Three rings for the Elven-kings under the sky
Seven for the Dwarf-lords in their halls of stone
Nine for Mortal Men doomed to die
One for the Dark Lord on his dark throne
In the land of Mordor where the shadows lie
One ring to rule them all, one ring to bind them
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them
J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series has become rather iconic. A story of a ring that was forged to control, it gives the illusion of power; but this kind of absolute power corrupts absolutely. But when trouble seems imminent and chaos is threatening to overrule order, people need to put their trust in something. And if it’s something they can see, something they can hold onto, well, that’s even better.
In the Lord of the Rings, the ring represents ultimate power. When we think about what can be done with ultimate power, it can terribly bad, but, on the other side, think about what good could be done if it were used for good. Frodo, the hobbit who is charged to carry the ring, offers the ring to a wizard friend, Gandalf. Gandalf sternly tells Frodo, “Don’t tempt me Frodo! I dare not take it. Not even to keep it safe. Understand, Frodo, I would use the ring from a desire to do good, but through me, it would wield a power too great and powerful to imagine.” Essentially, he knows that, at some point, the power of the ring would take over and eclipse all else. It would stop being about doing good and start being about the ring.
In Israel, Samuel had been serving as judge for quite some time and, now that he’s older, his sons are taking over. But his sons aren’t like he is. They’re trying to turn a profit, accepting bribes, and perverting justice. So the people say, “Samuel, give us a king. Then we can be just like the other nations.” Never mind that Israel already had a king. Israel’s king’s name was YHWH and YHWH had pretty much taken care of them from the start. They didn’t have to worry about succession, they didn’t have to worry about abuse of power, they didn’t have to worry about justice—their king was Almighty God. But they wanted a substitute. The other nations had a king, they wanted one too.
Samuel hears this and immediately says, “Oh, this is a bad idea.” Because Samuel knows this—no king will do. You cannot pledge loyalty to a king and still be totally committed to God. Eventually, it’s going to become more about the king than about God. Eventually, the people will need to be saved and, rather than call out to God, they will call out to their king. Absolute power corrupts absolutely. I mean, does anyone remember what happened with David? The King, the guy that everyone said was different. “A man after God’s own heart.” I hate to harp on David two weeks in a row, I know I talked bad about him last week. But seriously. David sees Bathsheba bathing on the rooftop and says, “I want that.” He uses his power and position to call her to him and she becomes pregnant. (I know, there are a few other things in there, but for the sake of modesty, let’s move on) When he discovers she is pregnant, he tries to trick her husband into thinking that it’s his child. But Uriah is too loyal to David! And so he tells the commander of his army to put Uriah in the front of the battle and to pull back once he’s engaged so that he will die in battle. David, you might have started out trying to wield the ring for good, but at some point, you lost your way.
God tells Samuel, “You know what? Give them a king. It’s not a rejection of you, Samuel. It’s a rejection of me. And they’ve been rejecting me from the day I brought them out of Egypt. I have never been their sole focus.”
We are a people always looking for a savior. Things seem so bad and we need someone to be the one we can turn to. We need something that can lead us, something that can save us. For Israel, it was a king that they wanted. For us, it can mean a lot of things. A new president, a different congress, a better pastor, better church members, more church members, more money. I’ve got news—they’re all just like the ring. They can’t fix it. They can only imprison you. You don’t need a new king. You already have one.
It’s easy to put our trust in things that aren’t God. We want a figurehead, we want a captain, we want a leader. Now, having a leader, there’s nothing wrong with that. From the time of Moses and Aaron, God has set some apart to be leaders. Everyone has a different function. The problem is when we turn our leader or leaders into kings, a ring of power, another god. This is true both in the church and in the world. Our leaders cannot be our saviors. There is only one of those, and his name is Jesus.
Today we celebrate Laity Sunday. We celebrate the great work of the laity who have served and the work that the laity who are taking leadership positions will do. It’s also a good time to pause and remember that Michael and I are not the saviors of this church. Nor are we the people that are going to form this place into what God is making it. Church is the work of God through the people. At our baptism, we are all initiated into ministry in Christ’s church. It’s going to take the entire church working for their King to make this place into what God wants it to be. Our King has called us to a great task, but I believe we are up to it. Because, where we are not able, God will enable us. Where we are weak, God will make us strong. Where we are weary, God will encourage us. Where we are uncertain, God will give us the certainty we need. And, by the way, this lay leadership is highly important, but we need everyone. And as important as good pastoral leadership, lay leadership, and lay participation is, following our king is *the most important thing* that we can do.
Things are not always going to be easy. In fact, I imagine that they will often be difficult. I imagine that the threat of chaos will pervade both our church and our lives over and over and over again. Hear me on this—appointing a king to rule over us is not the way to respond to the chaos. It is, however, what feels most natural to us. When we’re stuck with the Red Sea at our back and Pharaoh’s army fast approaching in front of us, we want to go back to Egypt and just go ahead and listen to Pharaoh. When the Philistines parade their giant out and ask for a challenger, our reaction is to say, “you know what, that is one big dude. We should probably just let them win.” When violence to and from the public becomes the norm, it’s easiest to try to find a good person to fix that. When the situation overseas seems like it might be beyond what anyone can handle, it is easy to simply want bigger and better weapons. When life and work seem to overcome and overwhelm us, it may seem like one more drink, one more paycheck, or one more purchase will make it better.
Let us not forget—our king is the one who looked over the waters of chaos and separated the waters from the waters. Our God said to the waters, “You can come this far but no farther.” Why would we want to go back to Pharaoh? If our God can order the waters of creation, surely our God can part the Red Sea on our behalf. Why would we want to let Goliath take over? Of course the God who formed the world with God’s own hands is more powerful than any warrior the Philistines can muster. And, by the way, there is no politician, police officer, activist or military that can handle the climate in the United States and overseas like Almighty God can. And all the self-medication and personal remedies in the world can’t compare to what can be done in the hands of the one who is incorruptible.
The ring gave absolute power to the one who wielded it, but that power corrupted. Our God doesn’t need a ring. Our God is sovereign. Our God is mighty. Our God is just and righteous. Whatever it is that you are aiming to make king in your life, hear this—it isn’t good enough. It’s about time that we stop allowing the things that are corruptible to rule us. Let us turn to Jesus as our ruler, Lord, savior and king. Amen.
Rev. Samantha Lewis