I has been ringing through my mind these last days — the cry of the people in 1 Samuel. You remember it. They are in the land which was promised to them. They have been watched over and led by a series of Judges — some of whom did better than others. And now terror is rising within them as the forces of the world are bearing down on them. They cry out to Samuel, refusing to listen to his voice of reason and warning, they say,
“No! But we are determined to have a king over us, so that we also may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (I Samuel 8:19-22)
Samuel has wasted his breath trying to convince them that an earthly king will do more harm than good. And finally God gives in and says to Samuel,
“Listen to their voice and set a king over them.”
These words have been echoing in my mind in these last days as I have sat transfixed before the news once more: witnessing terror attacks in Paris, yes, but in countless other places around the world as well. Oh yes, we hold deep within us the desire to be safe, particularly when the violence of the world threatens what we hold most dear. And we see no other way, too often, than that which plays out before us every day. We feel as though we must compete on the same battlefield the world has set up for us. We cry out as people have always cried out, for someone to at least protect us.
And then we encounter Jesus now in his exchange with Pilate.
- Jesus, who by now has been betrayed by one trusted disciple and denied by another and abandoned by all the rest;
- Jesus, who has been shamed by the high priest and who will soon be beaten by Pilate’s soldiers;
- Jesus, who will shortly be wearing a crown of thorns and a mocking robe of purple;
- Jesus, whose cross is now but hours away.
We are yearning for a king who will fight our battles in a world marked by abject terror and God sends us this?
Yes. God sends us this.
A few days back in a small way I saw just this lived out.
I had just finished presiding at an evening funeral. This one had been longer than some as there were no fewer than eleven eulogies read or shared. (I know that you who have presided over such as this probably know what it is to feel as though it is getting away from you. I certainly felt that then, but the family was clear this was what they wanted and my warning that this could be less than helpful went unheeded.) And so it was that one after another, family and lifelong friends stood to share their dearest memories of one who was larger than life, who was the life of the party, whose absence now will leave a gaping hole in their lives. Many of the friends who spoke had known him since their college days. Indeed, many of the memories shared were from when they were young and strong together — when the whole wide world was theirs — or at least so it seemed.
And so I was standing at the door of the funeral home as people gathered up to leave. A woman in an electric wheelchair approached me then, asking where the dinner would be held. She had come in her wheelchair more than a mile to get there and she wanted to be sure there would be enough battery life remaining to get her home.
I bent down to her and asked her name. “It’s Joan,” she replied. And then she went on to share that she had been a neighbor to the one who died. She told me then that she had not known him as long as those who had spoken. However, they had been neighbors for some time. She would go to see him from time to time and he was able to tell her about his suffering from the cancer which would take his life. And she thought that helped him some.
No doubt this was true. He knew that Joan had suffered, too. He was able to share his pain with her in ways perhaps he had not been able to with others. No doubt that had made a difference.
Oh yes, in these days I am reminded once more of how very vulnerable we all are. And into this awareness, God sends us a King, our Jesus, who walks into suffering in our behalf and enables us to do the same. Somehow in his suffering, Jesus redeems our suffering, too.
Now it is so, of course, that no earthly ‘king’ can save us from heartbreak. No protector in this life can shield us from all that would harm. And in the end, isn’t it so that the point is not to only be safe? Isn’t it so that safety is not our primary aim? No rather, kindness is. And generosity. And sacrifice in behalf of others. No, indeed, Jesus surely was not ‘safe.’ Therefore, it surely must be so that we who follow him are not meant to be either. At least not in the way the world measures it.
I’m not there, yet, of course. I’d rather shun the suffering as most of us would. In fact, on Thursday afternoon, I went to yoga class. I’ve missed too much, of late, what with other demands which have crept into that late afternoon time slot, so as you can imagine, my lack of flexibility was making itself known. Half an hour in, I could tell little difference from when I first spread my mat on the floor. Except there was this. Somehow the stretching and the breathing managed to open up something else in me. Some need to express a whole lot of pain…
For you see, I was lying on my back doing banana poses at the end. I was trying not to think, trying only to breathe. I couldn’t keep the thoughts at bay, though, as I thought back on four funerals in eight days. And as much as that I expect, as I allowed myself to face the heartbreak of a cherished friend entering hospice care that very day. The tears started to flow and would not stop. I was glad then for a dark space as the tears pooled in my ears. I did not want those around me to witness my suffering.
I wonder why, of course. Only maybe not. All of us carry illusions of what strength looks like and it certainly does not look like lying on your yoga mat on a Thursday afternoon with tears flowing unabated. Or maybe it does. With Jesus as our King, maybe it does…
And so I wonder now,
- Who shall we be in this time when we almost can’t help but clamor for an earthly ‘king’ who will ride into battle in our behalf — who will appease us with promises of safety?
- What does it mean for our lives that we call Jesus,’King’ — this one who suffered and died for this broken world?
- What does strength look like for those who follow Jesus? How can we model a different kind of ‘strength’ as we follow Jesus into the world?