SUNDAY OF CHRIST THE KING
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.
“The mobilization of the French police and gendarmes against this terrorist organization will be total and merciless.” Francois Hollande, President of France.
I can fully understand this response to what was by far the most brutal and far reaching act of terror committed on French soil since the Second World War. I remember all too well how the same sentiments were expressed by our leaders here in the United States in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Crying out for vengeance after having been grievously and wrongfully wounded is a very human reaction. Perhaps that is why we find so many such cries throughout the Book of Psalms. God, it seems, is entirely open to our expression of such feelings of outrage and our desire to see retribution visited upon our enemies.
Nevertheless, as graphic as their demands for punishment for their enemies might be, the psalmists leave the business of carrying it out to the Lord. Even the psalmist who blesses anyone who might bash out the brains of his/her enemies’ babies does not undertake that task him/herself. Psalm 137:9. And that for good reason. At our most objective best we find it hard discern what is just and fair when it comes to dishing out retribution. We are, of course, far from our most objective best after having been deeply hurt. All of this suggests to me that perhaps the day after a terrorist attack is not the best time to respond.
So, given time to cool down, how should we respond to an act of terror? Much depends on who the “we” is. Beyond our identity as American or French citizens, we are disciples of Jesus. We live first and foremost under the reign of God Jesus declares. I can already sense that some of my readers are tensing up. “Don’t drag Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount into this! These are terrorists. They won’t just strike us on the cheek. They will take our heads off if we let them!” The assumption is that, at some point, violence becomes both necessary and inevitable. If not now, when?
Similarly, in numerous conversations I have had with death penalty proponents, I get the question: “How would you feel if your mother, daughter, grandma were brutally murdered? Can you honestly say you would want the killer to be spared, possibly released again at some point?” If I show the slightest hesitation in my response, that is taken as some sort of moral victory. No doubt it is just that. I cannot deny that a brutal attack on someone I dearly love could transform this white, privileged, protestant, slightly left of center male into a blood thirsty vigilante. What matters, though, is not what I would do if my loved one were murdered, but what God did when his beloved Son was in fact murdered. When the Son God sent for the life of the world was brutally attacked and tortured to death, God did not respond with retribution. Instead, God raised up his crucified Son and gave him back to the very ones that crucified him. It is this crucified and risen Son that we call our king. That means fighting terrorism the way Jesus does: by loving and forgiving your enemy-even if it proves to be the death of you.
It seems that the presidential wannabees in both parties are vying to demonstrate that, if elected, they would be the “most merciless” in dealing with terror. But I am quite sure that excluding mercy from any response to those who have wronged us is quite out of the question for disciples of Jesus. That does not mean, of course, that no response is warranted. The venerable “just war” teaching, recognized in most Christian traditions, leaves room for the potential use of military means to deal with aggression. But even when resort is made to military force, it is always the last resort and the objective is always to restore peace and reconciliation. War, in Christian tradition, is never an instrument of retribution or vengeance.
Perhaps the most urgent contribution disciples of Jesus can make to the war on terror is changing the direction of the conversation about it. It seems to me that there are some important questions our leaders should be asking. What do the followers of the ISIS want? What are their grievances? What would reconciliation with ISIS look like? What sacrifices are we prepared to make for the sake of a just peace and reconciliation? I don’t hear those questions being asked by any of our governments. It seems to me, though, that they must be asked and every effort must be made to answer them before any military response can be considered “just.” If we don’t raise these critical questions, who will?
I discussed at some length the historical context and the outline of the Book of Daniel in my last post for Sunday, November 15, 2015. 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 and to embrace Greek religion and culture. 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” (vs. 9) give all rule and authority to “one like a son of man.” Vss. 13-14. 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, 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 global 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. Nothing ruins friendship, marriage, family and community quite as effectively as someone’s desire to exercise control. Arguably, God could come with a show of force, as he does in the Left Behind books, and impose his reign by sheer might. But that would make God little more than Hitler on steroids. God does not want to reign over creation in that way.
