The Shout of a King
“The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them.” Numbers 23:21
”And Pilate asked [Jesus], ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’” Luke 23:3
I am forever fascinated by the way the themes of life weave together in ways that we never intend or control. For example, the lectionary reminds us that this is Christ the King Sunday, and the sermon that Jim planned to share with you until he tested positive for COVID on Friday was Crown Him With One More Crown ~ in which he would note that we are all comfortable with the image of Christ as Shepherd, but wondered how well we’d accept the reality of Christ as King.
Simultaneously, I had scheduled a face-to-face appointment with a US Senator and former parishioner to find out why the Reign of Christ was not more prominent in the political affairs of our nation. I needed to know whether the idealism of my faith was still relevant to the political struggles of our time. As the discussion unfolded he moved from being a former parishioner to pastoring me ~ a truly rewarding experience!
And here we are at week’s end on Christ the King Sunday ~ the theme of Jim’s week and of mine coming to focus on the reality of the Reign of Christ. To put the theme into focus for worship I began with the ancient story of Balaam and Balak in the book of Numbers.
Balak was the king of the Moab, and when he saw the people of Israel moving into his territory and realized that his army was no match for the forces of Israel, he sent for a world-famous soothsayer named Balaam and paid him a handsome sum to cast an evil spell on the Hebrew people. His thought was that if the great host of Israel could have a curse placed upon them, with all of the magic and wizardry of the ancient world, that it would be easier to defeat them in battle.
A few chapters earlier God gives us a glimpse of how He worked on Balaam, though he knew Him not. When Balaam first received the invitation of king Balak he had a sense that it wasn’t the right thing to do, and sent word back to the king in that regard. But the king, believing as politicians often do, that everyone has a price, a price for which they will sell themselves to the evil intentions of others, began promising great wealth and even sending great wealth, because he needed the leverage of an expert!
Finally Balaam agreed reluctantly and set out for Moab; and the drama that unfolded is as humorous as it is profound. An angel of the Lord stood in the way before him with fiery sword drawn only ~ as only God could manage ~ the donkey could see him but Balaam could not. So, seeing the angel the donkey turned off into a field. Balaam beat him and forced him back on the path.
So the angel went to a place between two stone walls and took another stand, and again only the donkey could see him and tried to go around him pushing Balaam’s leg against the stones, only to be beaten again and pushed on.
A third time the angel stood in a pass between two mountains where there was no room to get around him, and when the donkey saw him there he sat down in the roadway, only to be beaten a third time by the irate passenger.
At this time, with God’s good humor, the donkey is gifted with speech, and says to Balaam, “Why have you beaten me these three times?” And Balaam, is so consumed with rage that he answers the donkey: “Because you went off into the field, and brushed my leg against the wall, and sat down in the road and refused to move!”
At which point God opened Balaam’s eyes. He saw the angel and declared, “I did not know that it was you who stood in the way against me.” Long story, but God, having introduced himself to this pagan soothsayer, allowed him to continue his journey so that he and God could have some fun with king Balak.
When Balaam arrived in Moab the king was certain he had hired the expert who would use his evil spells against his enemies. The superstitious king took Balaam to a place overlooking the Israelite encampment and said with glee, “From here, conjure your evil spells and cast them upon my enemies so that I can defeat them!”
Well, Balaam and God had agreed upon a strategy: build seven altars and sacrifice a bull and a ram. and then he had the king stay by the altars while he, Balaam, went aside to consult with God. And then returned to say, “God has obviously blessed them, and I cannot curse what God has blessed.”
In desperation, Balak, way back when politicians were superstitious and malicious, let it be known that he did not bring his expert all that way to tell him what he did not want to hear! So he took Balaam to another location, and then on to a third. In each place seven altars were built, a bull and a ram was sacrificed on each, and Balaam turned away to consult with God. And each time the message was the same, “I cannot curse what God has blessed. I may be able to conjure up evil spirits and spread their malicious negativity upon my opponents, but there is no evil force great enough to destroy what God has blessed!”
