Absolute Power Absolves Absolutely

By the time we get to 1st Samuel not only have the judges failed, but so have the priests. Eli and his priestly sons have perverted the temple at Shiloh and skimmed enough off the top to make a televangelist blush. 

As for the prophets, the ones sent with the Word of the Lord to speak some sense into these people? We’re told the word of the Lord was rare in those days. Maybe the Lord wasn’t speaking, or maybe no one was listening. 

With threats from without and corruption within, what we find in this section of the Old Testament is a leadership crisis. The people could have cried out to God for rescue, but instead what do they do? They ask the new prophet Samuel for a king, not for the help of God, but for king to rule over them, a king like the other nations.

When the prophet Samuel heard the people’s request for a king he was appalled and God was too! God told Samuel to inform the people of just what they could expect from a king. Kings will take your sons and put them in the army, take your daughters, take your cattle, take your crops, take your land, and take your wealth. Kings just take and take and take and take. 

But even after this warning, the people choose, no, insist, on having a king. And God lets them. 

Cyrus Habib was the Lieutenant Governor of Washington state at age 35 with his eyes on the governor’s mansion and a bevy of advisors telling him he was the perfect candidate.

His rise to power was meteoric, and with good reason. After Cyrus, the son of Iranian immigrants, was diagnosed at age 9 with a rare childhood cancer, he lost his retinas and with them his eyesight. But this disability didn’t get the best of him. His can-do attitude prevented him from being held back. His campaign stump speech charted his story “from Braille to Yale,” as he put it. He was an all A student, excelling at piano, karate, and even downhill skiing. He cared about his state, his nation, its people, and the less fortunate, all while being less fortunate himself. 

Habib got elected to every office he ran for on his first bid: the House of Representatives, then the State Senate, then Lieutenant Governor. Next, his advisors told him, next was the governorship, or who knows, maybe even the Oval Office. 

The rise of Israel’s first king was pretty meteoric too. King Saul was good looking, tall, strong, worthy of the office; but after his rise came his downfall. Greed and pride led him to disobey the Lord, so God’s Spirit departed from him. Saul’s story ends in madness.

The next and most famous king is David. His rise was less meteoric, but clearly blessed. David was not the obvious candidate. He was the runt of the litter, had to be recalled from tending sheep for his own coronation, and he was no warrior, not at first. Yet what he lacked in might and pedigree he made up for in faith in God’s promises. Slaying Goliath was all the proof the people needed. 

And yet, David’s rise to power, his perch in the royal tower proves in time to also be a precipice from which he will fall. He comes to look down on his subjects, including a woman named Bathsheba, and then does what kings do. He takes her, and the life of her husband as well. So begins David’s own downfall into madness and despair. 

There was no downfall in sight for Cyrus Habib, at least not from the outside. His approval ratings were tops, his prospects limitless, the cherry on top: he was being courted by a major New York publisher for a book deal about his life. 

“It was going to be all about my biography, my story, my identity…” he said in a 2020 New York Times interview, “I couldn’t help but wonder just how many ways one can be called a rising star?” 

But then, in Spring of 2020, Habib shocked the political establishment and the state when he announced that he would not be running for re-election. What was the great scandal that was the cause of this downfall? What moral failure? What corruption? It was nothing like that. Habib said he had decided, no discerned that rather than seeking higher office, he would instead seek the Jesuit priesthood.

The story of the Israel’s kings, Saul, David, Solomon, and onward all take a somewhat similar shape. For every royal rise, there comes an often disgraceful fall.

But it’s not often you find a leader who rises to power and then chooses to fall. As Father James Martin put it, during Habib’s 10 year intensive ordination process he has chosen “a dramatic change of life from being Lieutenant Governor to being told he’s cleaning the bathroom the wrong way.” 

Habib said for him it felt like a relief, like “giving your car keys to someone before you start drinking.” The sensation of kingly power had already started to intoxicate him. “That can-do mentality can get you far,” he said, “but if you’re not careful it can start to crowd God out, and make you think you’re the god, that you’re in control.”

Instead of taking power, Habib decided to surrender it.

Chapters before David’s fall from grace the Lord speaks to him, makes him a promise that, despite the rise and fall, the failure of dozens of kings like him, God will remain faithful to this kingdom, and one day raise up one from among them, one of David’s offspring, and establish his kingdom forever. “I will be his father, and he shall be my son,” God said, “and of his kingdom there shall be no end.”

It was in the time of King Herod that it happened. Born to a woman named Mary and a man named Joseph, from the house of David, and they named him Jesus. Matthew introduces him as the Messiah, the King, son of David, and Son of God.

He healed the sick, fed the hungry, and ate with sinners, but the thing he talked about more than anything else was the kingdom of God, announcing that the kingdom of God is at hand. It’s here. It’s him.

And yet, as in the Old, so in the New, even though their true king is right in front of them, the people reject his reign. By Good Friday they’re declaring their allegiance to a king from another nation, telling Pilate “We have no king but Caesar.”  

Then, along the same path King David was led up to be crowned in Jerusalem, they led Jesus down away from Jerusalem, crowned him with thorns, and hung him on a cross. Above his head a Roman soldier posted a sign identifying him as “King of the Jews.” An onlooker said, “No, write this man said he was king.” The soldier replies “What is written is written.” 

It isn’t until three days later that they realize that what was written on the sign was the truth. On Easter it becomes clear: nations and kings may rise and fall; but under this King, even the fallen are made to rise.

The New York Times will not be publishing a follow up story on Cyrus Habib. At this point he’s decidedly out of the limelight. Instead he’s about a third of the way through his decade-long initiation into the ministry of Christ and his Kingdom.

As a priest Cyrus will be asked not only to study this story, not only to put his trust in this gospel, but to represent this king and distribute the king’s gifts in water, wine, and word. 

What would possess someone to so publicly forgo worldly power and the chance to rule the world? Habib and others like him testify, it’s a conviction, a conversion to the fact that true power is made perfect in weakness, that when the crucified Christ says “Father forgive them,” it’s not the murmurings of a madman, it’s a royal decree, declared by our king enthroned on his cross. 

What leads anyone to choose the way of the cross over the way of the world? It’s the promise of the gospel poured out from age to age on a corrupt creation, the good news that in Christ Absolute Power doesn’t corrupt absolutely. Absolute Power absolves absolutely. 

This is not how kings like the other nations reign. This is how God reigns. Behold your King and hear the good news. He has freed us from slavery to Sin and Death, and of his kingdom there shall be no end. 

Thanks be to God

Here’s our song for the week!

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