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). The Psalm might have been part of the Feast of Tabernacles liturgy. Rogerson, J.W. & McKay, J.W., Psalms 51-100, (c. 1977 Cambridge University Press) p. 209; Bruggemann, Walter, The Message of the Psalms, Augsburg Old Testament Studies (c. 1984 by Augsburg Publishing Company) p. 146. If this be the case, then the proper reading would be “The Lord has become king.” This hymn contains traces of ancient mythology reflecting a battle between the waters or the great sea monster, Tiamat and the Babylonian deity, Marduk.. See vss 3-4. Such mythological imagery is clearly reflected in the Genesis creation and flood narratives, though the “waters” in Genesis are not portrayed as hostile enemies of God. Instead, they are the instruments of God’s creative power (Genesis 1:2) and of God’s judgment against a sinful world. Genesis 6-8. Read in this way, the psalm can be understood as a declaration of God’s ascendency 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. Ibid. p. 210; Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak to us Today (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 176. 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 human 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. Indeed, the celebration of Christ the King that we observe this coming Sunday was instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI in response to what he characterized as growing secularism. The old monarchies governing Europe had been dissolved by this time and had given way to the modern nation state. The church’s political power and social status were substantially diminished under these new regimes as the state increasingly asserted its autonomy and independence from religious influence.
There was more at stake, however, than the church’s loss of political muscle. The new secular environment had become a breeding ground for dangerous and dehumanizing ideologies elevating loyalty to the nation state and its rulers over all other claims. As Pope Pius saw it, this new nationalism amounted to idolatry, constituting a threat both to the Christian faith and to human worth and dignity. Sadly, the horrific events that unfolded in the following decades proved him right. The celebration of Christ the King serves to remind us that, while the church throughout the world lives under many different governments all asserting their claims to the loyalty of her members, yet there is for the church only one King. A nation is only a group of people joined together by culture, ethnicity and force of humanly designed covenants. The church is a living Body joined as one by Christ, its Head. When loyalty to the Body of Christ conflicts with our allegiance to flag or country, “we must obey God rather than human authority.” Acts 5:29.
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.
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 is only that Revelation is entirely unsuitable for such a purpose. The book was written to encourage the persecuted churches of Asia Minor with their immediate struggles 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). Though the precise time of its writing is a matter of scholarly dispute. Most New Testament commentators agree that it was composed late in the 1st Century C.E. Christians were not under direct, systematic persecution at this time. Nonetheless, their relationship with the Jewish community was deteriorating. They were looked upon with suspicion and contempt by the imperial culture. Where it was acknowledged in every patriotic ceremony and civic event that “Caesar is Lord,” the confession that “Jesus is Lord” amounted to an act of sedition. Collins, Adela Yarbro, “Reading the Book of Revelation in the Twentieth Century,” Interpretation, vol. 40, No. 3 (July 1986) p. 240. Thus, when John confesses Jesus as “ruler of kings on earth” (vs. 5), he was firing a shot across Caesar’s bow that could well explain why he was living in exile.
Like the Book of Daniel, Revelation is written to a people living under some degree of 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 the innocent suffering of Christians in Asia Minor? On a more universal plain, one might well ask how a God acclaimed both good and supreme over the earth can fail to intervene in horrific events like Auschwitz, the Cambodian killing fields or the carnage last week in Paris. The Book of Revelation takes this suffering seriously. Throughout its many chapters John makes clear how the “beast” that is the Roman Empire is not merely the enemy of Christians, but “the destroyer of the earth.” Revelation 11:18. Yet God’s victory lies not in the ability to inflect even greater destruction through retribution, but in patient and enduring love exemplified in the faithful lives of the saints.
It is important to recognize that God overcomes the forces of evil throughout Revelation by means of the “word.” 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 19:15. 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 through faithful witness and preaching. As many of us might be singing this Sunday, “For not with swords loud clashing nor roll of stirring drums, but deeds of love and mercy the heavenly kingdom comes.” “Lead on, O King Eternal!” Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 805.
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.