And the third time Balaam returned with that message he added a declaration that has permeated human history ever since: “The Lord their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them!” There, from the mouth of a pagan soothsayer and conjurer of evil spells is the central theme of the Old Testament. The historians of the sacred text documented evidence for hundreds of years ~ not to prove it, put to reveal it~ that “The Lord their God is with them.” The very name they gave for God, Immanuel, literally means, God is with us!
The psalms were the hymns of the Hebrew that faith-filled believers sang to the glory of God ~ and the message is ever the same: Yes, the Lord our God is with us, and in our devotion and worship the shout of a king is heard among us!”
The prophetic voices of the Old Testament lifted up the theme at every opportunity, saying to those in positions of power, “The power you claim to have over us must be reconciled with the power that wells up from within us and among us, (and here it is again) for the Lord our God is with us, and the shout of a king
So prominent was that theme that even Pilate was aware of it; and when Jesus was brought before him he asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus replied (if I may paraphrase), “Yes, I am, and for this purpose I was born into the world, but my kingdom is not of this world.” And Pilate declared to Jesus’ accusers, “I find no fault in him.”
But the mobs were already gathered on the courtyard steps ~ or rather, on the steps of the palace ~ ready to prove that mob justice is more certain that the justice of due process! This was, back in the days when the threat of mob violence was used to corrupt the course of history. Mob justice claimed the day and Jesus was led to the slaughter; but I like to think that there was a moment there when two powerful met stood face to face. One adorned with political power and the other sustained by spiritual power, and I like to think that there was a moment there when each respected the power of the other.
And it was there in that moment of recognition that I find myself wanting to join in with my own needs of the week, saying, “Yes, Lord, I believe you were born into this world to be King of kings and Lord of lords, but as this world spins seemingly out of control I need to know how your Reign as King is influencing the unfolding political dramas of life on earth!” (Hence my talk with the good senator)
The answer, interestingly enough, comes from the old soothsayer Balaam who did not know the King of kings, but who recognized the shout of a king among those who fought and struggled in the service of the King. There it is ~ the shout of the king from those who struggle in the name of the King is the only force that evil cannot intimidate or overpower or conquer!
At this point, the senator, who was once a parishioner of mine, began to pastor me. He reminded me that the world is not a perfect place and that God intended it to be that way. He said, “If God wanted the world to be perfect God would have created it that way!” “And human nature is not perfect, and was not designed to be, and those people and systems that promise various forms of perfection for humanity are delusional, and sometimes evil.”
“So how have you managed to serve with distinction all those years without getting discouraged?” I asked. He said, “You take a stand on principle and defend it in public debate and with courageous action. You may not win the day, but bits of heaven’s glory are revealed. You launch crusades with moral courage determined to demonstrate truth in a world of falsehood,” he said, “and in the struggle for truth the light of glory shines through.” He reminded me that there is only one Savior, and that it was not we who save the world, but we who serve faithfully.”
And in that moment, I heard Balaam, trying to get a few words into the Senator’s pastoring influence: “Yes! For the Lord their God is with them, and by their devotion, the shout of a king is heard among them!”
Albert Schweitzer was well acquainted with the struggle between the idealism of faith and the political realities of life, and explored them in his book Quest For The Historical Jesus. I have quoted his famous last paragraph here before, but it bears repeating because it sums up our converging themes of the week.
He comes to us as One Unknown, without a name, as of old by the lakeside He came to those who knew him not. He speaks to us the same word, “Follow thou me.” He commands, and to those who obey Him, He reveals Himself to them in the struggles and the sufferings which they endure in His fellowship. And by some ineffable mystery, they discover in their own experience who He is.
So Pilate asked Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” I can now paraphrase his response with confidence: “Yes, I am! Deal with it! Hosanna! Hallelujah! Amen!
David Hodgson, Peoria Presbyterian Church, November 21,2021