Saturday, November 24, 2012

Our Problem with Kingdoms

Christ in Majesty, Rublev
Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2012

Hear this sermon HERE.

Almighty and ever-living God, you anointed your beloved Son to be priest and sovereign forever. Grant that all the people of the earth, now divided by the power of sin, may be united by the glorious and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

TODAY'S GOSPELJohn 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"

Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?"

Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?"

Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here."

Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?"

Jesus answered, "You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

* * *

SERMON"Our Problem with Kingdoms"

The Lord be with you.

Today is "Christ the King Sunday," the final Sunday of the Church Year, and today's Gospel lesson turns our attention to the subject of kings and kingdoms. In it we see Jesus and Pontius Pilate engaging in a conversation about rulers and thrones, power and dominion.

This immediately creates two problems for those of us hear this text.

First, the subject of kings and kingdoms is not a subject we citizens of the United States fully appreciate.

We are not "kingdom" people. We're not particularly fond of the idea of a king ruling over us. After all, our country began when we revolted against the King of England and declared our independence. When we started our own government, we said "no" to the idea of monarchy and set up a democracy -- a government "of the people, by the people, and for the people." We rejected the idea that one could be a ruler simply because he or she was born into a royal family; instead we elect our officials to represent us. We set up a system of checks and balances so that no one person or branch of government would have too much power. We also separated church and state, whereas before the two had been connected by such doctrines as the "divine right of kings," which said that God sets up the king and only God has the right to judge the king. The people played no part. No political doctrine could be more appalling to Americans.

But all of this anti-king sentiment can lead to a disconnect when we read the Bible, because, from beginning to end, the main theme and metaphor of the Bible is that of the kingdom. In fact, the verse that perhaps best summarizes the story of Scripture is the line from the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

If we had time this morning, I would take you on a tour of the Bible and show you that, on almost every page, the imagery of kings and kingdoms dominates. We would go to the Creation story, where God the King establishes the world as his cosmic temple. We would go to Babel, where God toppled the tower and crushed the human rebellion to his reign. We would go to Abraham and hear God's promise that he would one day have royal descendants. We would go to Egypt, where God demonstrated his divine kingship over Pharoah in the Exodus. We would follow the people to Mt. Sinai, where God the king entered into a covenant with the nation of Israel and gave them his Law. We would visit the glory days of King David in Jerusalem and watch as King Solomon built God's temple. And though that kingdom declined and eventually was conquered by other nations and their kings, we would hear God's prophets foretell the coming of the Messianic king, who would restore Israel and bring all nations to his blessing.

The OT is filled with kingdom themes, and it doesn't stop there. When Jesus came, he announced, "The kingdom of God has come near," and then he proved his by his words and work. After Jesus died, rose again, and ascended into heaven, his apostles traveled the world, proclaiming "Jesus is Lord" (King). The book of Revelation brings this story to a triumphant conclusion when it proclaims, "the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever."

The Bible is about God establishing his kingdom in this world, so that his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It's about how God overthrows the kingdoms of evil, sin, and death and sets up his throne in the hearts and lives of people, ultimately filling the world with his royal glory. Scripture points to the day when "every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." 

God is King, his agenda is to establish his kingdom, and even we Americans have to come to grips with that.

* * *

But there is also another problem we face when reading this passage -- the kind of kingdom Jesus talks about is also utterly foreign to our way of thinking.

When you and I think about kings and their kingdoms, we picture people who exercise great power, who rule nations, who command armies and go to war against their enemies, who issue decrees and commands that others must obey. Kings lord it over others. They rule with power and their word is law. Kings rule from above -- by controlling the people under their reign.

This is the kind of power Pontius Pilate understood, and you can see in today's passage that he is bemused that anyone would consider Jesus a king. This little man, this itinerant preacher, this nobody? Hadn't his own people rejected him and arrested him? Who was in charge here? Certainly not Jesus! Pilate was used to the Roman model of might: You build a strong army, you march in and conquer a nation, and you set up officials to rule over it. Each person must swear allegiance to Caesar and obey Roman law. That's a kingdom! Conquer and rule by power and law. It's about strength and imposing your will on others -- that's the kind of kingdom Pilate understood.

But Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom is different than that. It's not about fighting and conflict where nations conquer other nations. It's not about lording it over others. It's not about some leader with ambition seizing power. It's not about demanding allegiance and compelling obedience to your laws. No! Jesus' kingship is about peace and reconciliation and justice. It's about serving others in love. It's about bringing people together and setting them free, not conquering them and forcing them into submission. It's about the truth and telling the truth and helping people live in the truth that God loves them and has provided their salvation.

We can see the true difference in Jesus' kingdom when we realize that its ultimate symbol of is the Cross. Jesus is a king who lays down his life so that others might live. His is a kingdom unlike anything we have ever known.

This is the kingdom and the King that has won our hearts, dear people. This is why we come here to worship. This is why we sing hymns of praise to our King. This is why we gather to hear the royal Gospel of God's love and embrace it by faith. This is why we come forward and kneel to receive God's gifts of bread and wine with gratitude. This is why we bring our children and wash them in the waters of baptism, so that they too might enter this Kingdom. This is why we go forth after worship each week and return to our families, workplaces, and communities to serve others in the name of our King. In Christ, we are now Kingdom people.

We now participate in a kingdom that brings life and forgiveness and peace with God and other people. We participate in a kingdom that will one day come in its fullness and everything will be made new. We participate in this kingdom today as we put our faith in Jesus Christ. When we do, our King sets us free to love our neighbors and welcome them into the kingdom as well. Jesus' kingdom is not from this world, but it is for this world, and we are the ambassadors of our King everywhere we go.

John van de Laar wrote a poem that I think summarizes today's Gospel well. He calls it "The UnKing":

We call you 'King', Jesus, 
but you're not like any king we've ever heard of; 

You don't flaunt your power, 
waving your hand dismissively to change the lives of your subjects; 
You don't hoard your wealth, 
and tax your people just to grow more comfortable in your isolated palace; 
You don't exploit the weak and unconnected, 
or use the ambition of ladder-climbers to further your control. 

No, you are the King who lays down his crown, 
to walk among us as one of us; 
You are the King who lays down his life, 
to bring abundant, eternal life to all who seek it; 
You are the King who draws the weak, the rejected, the poor, the child 
into the centre of the conversation and into the heart of where real power lies. 

You, Jesus, are the UnKing – the King whose Kingdom 
redefines everything we know and will continue to do so for eternity. Amen.

* * *

By faith, and with love, may we live in the reality of this Kingdom this week, through Jesus Christ our Redeemer and King.