Sunday of Christ the King
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Prayer of the Day
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.
Greetings and welcome! This coming Sunday we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. This feast day, which marks the conclusion of the church year, is relatively new to the church calendar. The Roman pontiff, Pope Pius XI, instituted The Feast of Christ the King in 1925 for the universal church in his encyclical Quas Primas. He saw the rise of nationalism as a denial of Christ as king and viewed with alarm the rise of dictatorships in Europe with the captivating lure of their autocratic leaders. Protestant churches that use the Revised Common Lectionary also observe Christ the King Sunday (titled Reign of Christ Sunday by some). These include the ELCA as well as the Church of England, the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church in North America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the United Church of Christ and the Moravian Church.
By ending the church year with a confession of Christ as King, we remind ourselves that history has an end and the end is Jesus. The day will come, St. Paul tells us, “that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow…and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.” Our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus. Loyalty to family, community and nation is only provisional. When faithfulness to Jesus our King brings us into conflict with any of these other claims to our loyalty, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1424
I discussed at some length the historical context and the outline of the Book of Daniel in my last post for Sunday, November 18, 2012. In short, the book was written to encourage the Jewish people during the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes over Jerusalem from 167-164 B.C.E. Antiochus used barbaric means to force the Jews in Jerusalem to abandon their faith. Those who resisted him were often subjected to torture and execution. In this Sunday’s lesson the prophet Daniel sees God, “the ancient of days” give all rule and authority to “one like a son of man.” It is not clear whether this one is understood to be a human ruler or an angel of God. His rule, however, will be universal. Unlike the empires of Babylon, Persia and Greece which invariably fracture under the weight of so many ambitious rulers seeking dominion, the kingdom of the son of man will remain forever.
As is usually the case for apocalyptic literature (see post for Sunday, November 18, 2012), the message is one of hope and encouragement. Despite all appearances to the contrary, God is still at work in the midst of all the political, social and military turmoil that is turning everyone’s life upside down. It is tempting to sum up all of this with the trite phrase “God is in control.” I don’t care much for that assertion, however. Control is something you exercise over your lawn mower or automobile. It is not something you exercise over someone you love. I don’t think God engineers the events of history so that they occur in accord with some predetermined plan. I do not believe that the murder of six million Jews was part of God’s design. Nor do I believe that God wills cancer, auto accidents, hurricanes and earthquakes. Is God triumphant over all of these things? To be sure, but God’s triumphal victory is a strange kind of victory. It is God’s patience rather than any exercise of power that carries the day. God does not fight fire with fire. That only results in a bigger fire. Instead, God responds to the wastes of our wrath with forgiveness, patience and eternal love. God does not clobber evil. God simply outlasts it. Against God’s eternal determination to save us, our stubborn resistance finally just runs out of steam. That might take some time, but God is nothing if not rich in time. The redemption of all creation is too important a job to rush.
In this psalm the God of Israel is acclaimed king, though the proper translation is a matter of some dispute. Some scholars claim that the phrase echoes the proclamation that a human ruler has been elevated to kingship, i.e., “Absalom is King,” (II Samuel 15:10) or “Jehu is King” (II King 9:13). If this be the case, then the proper reading would be “The Lord has become king.” As such, it might contain traces of ancient mythology reflecting a battle between the waters or the great sea monster, Tiamat and the creator god. See vss 3-4. Such mythological imagery is clearly reflected in the Genesis flood narratives, though the “waters” in Genesis are not portrayed as hostile enemies of God. Instead, they are the instruments of God’s judgment against a sinful world. The psalm, then, is a declaration that God is supreme over all other gods and forces of nature. The lack of any specific denial of the existence of other gods argues for an earlier date for the composition of this psalm, surely before the Babylonian exile of 587 B.C.E.
Other scholars are inclined to interpret the psalm as a simple assertion that God is king. Such a confession declares by implication that all other rulers who claim the title of “king” are mere pretenders. In short, it is a political statement. Such an interpretation would comport with a distaste for the monarchy consistent with much post-exilic Judaism fueled by prophetic criticism of Judah’s kings and their unfaithful, disastrous policies. It would also be entirely at home in an environment where, as was the case in post exilic Judaism, such kings as there were ruled over empires whose armies occupied Judah and Jerusalem exercising varying degrees of oppression. Though the kings of the earth may make proud claims of sovereignty, God alone rules the earth and God only is worthy of the title “king.”
