Sunday, November 25, 2012

Kings, human and divine

Texts: 1 Samuel 8 1-20 (Israel asks for a King); Revelation 1 4-8 (ruler of the kings of earth); John 18 33-37 (King of the Jews?)

On this Reign of Christ Sunday, I reflect upon human kingdoms, God's Kingdom, and two different visions of Christ as King. Our Scripture readings provide us with background.

The reading from First Samuel tells how Israel changed from being a group of tribes under the rule of priests 3,000 years ago to a centralized monarchy under King David. It also lists the problems that often plague human kingdoms.

The reading from Revelation shows Jesus in Heaven ruling over the kings of the earth. It portrays Christ the King in all His Awesome Majesty.

Our Gospel reading from John shows Jesus on trial before Pilate as the supposed King of the Jews. Before the might of the Roman Empire, Jesus is all-too human and powerless. But he is the bearer of God's truth and love and hence is a king to whom we can give our allegiance without reservation . . .

Last Sunday, in our reading from First Samuel, we learned of the miraculous conception of Samuel, and how his mother Hannah handed him over to the Chief Priest Eli so that he could serve in the Temple in Shiloh all the days of his life. Today's reading show us that Samuel is not a big fan of monarchy.

Samuel is now an old man. He has succeeded Eli as Chief Priest and ruler of Israel. But Samuel's sons prove themselves unworthy to be his successor, hence the demand of the Israelites that Samuel find them a king.

Samuel does this reluctantly, first anointing Saul as the King of Israel, and then later anointing David as Israel's second and greatest King. Through Samuel, God warns Israel that having a king will bring them taxation, slavery and war. The monarchy will be a disaster for Israel, which the rest of the Old Testament confirms.

1,000 years after Samuel and King David, Jesus comes before Pilate as an arrested criminal. The kings of Israel have long since been deposed by other empires: Babylon, Assyria, Greece and Rome. Only puppet Jewish kings like Herod remain; the real power lies with Caesar in Rome.

Many Jews in those days longed for a new King David. He would be God's anointed, the Messiah, or the Christ. Peter and the disciples thought they had found their new King in Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus told them he was this Messiah, but he would not be a king like David. He would be a king who will be rejected and killed.

However, the dream for a Christ who would be like a new King David lived on long after the disciples. 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 sword, 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 -- although it uses Babylon as a code word for Rome. As Peter had hoped, Revelation shows Jesus attacking Rome in the way King David had attacked the enemies of Israel -- with war, death and destruction. Revelation provides us with amazing images, which show up in hymns like the triumphant ones with which we began our service and with which we will close the church year today.

But Jesus' power is not military might; it is the power of Love. We accept him as our King because He is the way, the truth and the life. Jesus comes before Pilate with nothing but his integrity and divine presence. Because he speaks "truth to power" Jesus is killed; but by being raised to new life and inspiring his followers to also speak truth to power, Jesus shows us 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 learn 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 the triumph and violence of kings like Saul and David have a place in our Bible and in our tradition. The more majestic images might have fit better before the two world wars when Christianity was the official religion of the empires of czars, kaisers and kings in Europe. But now that those days have passed, these images can still help us to express some of our anger at injustice and our confidence in the ultimate triumph of truth and love, both for us as individuals and for the world.

The other side of Christ as King --  resisting injustice without violence, even accepting death on the cross -- expresses a core truth of our lives. In the face of bullying, we can choose non-violent resistance that preserves our love of God and neighbour, though it might cost us dearly.

For our hymn of response, I chose "You, Lord, are both Lamb and Shepherd" because it juxtaposes the two sides of Christ as King. I hope you will hear  both as we sing it in a moment: prince and slave, defeat and victory, death and life, and so on. The hymn also talks about the narrow way where, with grace, we neither become victims of empire nor react in violence against it. The same narrow path is also offered to us by God when there are conflicts in our families and communities.

Another hymn in the Bible captures both sides of Christ as King. It is from St. Paul's letter to the Church in Philippi. 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 prayer 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 us that new life flows from those deaths. I close with Paul's hymn 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.


Lyrics for "You Lord Are Both Lamb and Shepherd" by Sylvia Dunstan

You, Lord, are both lamb and shepherd.
    You, Lord, are both prince and slave.
    You, peacemaker and sword-bringer of the way you took and gave.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, whom we both scorn and crave.

Clothed in light upon the mountain, stripped of might upon the cross,
    shining in eternal glory, beggared by a soldier's toss.
    You, the everlasting instant; you who are both gift and cost.

You, who walk each day beside us, sit in power at God's side.
    You, who preach a way that's narrow, have a love that reaches wide.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our pilgrim guide.

Worthy is our earthly Jesus! Worthy is our cosmic Christ!
    Worthy your defeat and victory. Worthy still your peace and strife.
    You, the everlasting instant; you, who are our death and life.

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