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God’s Social Experiment (shortened sermon)

June 13, 2012

 1 Samuel 8: 4-22        Mark 3: 20-35  2 Corinthians 4: 6-12

This week my daughter Chrissy wrote an article for an environmental youth organisation called Generation Zero about why her and her friends ‘exposed themselves’ on the trains and stations of Wellington, dressed only in underwear, to expose the government’s transport policies heavily weighted towards new roads and away from public transport. As I read, it struck me that although the green movement has been around for a while now, there is a whole new dynamic at work in the younger generation, and it’s gaining momentum. I often hear them comment that previous generations have trashed the planet and stolen their birthright. In this movement there is a sense of a rejection of the past, and starting afresh with a new way of life. Generation Zero reminds me of the phrase Ground Zero. The past generations have left a devastated planet, like a bomb site and a radical conversion is required if we are to survive.

And it makes we wonder whether the first followers of Jesus, led by the apostle Paul, thought of themselves in this manner. The principalities and powers (the destructive forces of domination in the world to date) have, they said, been defeated by Jesus and now a new way is beginning… And like generation zero they saw themselves as the beginning of a new and living way.

According to the Bible, Israel is God’s social experiment… a people created from scratch when Abraham goes off in the direction of nowhere-in-particular following a promise, and Moses leads people out of slavery with a new code of living – in which violence is exposed and people learn to live without killing, without human sacrifice, without even coveting their neighbour’s property (imagine the effect on consumerism!).

Today’s Old Testament reading highlights what a struggle this social experiment turned out to be. It comes out of the book of Samuel, which is part of a larger collection of histories of Israel (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings), collected and written around the time of the Babylonian Captivity about 500bc – half way between the kingdom of David and Solomon and the time of Jesus. And what’s particularly interesting is that, even though the time of King David was regarded by many as a kind of golden era, here we have a kind of criticism of the very idea of monarchy in the first place. The hero of the book, Samuel, is getting old, his son’s have rebelled and the people of Israelcome to Samuel, the prophet, and ask him to give them a King like the nations around them. The idea they have is that they are not a real community, not a real people if they don’t operate like other peoples, as a monarchy. God’s social experiment looks to be on the rocks. Samuel doesn’t like this idea so he goes away and talks to God and God says to him “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 (that is God) from being king over them… listen to their voice; only – you shall solemnly warn them the ways of the king who shall reign over them”. And so Samuel gives them a king but makes it very clear that this is not God’s will, God is merely giving in to their will, and the outcome will be slavery and militarisation. I am reminded of that wonderful aphorism by British historian, Lord Acton: “Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

God orders the monarchy but he doesn’t exactly bless it, or approve of it. He permits it, with a warning about the violence that will come in its wake. The start of a monarchy inIsrael is just the beginning of the people of God learning live under a strange and an alien system of life, it’s not the life of the covenant and the 10 commandments.

Anyone watch the Royal Jubilee celebrations this week? It strikes me that after 1600 years of a close alliance between the state and Christianity (whether it be Roman Empire or various monarchies) its easy to forget that the people of God is something different… it’s God’s social experiment. To be a Christian and to be a citizen of Queen and Country are two quite different things. To be a Christian is like living in a country within a country. As Paul says, its like having citizenship somewhere else… thekingdom ofGod.


In our gospel reading today Jesus’ own family get join with the authorities of the day and begin to see Jesus as a madman, an evil force, a threat to the order of society and they arrive to constrain him. And someone taps Jesus on the shoulder saying “Jesus, your mother and brother and sisters are here.” This prompts Jesus to reply, like someone from another planet “Who are my mother and my brothers? … Whoever does the will of God is my mother, and brother and sister”. God has a social experiment that is more important even than the ties of blood and kinship.

To conclude I want use the third reading for today from the 2nd letter to the church at Corinth to reflect on what it means for us live in the new world that God is creating in Jesus Christ

For it is God who said “let light shine out of darkness” (creation language – new start, generation zero) who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (living with a different God means a different way of life).

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us…. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

It’s a struggle… it’s incredibly vulnerable. That seems to be at the core of following Jesus, vulnerability. But it’s full of hope.

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