My theme this morning is imagination. I’ve been thinking this week about the imagination of children. I found these quotations on the internet. A group of children was asked to write down what they would like to say to God. Here are some of the replies.
Maybe Cain and Abel would not kill each so much if they had their own rooms. It works with my brother. - Larry
I want to be just like my Daddy when I get big but not with so much hair all over. - Sam
If you watch in church on Sunday I will show you my new shoes. - Mickey D.
We read Thomas Edison made light. But in Sunday school they said you did it. So I bet he stoled your idea. - Sincerely, Donna
I do not think anybody could be a better God. Well, I just want you to know but I am not just saying that because you are God. - Charles
I didn't think orange went with purple until I saw the sunset you made on Tuesday. That was cool. - Eugene
In Sunday school they told us what you do. Who does it when you are on vacation? - Jane
Did you mean for the giraffe to look like that or was it an accident? - Norma
Instead of letting people die and having to make new ones, why don't you just keep the ones you got now? - Jane
Why is Sunday school on Sunday? I thought it was supposed to be our day of rest. - Tom L.
Children don’t seem to be limited in their imagination of possibility.
- Why shouldn’t Sunday school be on a Monday?
- Why do people die so that God has to go to the bother of making new ones?
Perhaps it’s sad that we seem to lose our imaginations when we grow up. We lose our belief in the impossible.
I’m going to start at the end of this chapter and work backwards.
Israel has asked for a king. Having a king, God points out to them through Samuel, is not all it’s cracked up to be.
- A king will oppress you,
- and will tax you heavily.
- He will institute national service,
- and he will conscript your young men and women to forced labour.
But of course this description of kingship is not unique to the people of Israel in 1000BC. It is the pattern of every king, president, ruler and dictator who has ever governed, before or since.
Power corrupts, said Lord Acton, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Even the most benign ruler tends towards this norm. Power is heady stuff, and few can resist its lures for long.
So we are not surprised to learn that within a few decades of this prophetic warning, the people of Israel were governed by a king who has fulfilled all of those warnings.
- He has a huge harem,
- a system of tax districts,
- an elaborate bureaucracy,
- a standing army and conscripted labour.
In fact, 2/3 of the agricultural wealth ended up in the hands of the urban elite – half of which went to the top 1-2% of society – of whom clearly the king was the greatest recipient.
Israel was well and truly under the imperial thumb.
Now what I’d like to do is to re-read that passage again, and think about God’s own king as we do so. Because if this is the norm, the inescapable mould for kingship, how does Jesus, King David’s descendent and God’s promised king, match up? I’m reading from The Message.
- This is the way the kind of king you're talking about operates.
- He'll take your sons and make soldiers of them—chariotry, cavalry, infantry, regimented in battalions and squadrons.
- He'll put some to forced labor on his farms, plowing and harvesting, and others to making either weapons of war or chariots in which he can ride in luxury.
- He'll put your daughters to work as beauticians and waitresses and cooks.
- He'll conscript your best fields, vineyards, and orchards and hand them over to his special friends.
- He'll tax your harvests and vintage to support his extensive bureaucracy.
- Your prize workers and best animals he'll take for his own use.
- He'll lay a tax on your flocks and you'll end up no better than slaves.
Jesus subverts every notion of power and kingship. He is the king who brings peace. He is the ruler who chooses service. He is the warrior who conquers by surrender.
We see this in the prophets. The prophecies about Jesus foretell that he will be a king of peace. Here’s one from Zechariah.
Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey. I will take away the chariots and the war-horses, and the battle bow will be broken. He will proclaim peace to the nations.
Or consider the words of this hymn of the early church.
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!
God is not limited by the norms of our society. He is not restricted to our cyclical patterns of history. He is able to imagine a daring alternate possibility that every king in history has been unable to grasp.
God – the designer and creator of the universe, has not done with his creativity. He is still at work today, imagining how things might be different. And he dares us to join with him in this task of re-imagining what the world might be like.
Compare this with Israel at the beginning of the chapter. They are facing a very real problem. Samuel, just like Eli before him, has not managed to bring his sons up to be like him. Not only that, but despite knowing their defects, Samuel has appointed them as judges over Israel.
In verse 3 we read that they accepted bribes and backhanders, and perverted the course of justice. Cases were no longer tried on the basis of fairness, of impartiality towards rich and poor, on the basis of justice and honesty. Cases were now decided according to who could offer the largest kickback.
And, not unreasonably, the people of Israel want something done about it. Samuel was a fair judge, but his sons are flagrantly abusing power, and things must change.
So what do they do?
- They form a working party that does some fact finding and puts together a report.
- They take a look at what’s going on in the nations around them to get some good ideas.
- How are the Philistines governing their country?
- What judicial system do the Midianites use?
- How are the Ammonites attacking the problem of institutional injustice?
And it very soon becomes apparent that there is a common thread. There is something that all the other nations have, but they do not. A king!
Clearly this is the answer to all their problems! The other nations have a king, so that’s what they need.
They’ve overlooked one thing, though. God is supposed to be Israel’s king. Let’s look at a couple of passages to see that.
At Mount Sinai God says this:
'You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’
In the time of the judges, Israel offered Gideon a crown, and he turned it down, saying these words, ‘I will not rule over you, nor will my son rule over you. The LORD will rule over you.’
Israel was supposed to be different from the nations around her. She was intended to be a light for the nations, to draw them to God.
