Texts: 1 Samuel 8 (Israel asks for a king), John 18:33-38 (Jesus, "The King of the Jews," before Pilate)
Monarchs, monarchies, kings and kingdoms: that is our focus today as we end the church year. The Bible and our tradition do not speak with one voice on these questions, which I think is OK. And tonight, I want to highlight two different images of Jesus as King.
One image sees Jesus as a king like others, sitting on a mighty throne, wielding a terrible sword, crushing his enemies and offering favors to his faithful subjects. The other image sees Jesus as king of heaven who speaks truth to the power of earthly empires and is executed because he stands for that truth. In this second image, Jesus' vindication comes when he rises to new life following his crucifixion. In this new life, Christ lives on within the hearts and minds of the faithful, the Body of Christ. Christians by living a life "in Christ," create communities of love and justice in which we attempt to build God's reign on earth, as it is heaven.
There are a lot of stories in the Bible about kings. It was written in that kind of age. But the earlier parts of the Hebrew Scriptures -- the eight books before First and Second Samuel -- tell of God's dealings with the Hebrews before they had kings. Indeed, the Hebrews had been a humble people who groaned in slavery under the Pharaohs in Egypt, and who won freedom under Moses and other leaders who were not kings, but were priests, prophets, and judges.
The remarkable passage read tonight from First Samuel marks the transition in Israel from a time without kings, to the time with kings. Samuel as the last Judge and High Priest of Israel reluctantly anointed Saul as the first King of Israel, and then later he anointed David as the second and greatest of Israel's kings. Unfortunately, God's dire predictions about Israel as a kingdom did come true, and the Hebrews came to hate life under later kings who misruled them . . .
By the time of Jesus, the kings of Israel had long since been deposed by other empires: Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome. Only puppet Jewish kings like Herod remained, and the real power was with Caesar in Rome and Caesar's governors like Pilate. Many Jews longed for a new King David: God's anointed, the Messiah, the Christ. Peter and the disciples thought they had found the new King in Jesus of Nazareth. And while Jesus said this was true, he did not turn out to be a king like David. Instead, he was a king who was rejected and killed.
But Peter's dream for a Christ who would be a new King David lived on long after the disciples were dead. For instance, in the fantastical book of Revelation, Jesus as the Risen Christ is pictured sitting on a huge and elaborate throne in heaven. He is said to wield a double-edged sword, which comes out of his mouth, and which he uses to wage war and kill untold numbers of the wicked.
Revelation attacks the Roman Empire more sharply than any other book in the Bible -- though it uses the code word Babylon to refer to Rome. And as Peter had imagined, Revelation prophecies that Jesus will attack Rome the way King David had attacked the the enemies of Israel -- with war, disease, death and destruction. This is a part of our heritage, and it provides us with amazing and wondrous images, which show up in hymns like the triumphant ones we are singing this morning.
The other side of the biblical image of Jesus as King has him before Pilate, the power of Rome in Palestine. As in our reading from John this evening, Jesus stands for truth; and he has nothing to back him up more than his integrity and personal presence. Because he speaks "truth to power" Jesus is killed; but by rising to new life and inspiring his followers to also speak truth to power, Jesus shows that love is stronger than violence and empire. Just as Pilate felt powerless in the face of the hatred of the religious leaders and their mobs who demanded Jesus death so later emperors would see that their power could evaporate in the face of the rebellions of simple people who resisted the empire's authority and refused to kill for it.
Both the non-violent resistance of Jesus before Pilate and on the Cross, and the glory and triumph and violence of Revelation have a place in our Bible and in our tradition, I believe. The more majestic and glorious images might have fit better before the world wars when Christianity was the official religion of the empires of Czars and Kaisers and Kings in Europe. But now that those days have passed, these glorious images can still help us to express some of our anger at injustice and our confidence in the ultimate triumph of truth and love for both this world and the next.
At the same time, the other side of Christ as King -- non-violently resisting injustice even to death on the cross -- also express essential truths about our lives. Even in the face of bullies or of state violence, we have non-violent choices that preserve our love of God and neighbour, though they might cost us dearly.
I chose the next solo hymn, "You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd" because it brings the two sides of Christ as King together. I will close by briefly examining both this hymn and the earlier one "At the name of Jesus."
The hymn "You, Lord" contains a series of opposites. I hope you will listen for them as I sing it in a minute. These opposites include: lamb and shepherd, prince and slave, peacemaker and sword bringer, clothed in light and stripped of might, shining in glory and beggared by a soldier, peace and strife, defeat and victory, death and life. The hymn also talks about the narrow way -- where, with grace, we neither become victims of empire nor become violent against it. The same narrow path is also graciously offered to us by God in the conflicts in life together in families and communities.
The other hymn, which I just sang, "At the name of Jesus," is based on a hymn of St Paul in his letter to the church at Philippi. The poem also captures both sides of Christ as King. The first half describes Jesus as humble servant, emptying himself even to death on the cross. The second half describes Jesus exalted to glory.
Paul's wish in this poem is that we accept Jesus as our next king -- the anointed one we both scorn and crave, the king of both gift and cost; the king who asks us to accompany him in death and the king who assures of new life that flows from those deaths. I close with Paul's poem from chapter two of Philippians. Paul writes:
"Christ Jesus, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bow,
and every tongue confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
Thanks be to God. Amen.