Whenever this psalm was composed and however one might interpret the opening acclimation that God is King, the message is clear. God reigns to the exclusion of all others who claim divine sovereignty. On Christ the King Sunday it is appropriate to remind ourselves that we are subjects of Jesus, God’s only Son, our Lord. That does not preclude obedience to human governmental authority. To the contrary, government is a gift of God given for the sake of ordering our lives for good. Yet in a sinful and rebellious world, government tends to overstep its bounds and claim authority that rightfully belongs to God alone. No government has authority to command what God forbids. No government may exercise power that rightly belongs to God alone. No flag of any nation must ever fly higher in our hearts than the cross of Christ.
Revelation 1:4b-8 http://www.workingpreacher.org/bible_passage.aspx?reading_id=1425
The Book of Revelation is, as I have said before, the most frequent victim of preacher malpractice in the Bible. Many people flock to this book with an insatiable interest in discovering when and how the world will end. If centuries of clever and complex interpretation along these lines proves anything at all, it proves that Revelation is entirely unsuited for such a purpose. The book was written to encourage the persecuted churches of Asia Minor with their immediate struggle rather than to spawn speculation by 21st century suburbanites about the distant future.
Our brief lesson for Sunday is taken from a larger greeting from the author of the Book of Revelation, John of Patmos, addressed to the churches of Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) to whom the epistle is written. This is a culture in which it was universally acknowledged that “Caesar is Lord.” To assert that “Jesus is Lord” was an act of sedition. Thus, when John confesses Jesus as “ruler of kings on earth,” he was firing a shot across Caesar’s bow that could well have gotten him crucified.
Like the Book of Daniel, Revelation is written to a people living under persecution or, at the very least, the threat of persecution for their faith. Under such circumstances, it might seem as though God has abandoned his people or that God is powerless to save. How else can one explain Auschwitz, the Cambodian killing fields and the Armenian genocide? Revelation takes this suffering seriously. Jesus warned his disciples that the persecution that fell upon him would meet them as well. His disciples should therefore not be surprised at the ordeal they must undergo. Instead, they must remain faithful even when faith seems ineffective and unable to assist them. They must continue in confidence that the God who raised Jesus from death will prevail over the forces of death embodied in the Roman Empire.
One important theme to keep in mind is the “word” by which God overcomes the forces of evil throughout Revelation. When John describes his vision of Jesus, the only weapon Jesus has is the two edged sword issuing “from his mouth.” Revelation 1:16. When Jesus Christ returns sitting upon a white horse ready to conquer his enemies, he is referred to as “Word of God.” The weapon with which he smites the nations is “the sharp sword that issues from his mouth.” Revelation 20:15. In short, it is the incarnate Word of the church’s preaching and teaching by which the political and military machinery of Roman oppression will be overcome. That is the only weapon God wields and it is the only arrow in the disciple’s quiver. God prevails through the incarnate Word by which hearts are won over by faithful witness and preaching. As we sang last Sunday, “For not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.”
This brief snippet from the lengthy interchange between Jesus and Pontius Pilate is laced with irony. Pilate stands in the shoes of Caesar, the one acclaimed “king,” yet as John’s passion story unfolds, it becomes ever clearer that he has no real authority. Pilate must go out to meet his Jewish subjects in the portico because they refuse to contaminate themselves by coming into his courtroom. Though he purports to pass judgment on Jesus, it is Pilate who comes under judgment. Pilate’s tenuous hold on authority weakens with each verse. His interrogation of Jesus gets completely away from him. He cannot get Jesus either to admit that he is a king and so incriminate himself, or to deny his kingship and so pave the way for his release. So far from wielding kingly authority, Pilate finds himself bullied, intimidated and blackmailed by those who are supposed to be his subjects. He sounds almost pathetic when he protests to Jesus, “Do you not know that I have power to release you and power to crucify you?” John 19:10 “Power?” says Jesus. “You must be joking. You have no power. You know as well as I do that this is entirely out of your hands. God is at work here and there is nothing you or your little empire can do to stop it.” (my highly paraphrased rendition of Jesus’ response in John 19:11).
This gospel lesson brings into sharp focus the issue of the day: Is Jesus our King? What sort of King is he? Obviously, he is not the sort of king his accusers are making him out to be, that is, a messianic partisan seeking to overthrow Rome by violence. His kingly authority is not the sort that can get the charges against him dismissed. Yet there clearly is authority here. Jesus is the one character who is not driven by fear, anger or jealousy. Jesus alone is where he is because that is where he chose to be. Jesus is not a victim of circumstance. He is not an innocent bystander caught in the crossfire of somebody else’s fight. Jesus has stepped into Pilate’s court to bear witness to the truth. Pilate cannot handle the truth, but he cannot silence it either. The truth shines through the thin venire of Pilate’s pretended authority and imagined control.
Of course, in the final analysis the truth is not a what, but a who. Jesus is the truth and to know and trust him is to know the truth. It is our bold testimony that we cannot see rightly or understand what is true apart from submission to the kingly authority of Jesus.