Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 10th June 2012
10 June 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
This month, the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth around the world have been celebrating the Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. The Coronation, which took place on 2nd June 1953, was held here in Westminster Abbey, as has happened with all our monarchs since Christmas Day 1066 when William the Conqueror was crowned in the Abbey newly-built by Edward the Confessor.
The diamond jubilee of Elizabeth II’s Coronation will take place next year, but during in the Matins sermons this June I am taking the opportunity of thinking more broadly about the Monarchy in relation to Christian faith.
Last week, I was considering the notion of ‘Jubilee’ both as a time of celebration and also as a biblical idea of liberation. This Sunday I am moving on to think about how the Bible treats monarchy and for this I am indebted to Ian Bradley, Reader at St Andrews University, for his revised edition of ‘God Save the Queen: the Spiritual Heart of the Monarchy’.
It goes without saying that the Coronation is directly drawn from elements of the Bible – the sacred anointing with oil, the anthem ‘Zadok the Priest’ in use since at least 973. But perhaps the first thing to say is that the Bible is decidedly ambiguous about kingship.
1 Samuel 8 describes it most clearly. The elders of Israel approach Samuel requesting to have ‘a king to govern us like all the nations’. At its very start ‘kingship’ in the Old Testament is something which is popularly requested, rather than divinely ordained. It is a rejection of the sovereignty of their God, Yahweh, who says to Samuel: ‘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: 7). In doing so, God regards this as yet another example of the people’s disobedience and rebellion.
God tells Samuel solemnly to warn the people of the consequences of choosing a king but, if the people persist: ‘Listen to their voice and set a king over them’ (1 Samuel 8: 22).
In the succession of three great kings, all known from Sunday School stories, what follows is a clear indication of both the benefits and dangers of kingship.
The first king, Saul, stands out because it is the prophet-judge Samuel who anoints the new king: ‘Samuel took a phial of oil and poured it on his head, and kissed him: he said 'The Lord has anointed you ruler over his people Israel … you will save them from the hand of their enemies all around' (1 Samuel 10: 1-2). Despite Saul’s later disobedience and his rejection by God, there is no question of kingship itself stopping. The dye has been cast.
The second king, David, is appointed through an act of divine election, though a popular choice because of his military prowess, as Goliath found to his cost. Again, not without his blemishes – read about his affair with Bathsheba – David embeds the monarchy still further: we hear of his appointing judges and administrators – the first steps in Church and State. More significantly still, 2 Samuel 7 has Nathan the prophet telling David that the Lord will establish a dynasty in his line – no longer was the king to be a matter of popular election: ‘The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house … I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom’ (2 Samuel 7: 12).
This line of David was established in his son, Solomon, on the hereditary principal. And to Solomon is given the key role of sacralising kingship – it is he who builds the Temple in Jerusalem, giving the Ark of the Lord a permanent home. And it is to him that we owe perhaps the most central text in the Bible relating to monarchy, set to music by Handel for the Coronation of George II in 1727:
'Zadok the Priest, and Nathan the Prophet anointed Solomon king. And all the people rejoiced, and said: God save the king! Long live the king! May the king live for ever. Amen, Halleluyah!' (After 1 Kings 1: 38–40)
So the Old Testament emphasises the sacred and spiritual nature of kingship, whose authority ultimately derives from God with whom the king stands in a special relationship. Through the anointing, there is a priestly and representational role which points to the part the king plays in defending the land and mediating the covenant between God and Israel, despite their personal failings.
By comparison, we might be tempted to think that the New Testament was rather ‘light’ on kingship itself. There is clearly a great deal of comment about ‘the kingdom of God’, but the rare reflections on monarchy itself are mostly confined to casting aspersions on Herod the Great!
And while its true that the New Testament does talk more about the ‘kingdom’ than the ‘king’, it is the life of Jesus which is so clearly framed in terms of royal language.
The very words ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ come from the Hebrew and Greek words for ‘anointed’, the singular act to dedicate the king. The genealogy in St Matthew goes out of its way to establish Jesus in the line of the patriarch, Abraham, and of the king, David, – as we sing every Christmas, ‘to you in David’s town this day is born of David’s line’.
The magi, those visitors from the east in St Luke’s narrative, ask ‘Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?’
The baptism of Jesus by St John, where the Holy Spirit descends as a dove and the voice is heard: ‘This is my son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased’ carries with it echoes of the royal Psalm 2 addressed to the king God has set on his holy hill: ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you’.
The entry of Jesus into Jerusalem on that first Palm Sunday is laden with royal overtones, principally from Zechariah 9: 9: 'Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding upon an ass.
But as Jesus makes abundantly clear, the one thing he is not going to do is undertake a popular revolution seeking the restoration of Israel from the Roman empire. His authority comes from God alone and does not rely on a human mandate.
The Passion narrative itself can hardly hide the royal associations: the soldiers mock Jesus, placing in his hand a reed for a sceptre. The priests cry out ‘King of Israel’ and the final condemnation, ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’ – his crucifixion because of his political offence to Rome and his religious offence to the Jews – reveals that a very different sort of kingship is being played out. The kingship of Jesus is revealed not in palaces, temples or armies but through suffering and rejection, in the laying down of the majesty of godhead and taking human form, as Philippians 2 puts it.
So when we look to the Bible for models of kingship we see a development over time. The Old Testament Monarchy sought by the people is originally perceived as a threat to the sovereignty of God. The great Kings of Israel established both secular and sacred authority, being mediators in the covenant between God and his people. The New Testament picks up much of this language and establishes Jesus as part of the royal Davidic line.
But crucially, the exercise of that kingship is as a servant-king and the message to all subsequent rulers is that all authority ultimately derives from God and is accountable to God. Most visibly and powerfully this is expressed in the Coronation service here in the Abbey, where the Coronation Chair is placed not facing the people – as it were to elicit a democratic mandate – but, with the people, facing the altar, knowing that it is to God that ultimately an account must be given.