Sermon: Christ the King
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
2 Samuel 23.1-7; Psalm 132.1-19; Revelation 1.4b-8; John 18.33-37
Today, Christ the King Sunday, we end another ecclesiastical year. Some who are strongly opposed to the masculine and patriarchal images associated with “king” have proposed we change the name to Christ the Messiah Sunday. Before we do so, we may wish to note such concerns reflect a worldly image of kingship – one associated with absolute power and authority, with knights, castles, heraldry, and ladies in waiting. Such kingship typically embraces the worldly idols of wealth, power, and prestige. Yet, there have been a few exceptions.
A careful reading of the Old Testament concerning the kings of the divided monarchy, of Israel and Judah, reveals that Judah had 20 kings (only two of which are described as having done good before God) while Israel had 19 kings (all of which did evil). Of Ahab, King of Israel, we read: “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him” (I Kings 16.30; NRSV). God sent the prophet Elijah to confront the wickedness of King Ahab, and, as you may recall, in the contest between God and the prophets of Baal, things did not go well for the prophets of Baal. The Old Testament prophets had a tenuous task, for God required they denounce the actions of the king and call the people back to righteousness.
Of the 20 kings of Judah, only Hezekiah and Josiah acted rightly before God. Of Hezekiah, we read: “Hezekiah did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God. And every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God, and in accordance with the law and the commandments, to seek his God, he did with all his heart; and he prospered” (2 Chronicles 31.20-21; NRSV). And of Josiah, we read: “He did what was right in the sight of the Lord, and walked in all the way of his father David; he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22.2; NRSV). When the high priest Hilkiah discovered the book of the law in the temple and read it to King Josiah, Josiah tore his clothes. In 2 Kings 23, we read how King Josiah read the law before the people, made a covenant with God to follow the law with all his heart, then proceeded to cleanse Judah of all its idols.
A good king was something to cherish – the people rarely ever had one. In the last words of King David, we read: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land. Is not my house like this with God? For he has made with me an everlasting covenant, ordered in all things and secure” (2 Samuel 23.3b-5a; NRSV). In contrast, “the godless are like thorns that are thrown away; for they cannot be picked up with the hand; to touch them one uses an iron bar or the shaft of a spear. And they are entirely consumed in fire on the spot” (2 Samuel 23.6-7; NRSV).
So, if Christ is King, what kind of king is he? What is Christ’s rule like?
Let’s consider today’s reading from John 18. Over the past few weeks we have looked at the escalating tension between Jesus and the established religious order. The chief priests, scribes, and pharisees plotted as to how they might kill Jesus. They undoubtedly represented Jesus as King of the Jews; as such, Jesus would have been a very real threat to Pilate. Thus, when brought before Pilate, Pilate asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Rather than answer directly, Jesus asked Pilate, “Did you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied (I suspect somewhat sneeringly), “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Again, Jesus did not really address Pilate’s question – he continued to address the topic of kingship: “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.” The word translated as “from” may also be translated as “of.” Thus, we could also read the above as “My kingdom is not of this world.” In other words, “My kingdom is no threat to you, for it is not grounded in the values of this world.” Pilate replies, “So you are a king?” Again, we encounter another interesting response: “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” (John 18.33-37; NRSV). And as we are aware, Pilate responded with “What is truth?” (John 18.38; NRSV).
There appears to be something about truth that threatens people in power. The Old Testament prophets and Jesus testified to the truth. God called the prophets from among their people to testify to the truth – they very often offered, and encountered, a lot of resistance.
Moses repeatedly objected to God’s call: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3.11; NRSV) Moses might as well have said, “Don’t you remember, I am wanted for murder; they have my hieroglyph posted throughout the land! They are just waiting for me to come back!” Again, Moses objected, “But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, ‘The Lord did not appear to you’” (Exodus 4.1; NRSV). And a bit later, Moses objected, “O my Lord, I have never been eloquent, neither in the past nor even now that you have spoken to your servant; but I am slow of speech and slow of tongue.” And the Lord replied, “Who gives speech to mortals? Who makes them mute or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? 12 Now go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you are to speak” (Exodus 4.10-12; NRSV). That makes three objections, but Moses was not done yet: “O my Lord, please send someone else.” The account then says, “The anger of the Lord was kindled against Moses” (Exodus 4.13-14; NRSV).
When Isaiah saw the vision of the Lord sitting on the throne, he said, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” God cleansed Isaiah’s lips with a burning coal such that his guilt departed and his sin was blotted out. Isaiah “heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And Isaiah said, ‘Here am I; send me!’” (Isaiah 6.1-8; NRSV).
Jonah provides us with an example of a prophet who tried to outrun God. The story is introduced as follows: “Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh, that great city, and cry out against it; for their wickedness has come up before me.” But Jonah set out to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid his fare and went on board, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1.1-3; NRSV). You know the story – he spent three days in the belly of a fish before he saw the light. People who would shake the relentless pursuit of the Hound of heaven rarely, if ever, succeed!
In Revelation, John describes Jesus as “the faithful witness [to the truth], the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Revelation 1.5; NRSV). Then John adds, “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen” (Revelation 1.5b-6; NRSV). Yes, you heard that right – Jesus Christ has made us to be a kingdom. We are members of a kingdom not of this world. We are priests serving Christ’s God and Father.
Is God calling you to bear prophetic witness to the truth? Would God have you function as a prophetic voice? Will you respond, or will you attempt to elude the Hound of Heaven?
If we are members of a kingdom not of this world, if we are priests serving Christ’s God and Father, God is calling us to bear witness to the truth. If you are not hearing that call, you may not be spending enough time in God’s presence or you may not be listening.
If you are hearing that call, how do you bear witness to the truth? In prayer, and in the presence of God, we learn specific actions God desires of us. But we can also speak more generally to this question. As members of God’s kingdom, we bear witness to the truth by living out of kingdom values – out of faith, hope, and love. We bear witness to the truth when we take a stand against the popular untruths of the day. We bear witness to the truth when we denounce racism and racist remarks, when we stand up for the poor and the oppressed, when we strive to promote justice and reconciliation. And by these actions, we reveal that Christ is our King. Though we celebrate this Sunday as Christ the King Sunday, we need to daily live with Christ as our King. In doing so, we join Christ on the cross and at the table, and we partake of the heavenly feast of God’s love.