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  • Ross Moughtin

So let's hear it for Athelstan


Today is Friday, 19 November while on the other side of the English channel it is Vendredi 19 Novembre. Which tells you a lot about our respective histories. November/Novembre bears witness to our common Roman heritage – from the Latin for ‘nine’, novem. (How our 11th month is named from the number nine is another story!). However, when it comes to the days of the week, we go our separate ways. Over there, Vendredi is named after the Roman goddess Venus while over here Friday is named after the Anglo-Saxon goddess Frig. I mention all this as an introduction to a fascinating story in this morning’s Times. “A poll run by the leading historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook that sought to find the greatest king or queen of England has delivered a shock winner in the form of Athelstan, the first king to unite the country.” Athelstan! Who ever heard of Athelstan, and yet in a very close finish he beat off the bookies’ favourite Elizbeth I by a mere 1%. Clearly our greatest king you have never heard of. So what did our #1 monarch ever do for us? Well, Athelstan united the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex in 925 before driving the Vikings out of Northumbria to create a united kingdom of England two years later. By all accounts, our man was a very good king with a passion for justice and learning. A pious ruler, he founded many churches while he laid the foundation for the Benedictine monastic reform. Moreover, he had the Bible translated into Anglo-Saxon, something which inspired William Tyndale six centuries later! In a word, Athelstan gave us England. And being English is a hugely important part of my identity as a person, how I see myself. Witness my despair at being beaten by Italy in this summer’s UEFA Euro Final. While Mōndæg, Tiwesdæg, Wōdnesdæg and þunresdæg along with Frīġedæġ make up our working week, such is the legacy of his Anglo-Saxon culture on our day-to-day lives. So let’s hear it for Athelstan! If you conducted a similar poll among the contemporaries of Jesus for the greatest King in the history of Israel, there would be no contest. It would be King David, head and shoulders above all other contestants (except for Goliath, of course). It was King David following on from the discredited King Saul who united the twelve tribes of Israel into a single monarchy, albeit for a few short decades. He saw off Israel’s enemies, the Philistines and the Amalekites, not to mention the Geshurites, the Jerahmeelites and the Kenites. And it was King David who captured the city of Jerusalem from the Jebusites, making possible the temple to be built on Mount Zion, “the joy of the whole earth.” (Psalm 48:2). And yes, he composed a lot of Psalms. In a word, he gave us Israel. And more. David’s influence was huge to the extent that he gets a mention in the opening verse of the New Testament: “This is the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah the son of David, the son of Abraham.” (Matthew 1:1). Similarly the apostle Paul locates Jesus as a descendent of David as he outlines “the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures regarding his Son, who as to his earthly life was a descendant of David.” (Romans 1:2). However, it is a blind beggar who can see clearly who Jesus is as he repeatedly calls out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:47). In other words he sees Jesus as the Messiah, the person anointed by God to set Israel free. Like David but much more so. And yet David, who lived a full 1000 years before Jesus, was a flawed man. As we saw last week the Bible pulls no punches when it describes our human nature. Just think Bathsheba, with whom David committed adultery. And her husband, Uriah, whom David had killed. His own son, Absalom – who led a revolt which very nearly succeeded. In many ways a sorry tale and yet God can use anyone for his purposes which may straddle the millennia. However, what David did have (despite everything) was a heart after God. He knew in his bones that despite all his sins and failures, he was treasured by God. As pastor Craig Groeschel observes “David cuts through all the many needs, wants, and desires that may have been bouncing around inside him and essentially says, ‘If I could have only one thing, I want to be with God, to be in His presence, to know that he is always with me.’" He continues: “Whether in good times or bad times, David knew the thing he needed most: to feel God's presence close by, intimately, through worship.” So David prayed: “My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17) David could handle failure, which I suspect was also the case for Athelstan. So he encourages us: “Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.” (Psalm 31:24)


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