A Most Unusual King

Sermon delivered on Christ the King Sunday B, November 22, 2015, at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Daniel 7.9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93.1-6; Revelation 1.4-8; John 18.33-37.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, a feast relatively new in the Church’s calendar. Pope Pius XI instituted this feast in 1925 as a way to resist the rise of totalitarianism and secularism of his day. It marks the last Sunday of the Church’s calendar year and as its name implies, today is a day when we culminate the season of celebration of Jesus as King, Messiah, and Lord of all God’s creation. But Jesus doesn’t fit our concept of kingship so easily, at least not yet. For starters, he’s a crucified king! So this morning I want us to look at exactly what kind of king Jesus is and what that means for those of us who follow him.

Jesus himself answers the question as to what kind of king he is in our gospel lesson. He tells Pilate, the cynical Roman procurator, that he is indeed a king, but not the kind of king the world expects or acknowledges. My kingdom is not from this world, Jesus tells us. But what does that mean? Does it mean that Jesus doesn’t really think this world is very important, that his kingdom is really a spiritual kingdom and more focused on getting to heaven? If that were the case, it makes that inconvenient little clause in the prayer Jesus gave us look pretty nonsensical. You know, the clause that asks for God’s kingdom to come on earth as in heaven? No, when Jesus tells us that his kingdom is not from this world he wants us to understand that his kingdom is from God for the sake of the world and for our sake. Jesus’ kingdom is about bringing truth—God’s truth, the only truth—to reality in God’s good but desperately sick world for the healing of the nations. Despite Pilate’s caustic rejoinder that the lectionary curiously omits from today’s lesson (What is truth?), and despite the fact that many in our own day stand with Pilate, Jesus, who had earlier told his disciples that he is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and that no one comes to the Father except through him (John 14.6), testifies to us as he stands before Pilate, bound and a prisoner, that he has come to make the truth known to people. It is the truth of God’s love for his image-bearing creatures and the consequent rescue plan devised from eternity past for his good but evil-infested creation and creatures. It is God’s good rescue plan that culminates in God sending his only Son, Jesus, (i.e., in God becoming human) to die on a cross so that our alienation from God might be ended forever and we pass from death to life. As John the Elder reminds us in our epistle lesson, God sent his Son so that by his blood we could be freed from our sin and inherit real life. God devised this plan, strange, enigmatic, and improbable as it seems to us at times, because God loves us and wants us to be reconciled to him so that we can be finally and really healed. As we saw last week, without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sins. And without forgiveness of sins, we remain desperately sick with no real hope of ever being fully and finally healed. This is the truth that Jesus told Pilate he had come to proclaim. This is the truth that Jesus had to live out, mainly by his death and resurrection. We live because Jesus lives. So while Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world, it is emphatically for this world, thanks be to God! Amen?

Contrast the nature of Jesus’ kingship to the world’s kings. Earthly kings rule in their brokenness, usually trying to aggregate power, prestige, and wealth, and almost always lording their own desires and whims over those they rule. Not so with King Jesus, who came to serve us by freeing us from sin and death, and inviting us to rule with him in love and service for the sake of others (cf. Mark 10.45). Moreover, earthly kings usually don’t hesitate to use force to ensure they get what they want. Jesus, on the other hand, rules for our sake because he loves us and wants us to live, not die. But like earthly rulers, Jesus insists that we give him our complete loyalty. If you want to follow me, he tells us, you must come and die. In other words, you must work your whole life in the power of the Spirit to put to death all that is in you that causes you to remain hostile and rebellious toward me. It means, for example, you are to speak the truth in love, even to your enemies. It means you are to be merciful and work for peace, rather than be ruthless and create all sorts of conflict. It means you must challenge the injustice and evil in this world, not by conventional means but by following my example of loving those who hate you and inviting them into a real relationship with me because it is only in me that they can find real life and God’s truth. The world will see what you are doing and hate you because you belong to me. They will persecute and treat you evilly. But don’t be afraid. I’ve overcome the world by my death (John 16.33). Therefore, you are not to return their evil with evil. You are to return their evil with goodness and love, just like I did when I let the powers and their human agents nail me to the cross. This is a lifelong work and it is by no means straightforward. But unlike the temporary rewards you work so hard to get, things like money, prestige, and power, the reward you get for following me is eternal life that begins the moment you give your life to me, imperfect as you are and hard as that is for you to do.

These, then, are the main reasons we should follow King Jesus. He offers us real life not death, healing not sickness, peace not anxiety, real hope not hopelessness, eternity not fleetingness and impermanence, among others. But because Jesus’ kingship is so unlike the earthly counterparts we are all used to, we sometimes wonder if he really is a king at all. I mean, who ever heard of a crucified king? Where’s the sense in loving our enemies and forgiving them when we really want to hit them back as hard as we can? Why would we want to put the needs of others before our own? How can we get ahead in this world if we do stupid stuff like that?

