When Samuel anoints David as king of Israel, he becomes part of a long pattern of contested sovereignty – “regime change”. Saul is still living, and for several more years will act out the role of king. But as of this moment in Jesse’s yard, he is no longer the real king; that authority God has taken from Saul and bestowed on David, because, we are told, Saul has turned his back on the Lord and set up a monument for himself.
Regime change is what Eve and Adam attempted in Eden when they seized the fruit of God’s tree. And it’s what’s going on in Libya right now. Who will be king? Who will have power?
The question of power – where it comes from, its legitimate uses, who has it – provides a constant rumble rising out of history’s cellar – a tectonic force that reshapes life on the surface, sometimes gradually, often violently. And there is violence here. Saul will seek David's death. Absalom's violent death will break his Father's heart. Not much of scripture has to do with gradual change.
So we might, as we journey towards Jerusalem and the cross in this Lent, remember another king who suspects a rival. When the Magi visit Herod seeking the newly born king, Herod’s response is immediate, pre-emptive and violent. There will be no other king. Herod will use power to sustain power, even if it means using that power to wipe out the infant population of an entire region.
On the road to Jerusalem, the disciples come to Jesus and ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus puts a child among them, because any child will know right away who’s the greatest in the kingdom. “The King, of course!” And then, anticipating his own act of generous and courageous humility, he says, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom.”
Near the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus takes up the proclamation of John the Baptist that another kingdom is emerging to rival current arrangements. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He’s not talking spirituality here, at least not the gossamer stuff that passes for spirituality. He’s talking about transformation in how power is understood and used. In two weeks we will mark Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, where he will contest the claim of Herod as king and of Caesar as emperor. Their power is no longer legitimate; they have separated it from its source in the God of Israel, and from its purposes of compassion and justice. They have, like Samuel, built monuments to themselves. There is not an ounce of humility to be found between them.
Herod understands the claim that Jesus makes as he enters Jerusalem, and if he doesn’t, he has the priests to explain it to him. Jesus is claiming sovereignty over the city, claiming to be its true king. And just a few days later, God will indeed anoint him, and the centurion will recognize him, and the world will never be ruled by violence or fear again. And if those who build monuments to themselves, who use power to consolidate their advantage rather than to serve the common good, who sustain their advantage by violence and the threat of violence – if people like that, wherever they are, imagine that there’s none who can oppose them, they would do well to remember this ancient story rumbling up from the cellar of history – Samuel anointing the new king, the true king, the king who will still be standing when the old king falls.