Old Testament Reading Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Epistle Reading: Revelation 1:4b-8
Gospel Reading: John 18:33-37
Sermon: “What Does it Mean to Say Jesus is King?”
We Americans have a complicated relationship with Monarchy. We are sort of romantically attracted to the idea and practically repelled by it. When some event happens in the British royal family – a marriage or a major funeral, millions drop what they are doing and watch the spectacle. But our distrust of the political authority of monarchy is deep. The age of the absolute monarch is pretty much past, the court of King Louis 14th is long gone save for his beautiful Palace of Versailles. The Russian czars are gone. The few remaining monarchs have only ceremonial roles to fill. Still in a few places like the Middle East, the power of the state resides in one man – for now.
Our distrust of monarchy goes back to the founding of our country and our ancestors problems with King George of England. It was a time of Kings and Queens and great empires. The American revolution was one of a series of revolts against such rule – even limited as they were by parliamentary rules and laws that even the king must obey. Scripture itself has a mixed relationship with monarchy. The founding of Israel involved escape from a royal despot – Pharaoh who had enslaved them in Egypt. When in the course of time, Israel themselves wish ed to be ruled by a king, Samuel solemnly warned them what was to come. The very best of the kings – David and Solomon. They understood (at least most of the time) that they ruled under God to whom they owed their allegiance. When they remembered that well, things were good, when they forgot, disaster followed and Solomons excesses set up the division of the nation. In all, 25 Kings ruled the southern Kingdom of Judah – 5 were considered Righteous – but none at all of those in the northern kingdom of Israel.
The passages today are full of the images and vocabulary of Monarchy. Thrones and Throne rooms, royal courts of thousands, Kings and palaces, kingdoms and questions of territory. From one point of view it sounds awe inspiring and grand, from another, downright medieval and quaint. The thoughts and images of a nearly vanished time are deeply enshrined in the pages of Scripture. These are the words that the Prophets and faithful scribes and sages have used to try to express the authority and majesty of God. This is Christ the King Sunday – the very final week of the Christian liturgical year. It is a celebration that comes to us relatively recently from our Roman Catholic brothers ad sisters. Pope Prius the 11th instituted it in 1925 in response to the increase of secularism and nationalism that we still see in ascendancy today.
The point is simply this – set aside this time at the conclusion of all that we have learned and reviewed during the year – Beginning with Advent and Christmas, proceeding on through Jesus’ ministry, entering quickly into Lent, Holy Week and Easter – recalling his death and resurrection. Then spending the summer and fall in ordinary time celebrating the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the faithful and the Church. All of that – pointing to the eventual return and Lordship of Jesus which we celebrate today – with Christ the King Sunday. But like I pointed out earlier – we have this complicated relationship with the role and trappings of Monarchy and Kingship. In recent years, some have even starting offering alternatives to the language of monarchy – for instance using the term kindom of God to express our unity as bothers and sisters, children of God. It is true in that sense we are all kin, but to do so exclusively, I believe misses the ulimate point about the sovereignty of God. We need to seriously consider what we mean when we say Christ is King – and that he is coming again to judge the world and to rule over all.
Our first two readings this morning are glimpses into the future – into the unseen realms of Heaven. One, which you might be less familiar with comes from the book of Daniel. It describes the very throne room of Heaven where Daniel attempts to actually describe God Almighty, whom he refers to as the Ancient of Days. Into this scene comes the one referred to like a “Son of Man” – Jesus’ favorite label for himself by the way. We recognize this “Son of Man” by what is given him: (Daniel 7:14 NIV) “He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.” This is truly Jesus Christ as we confess him to be in the Apostle’s Creed most Sundays – ascended into heaven, seated at the right hand of the Father, and coming to judge the living and the dead.
Daniel’s vision of Christ comes as he is interpreting a vision encompassing the ebb flow of empires that is to come between the exile and the coming of the Messiah. They depicted and various beasts with odd characteristics representing the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans – hundreds of years of future history – all pointing to the One who is to come and rule over all. That is the point of this Sunday celebration – to confess that Christ is Lord overall – despite the ebb and flow of nations faithful to the will of God or not.
The passage from the Revelation likewise presents Jesus as the ruler overall when he comes again to establish his rule over a earth reborn and created afresh as it was originally intended to be – Christ – the faithful witness, firstborn from the dead, Ruler over the kings of the Earth. He is the one who has freed us from our sins by his blood and makes us Priests to serve in his kingdom. That is the point of this Sunday – to remind ourselves again who we are and where our ultimate allegiance lies. We live under his rule far more than any earthly authority, constitution or culture. Sound a little revolutionary? It is!, but not the way we think of earthly revolutions. Quite the opposite actually. We have nothing to do with force of arms or earthly territories. So how are we to live then in this Kingdom which is far greater than any other and yet exists alongside and among so many competing earthly dominions?
I like the way Peter Wallace says it in his commentary on this passage: “How are we to operate as Priests who serve God? Consider this: We reflect within our everyday spheres John’s 3 fold description of Christ: 1. We follow Christ’s example as a faithful witness; 2. We seek ardently to understand his will for us, to deny ourselves, and take up our crosses and serve others sacrificially; 3. We make it our life goal to bring others into his reign of love and praise, which will last forever. Christ is not a tyrant; he is a lover. He is not a power mad despot we are forced to serve or else; he is a servant witness – and he calls to be the same sort of loving and serving witness to others.”
To illustrate the difference between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of humankind, let take a quick look at the passage from the Gospel of John. It comes from Jesus’ trial in front of Pontus Pilate. The charge of blasphemy that the Sanhedrin accused him with means nothing to the Romans, so instead they claim that he is an insurrectionist – claiming to be the King of the Jews – a threat to the political stability of the region. So Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus gently points out that others have put that accusation forward. As the discussion proceeds, Pilate is confronted with something he doesn’t know how to handle – a truth beyond his grasp. Listen again to those final verses plus the one we haven’t read yet that follows immediately afterwards: (John 18:36-38 NIV)  Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”  “You are a king, then!” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”  “What is truth?” retorted Pilate. With this he went out again to the Jews gathered there and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him.
As another commentator, Karoline Lewis says “ what Pilate misses, what most of the world misses, and what potentially might pass us by, is that Jesus’ Kingdom was never a place but a perspective, never an established rule, but a stated reality of how to live life, never a fought for hierarchy, but a way of interpreting the world and embodying such an interpretation in everything that we do.”
That is how the Kingdom of God looks here and now. At the end, it will be different. But for now rather than ruling territories, we seek relationship with God through his son, and commitments to love justice with our neighbors. We dare not confuse national interests with God’s interests. We serve a truth beyond mere nationality – whether the powers that be can recognize it or not. Simple truth telling has become rare in our day. Pilate’s retort could come right out of todays newspaper. – “what is truth?” Many are not interested in truth at all or tell half truths, false truths, truths “custom constructed” to lead to a desired end. What is truth? Here it is: Jesus Christ, the exact image of God in human flesh has revealed the love of God for all of humanity, not just a favored few. Through the grace won for us by his death and resurrection, we are called to be sons and daughters of God and ambassadors for his Kingdom. We look for the coming day when all earthly powers will be put into submission to his rule, creation will be renewed and Christ will rule over all. He will rule with perfect love and justice and wisdom. Until that day, we serve God in our daily life – in the world, but yet different. We must never give total allegiance to any earthly power – respect yes, as scripture commands, but ultimately, we and the church of which we are a part, bow to Christ alone. That’s what we mean when we proclaim that Christ is King. Saints and Martyrs have died for it. Are we brave enough to live for it?