, and we are the recipients of a righteousness that is given freely by grace. Trusting in this righteousness and the God who has saved us, we resist every false god and king that would seek to enslave us, proclaiming this freedom to a world in need.

Your brother in Christ,

-Pastor John

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