And instead of holding to her distinctive, she succumbs to peer pressure and the people of Israel beg and plead for a king of their own.
This is a recurrent pattern in the history of the people of Israel. Far from being the light to the Gentiles that they were designed to be, they so often conformed to the pattern of the nations around them. Here are some words from a bit later in their history, in the book of Kings.
They rejected his decrees and the covenant he had made with their fathers and the warnings he had given them. They followed worthless idols and themselves became worthless. They imitated the nations around them although the LORD had ordered them, "Do not do as they do," and they did the things the LORD had forbidden them to do.
Fundamentally what’s happening here is a failure of imagination. The people have rightly rejected the sons of Samuel who are abusing power. But the only alternative they can come up with is another system which will be equally abusive. They do not have the imagination to think out of the box.
Their eyes and minds are stuck in a closed system. The only change they can envision is the change of shuffling pieces around. It’s a bit like one of those tile-sliding puzzles.
You can shuffle those pieces around for ever, and the only thing you’ll ever come up with is a ladybird. There’s no possibility of another piece being added, or of losing the pieces you’ve already got. Play this game and you are doomed to hours of pointless rearrangement of the pieces.
It’s the same for Israel. Faced with the problem of the abuse of power, they scratch their heads, rearrange the pieces, and ask for a king.
I’m sure many of you are familiar with the CS Lewis book ‘The Last Battle’. I’d like to read an excerpt from the end where a group of dwarves – cynical, suspicious and sceptical, are pushed into a stable where, it is said, the evil god Tash is waiting to devour them.
But when they go through, the stable is no longer twelve feet long and dark and smelly. Because of Aslan’s magic, and because it is the end of the world, they are in a beautiful country where the fruit is indescribable and the scenery perfect. Except they can’t see it.
I heard someone this week use the term ‘functional atheist.’ A functional atheist is someone who believes in God, is a Christian, even, but who behaves as though God were absent. This is what the people of Israel are doing. Their eyes on the mud rather than the stars, they rearrange the pieces and grasp at the only solution they can think of.
Open your eyes, people of God, and see the possibilities that God has on offer!
I want to close by offering a few thoughts about some areas in our lives today where we can fail to see the possibilities that God’s kingdom offers. God’s kingdom is not just a rearrangement of the pieces. Its ways are fundamentally disconnected from the systems of the world, although remaining deeply rooted in the world.
The first example is as the global credit crunch. Now I’m no financier, and there are many people more qualified to speak about this I, but I’d like to offer a few observations.
How are our governments tackling these issues – which have essentially been brought about by greed, a consumer society and rising debt? They have moved money around.
- Whether it’s shoring up banks or privatising them,
- promoting people or sacking them,
- reducing VAT to boost consumer confidence or raising interest rates to cap spending,
the only possible response they know how to make is the movement of tiles within the puzzle. Believers or not, I’d like to suggest that they are acting as functional atheists in a closed system.
What radical possibilities might the kingdom of God offer?
- We might consider the Biblical principle of jubilee – of the rhythmic cancelling of debts.
- We might ask how love for our neighbours would impact our financial decision making.
We might pursue the deep contentment that the apostle Paul speaks of, and see how that alters our perspective.
No answers here – there can be no easy answers, but where are the prophets who are asking the questions?
The second example I’d like to offer takes us neatly back to where we started, with the use and abuse of power, and in particular of violence.
Think of an action film. Any one will do. Good guys against the bad guys. Die Hard. The Bourne Ultimatum. X-Men. How does the good guy defeat the powers of evil? He shoots them. Blows them up. Throws them off a cliff. Impales then on a pick axe.
This has been referred to as the myth of redemptive violence. The myth that we can make the world a better place by killing people.
The problem is that if we use power to correct the abuse of power, we become enmeshed in its tangle If we use violence to overcome evil, we become made it its likeness. Or, as Nietzsche put it: ‘whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.’
If we use violence to overcome evil we are demonstrating a fundamental lack of imagination – of divine imagination for how God might shape things differently.
And that, of course, is what Jesus does so well. He opens our eyes to an alternative possibility.
- Turn the other cheek, he says.
- Go the extra mile.
- Love your enemies.
- Do not resist an evil man.
Now I don’t want to get tangled in the just war/ pacifism debate. That’s for another day. But we cannot escape the radical counter-cultural imagination of Jesus,
- for whom power is something to facilitate service;
- who resists evil with meekness;
- who becomes the victor by means of surrender.
Walter Wink puts it like this. Jesus was not intent on putting a new patch on an old garment or new wine in old wine skins. He was not a reformer, bringing alternative, better readings of the law. Nor was he a revolutionary, attempting to replace one oppressive power with another. He went beyond revolution…
Violent revolution fails because it is not revolutionary enough. It changes the rulers but not the rules, the ends but not the means…
If Jesus had not lived, we would not have been able to invent him.
If Jesus had not lived, we would not have had the imagination to invent him.
And so we are back at the cross again. This is God’s ultimate radical re-imagination of our broken and abusive systems of power.
- This is the place where all stereotypes are challenged,
- where all preconceptions fall,
- and where all cultural norms are confronted.
It is the place where we
- rediscover God’s radical daring heart for humanity.
- Where we discover reconciliation that defies societal divides, and even our own sin.
- Where we receive power to refashion – by the help of the Holy Spirit – our own imaginations and practices. Dom.
God open our eyes to the radical possibilities of his kingdom.