And perhaps as importantly, will King Jesus protect us in the face of all the evil that appears to be running rampant? Think about it. Terrorists crucify Christians in the mideast and blow up innocents in our cities. Our families are falling apart, not to mention our culture. We treat each other with less and less respect today. Holding a civil conversation seems to be a thing of the past. Instead we have those who resort to fear-mongering and demagoguery, and they are getting people’s attention because we no longer feel safe, a symptom of our increasing alienation and anxiety. So we want to know if King Jesus, like a good ruler, can protect us from these things. Well yes and no. Can he protect us? Of course he can. I dare say that we in this room enjoy his protection daily. But if we follow Jesus, there is no guarantee that he will protect us from evil, even though he can and does according to his good will and purposes for us. This is one of the mysteries with which we have to live. Why does God appear to let evil run rampant in his world? Nowhere does Scripture answer this question. Instead, we are told what God has done to defeat evil and being good earthly creatures we have a hard time believing the answer. As the NT writers insist, God defeated evil on the cross of Jesus Christ (see, e.g., Colossians 2.15). But we want to protest. Evil still exists! Look it up on the Internet, God! Well, yes it does. But God tells us to look at his track record and consider his rescue plan for us in Christ.

Our lessons all speak to this hope and promise. In Daniel, for example, we are told of one of Daniel’s visions. Daniel was a book written while God’s people Israel were in captivity. God had given them up to their earthly enemies in judgment for their ongoing rebellion against God. In fact, God had used their enemies to carry out his judgment! Now they were captives once again, living in exile. Was there any hope for them? Any future? Had God abandoned them forever? Sound familiar, folks, either on a global level or a personal one?

Back comes the answer. We see the Ancient One or Ancient of Days (God) sitting on his throne, a throne of fire, language that means judgment. Out come the books, presumably the books containing the names of those who will enjoy life and those who will not. The point here is this. God knows there is evil and evildoers out there and they will be judged. And when that day comes, it will not be pretty for the forces of evil and their human minions. Moreover, God knows his people’s exile is evil and God will end it just like God did with the Exodus, when he rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt.

Then we see one like a human (or as some translations have it, one like a son of man) coming on the clouds to be in God’s presence. What’s that all about? The Son of Man, of course, is Jesus, who comes to his Father on behalf of God’s suffering people who are now rescued and vindicated just like Jesus was at his resurrection and ascension. The point is that even if we must suffer for Jesus’ sake and the sake of his kingdom, we are not abandoned in the present and our future is secure. We who follow Jesus are resurrection people because Jesus is the resurrection and the life (John 11.25-26).

John the Elder has a bit different take on this in our epistle. Again we are presented with a vision of God’s heavenly throne room, this time with explicit language about Jesus. We are told that we can have confidence in his kingship because Jesus is the firstborn from the dead, and we who are his will one day enjoy similar new life. It is sad that the Revelation to John is not read widely anymore. Yes, it has strange visions and symbolism, but at its very heart is a message of hope and encouragement. We are reminded that we live in evil times and it is hard for us to remain faithful to King Jesus. But God knows this and he has not left us to our own devices. He has given us his Spirit to live in us and strengthen us to be his people. And like the book of Daniel, we are told in no uncertain terms that God is even now judging the forces of evil and has defeated them. Much of this is invisible to our senses and we are unaware of the battle that rages. That’s why letters like Revelation are in Scripture—to remind us God has not abandoned us and to encourage us to remain faithful even if the gates of hell appear to be swallowing us up. That won’t happen because God is God and evil cannot withstand his power and righteous judgment. Like Daniel, Revelation reminds us that our present and future are secure because of what God has done for us in the past in Christ. He has raised Jesus from the dead and promises to do likewise for us when Jesus returns in his royal power, this time unmistakable, to usher in God’s new creation. It’s a done deal. We needn’t be afraid or anxious.

So in the interim, we are to live and work as people with real hope. Nothing in this world should weigh us down so badly or frighten us so much that we give up our faith in God’s truth made supremely manifest in Jesus. We know what God’s kingdom will look like when it comes in full because we’ve seen signs of it in Jesus’ ministry: healing, wholeness, peace, justice, life, mercy, forgiveness. There will be no trace of evil anywhere. This is the new world that awaits us and is present in our midst when we live faithfully to our Lord who loves us and gave himself for us. If we cannot find real hope and Good News in this, God’s truth made known in Jesus and the power of the Spirit, we are to be pitied the most because we have chosen to call God a liar and to live in this evil age on our own power. Sad. But we are not that kind of people. We are people of faith, love, and hope, and that gives us power to live our lives in ways that result in an eternity of healing and life. And that really is Good News, folks, now and for all eternity. Hail King Jesus! To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.