“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.”1 Samuel 8:1-9
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you.”Acts 1:1-8
The history of humanity can be described as the story of the struggle for power, a struggle waged by individuals and nations who sought to be powerful, became powerful, and what power did to them. It is the story of kings, princes, presidents and empires; it is also the story of business magnates, prelates, and media moguls. As we read that history we soon discover that there is good power and bad power, just as we have learnt that there is good cholesterol and bad coexisting in our bodies. Good power changes the world for the better, it enables life, seeks justice, builds community. Bad power is corrupt, self-serving and destructive. The story of the conflict between good and bad power is central to the biblical narrative whether we read about kings and prophets, or about the followers of Jesus who received the power of the Spirit at Pentecost and began to change the world by witnessing to God’s kingdom. The story that threads through the Bible is all about the contest between the powers of this world and the power of the king who became the suffering servant in order to redeem the world and empower with his Spirit those who work for the common good.
Let me remind you that Israel did not have a king before King Saul and King David,. It had judges, like Samuel, who exercised authority on behalf of God and the people. The judges did not have absolute power like the kings of the nations surrounding Israel, something perceived as a weakness by the Israelites and other nations. When things went wrong, when war broke out, when foreigners and aliens got out of hand, when the economy slumped, the people wanted a strong leader who could make Israel great again, protect its borders, and stand up to its enemies. Samuel exercised good and wise leadership but when he grew old, and when his sons failed to follow in his footsteps as good judges, the elders of Israel came to Samuel and demanded a king to govern them like those of other nations. Samuel was bothered by this demand because he knew how easy it was for power to become corrupt, and how easy it would be for Israel to forsake God if they elected a king who ruled like other kings. So Samuel asked God for his guidance. Remarkably, God told Samuel to listen to the voice of the people. Let them have a king if they want one, but warn them about the dangers involved, tell them that their king should reign according to God’s justice and mercy.
The story of what happened is told in the books of the Kings in the OT. Time and again a king would be enthroned, and while he might rule wisely and well to begin with, the time invariably came when power began to corrupt. That is why prophets arose in Israel to warn the kings and the people that the path they were on would lead to disaster. There were some good kings, but most thought they could do as they pleased using all the resources of the land for their own enrichment. The story is universal, it is written into the history of the nations, and continues to play itself out in our own day and our own country. The attempt by present-day presidents to grasp hold of power is not different from that of kings in previous times, and the rise of dictatorships is the same as the rise of absolute monarchies in the past. And people want strong leadership in times of uncertainty and change. Give us a king they shout to rule over us. A nation is then fortunate if it still has wise judges and courageous prophets who have not been captured by the state, judges and prophets who insist that no one can have all the power without becoming corrupt and without the nation suffering. This is the story of the book of Judges and the two books of Kings in the OT. But it is also a story that has been written again and again, and is being written even now as I speak.
But notice this: power is not the problem. Power is necessary. A country cannot function well if there is no power invested in its leaders. The problem is not power, but power-hungry and greedy rulers. So what is true or good power? The message of the prophets is that God does not exercise power like a dictator. God is a God of justice and his power is exercised in mercy and compassion. This is the power of the Holy Spirit who speaks through the prophets and is at work in Jesus who came to proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to captives. This is the power given to the disciples at Pentecost to continue Jesus’ ministry. It is a power motivated by love and service, compassion and justice.
The power of God’s Spirit is not, as many people assume, some kind of religious power that has to do solely with the church and human piety, the Spirit whose gifts are confined to speaking in tongues and performing miracles. The power of God’s Spirit is at work in the world enabling rulers to rule wisely, enabling prophets to speak truth to power; enabling people to work for justice and serve their communities with compassion. The power of the Spirit is given to the disciples of Jesus not just for their own spiritual benefit but for the common good, for the sake of God’s ministry of reconciliation and peace. The power of the Spirit is the power that enables people to live according to the values of God’s kingdom in the life of the world. This power, the power of the Spirit of Jesus, is the power without which we as Christians cannot fulfil our calling to seek first God’s kingdom in order that the world might be saved.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 1 September 2016