In 1744 Charles Wesley wrote a seventeen stanza hymn to inspire the Methodist groups that were forming throughout England. They had come under a certain amount of persecution because they were believed to be papists in disguise. Wesley leaves no doubt as to where his allegiance lies when he writes what most of us know as the first and second stanzas of the hymn:
Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim,
and publish abroad his wonderful name;
the name all-victorious of Jesus extol,
his kingdom is glorious and rules over all.
God ruleth on high, almighty to save,
and still he is nigh, his presence we have;
the great congregation his triumph shall sing,
ascribing salvation to Jesus, our King.
This thinking and imagery have become repugnant to modern Christians. Wesley’s great hymn and texts like it have been removed from many modern hymnals. Only in triumphalist churches are songs like this very popular. But even there, are the people really convinced that God is their king?
The psalmists didn’t have any problem with this language though.
Psalm 95:3 “The Lord is…a great king above all gods.”
Psalm 97:1 “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the coastlands be glad!
Psalm 98:6 “With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!
Psalm 99:1 “The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble!
Psalm 100:2 “Serve the Lord with gladness!
The word “king” is used to describe God over forty times in the Psalms, with myriad more allusions to God as the final authority, both on a personal and corporate basis in their lives. If we really do have a king over us, what does that look like in practical terms? Jesus tells us in Luke 17:7-10.
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
The military illustration I’ve used before fits here, but even more so. If your king gives you a toothbrush and tells you to use it to make the tile in the bathroom sparkle, your answer must be, “Just happy to be here, sir.”
Do we really believe that? Is our king a personal king? By this, I mean, an immanent king on whose estate we live; a protecting king into whose castle we can run in time of crisis or invasion. Is he a king we recognize on sight when he rides into our village? Is he a king whose name we own and whose lands we will defend because he has been good to us?
It seems that most of us really think of God more like we do the federal government. There are rules, regulations, and red tape associated with getting the help we need. We can apply for assistance, but there’s no guarantee it will be granted. After all, the resources can only go just so far. We can deal with his agents (clergy), and they will make him sound like he’s very involved in our lives. But the Federal Presence is really in Washington (heaven), and that is a place most of us can’t go to right now. Even if we get there as senators or congressmen (pastors), that still won’t get us access to what we really wanted in the first place: 15 minutes with the man in the Oval Office.
A concept of God like this accomplishes one useful thing though. It puts you and me in the position where, for the most part, we get to decide for ourselves which of the king’s rules we’re going to actually obey and which we’re going to give lip service to or simply flaunt altogether. Here in New Hampshire we’ve summed it up nicely, “Live Free or Die.” Even the few of us willing to accept that God is King over us are mostly unwilling to believe the king will ever actually tell us to serve him. And so we believe we’re pretty much off the hook and can live our lives here the way that best suits us.
Don’t worry. God probably won’t ever ask you to go to Africa – though if he did ask me to, I’d go in a second because I’m interested in Africa. It is far more likely, in your case and mine, that God will ask us to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly. It is far more likely this king will ask us to teach our children to walk in his ways, to write his word in our heart, love our neighbor deeply, and to serve him by serving others.
It is far more likely that the mission God will send you and me on involves making friends with the scary old man who lives in the next house or apartment and beginning to really see that man as someone for whom Christ died and as someone who needs to hear about Jesus.
Rather than complaining to God that the toothbrush he gave you is too small to clean this particular toilet, recognize that these things are the mercy and love of a great and immanent king toward you. As you stand at your neighbor’s door, plate of cookies in hand, while you wait for your neighbor to open the door, whisper, “Just happy to be here, sir.”