Given that we are all products of the age in which we live, it is easy for us to forget that this social experiment that we call “democracy” is still in its infancy. It is only about 250 years old whereas for the rest of human history, as far back as we can go in recorded time; kings in one form or another has ruled people. In Egypt they were called “Pharaoh”, in China “Emperor” or “Empress” in Rome “Caesar.” Before Britain became a united kingdom a king ruled each little fiefdom. Even units of people around the world, that were too small to have kings, nevertheless had lords or chiefs to rule over them.
There is a line in the Bible that speaks of God putting eternity in our hearts. One theologian has interpreted this idea of having eternity in our hearts as God placing redemptive analogies in every culture in order for that culture to connect with the Gospel and therefore with Him as their God and Father. I believe this is true. And the fact that the concept of a king has spanned so many cultures over so many millennia suggests to me that there is something hard wired within humanity, so to speak, that makes us want a king.
Of course where we blow it is that we are forever picking the wrong king. The Lord God warned Israel against it when they wanted a king so that they would be like all the other nations of the earth. But they ignored the Lord, and rather than having God as their king, they picked a handsome devil that was head and shoulders above all other men. Even back then they were falling for movie stars and models.
But it didn’t stop there, when their first king proved to be a failure. They kept calling for more kings. Read the book of Kings and it can be depressing. The next guy is worse than the previous guy. One guy even said to the people, “My father laid on you a heavy yoke; I will make it even heavier. My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.'” How is that for a catchy campaign slogan? And still they insisted on having more kings.
Today is the Last Sunday after Pentecost and it is also Christ the King Sunday. On this day in particular we celebrate that God indeed has given us a King who is the King of kings and so I would like to draw our attention to our King, His kingdom and His subjects and what they all mean to our lives.
First think with me how it is that a king becomes a king. There is a wonderful spoof of this in Monty Python’s “Quest for the Holy Grail.” The King of the Britons is speaking with two peasants digging in the dirt. A woman and a man named Dennis.
ARTHUR: I am your king!
WOMAN: Well, I didn’t vote for you.
ARTHUR: You don’t vote for kings.
WOMAN: Well, ‘ow did you become king then?
ARTHUR: The Lady of the Lake,
her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur
from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I,
Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.
That is why I am your king!
DENNIS: Listen — strange women lying in ponds distributing swords
is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power
derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical
ARTHUR: Be quiet!
DENNIS: I mean, if I went around sayin’ I was an empereror just
because someone lobbed a scimitar at me they’d
put me away!
ARTHUR: Shut up! Will you shut up!
DENNIS: Ah, now we see the violence inherent in the system.
ARTHUR: Shut up!
DENNIS: Oh! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!
HELP! HELP! I’m being repressed!
One of the interesting things about a king, and this idea also seems to span all times and all cultures, is that they are king by divine right, and in many cases they are seen as divine themselves. Even as late as the 1940’s the Japanese people considered their Emperor to be divine.
Our King is certainly king by divine right. St. Paul tells us in Philippians
“Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
King Jesus, is King both because it has been granted to Him by God and also because He is Divine. But what makes our King so different from the kings of this world is how He uses His authority. The kings of this earth maintain their authority through the sword. Without the might of the military they would not remain on the throne and the way that they expand their kingdoms is by using that might. The so-called Pax Romana was very different from the peace of Christ because it was gained and maintained by the sword.
King Jesus is just the opposite. He comes into Jerusalem not in a chariot but on a donkey. His authority that we just heard about in Philippians comes from the verses before that describe Him as humbling Himself and becoming a servant, even unto death. He exercises His authority not by the sword but through love. Our hymn today explains why His subjects are so loyal to Him and it is not based in fear. “Blessings abound where’er he reigns; the prisoners leap to lose their chains; the weary find eternal rest, and all who suffer want are blest.” Who wouldn’t want a king like that? Kings of this world use whips of scorpions to control the people. Jesus uses love to compel them to come in.
Let’s consider next His kingdom. For many years I thought of Jesus Christ as Savoir, and He is certainly that, but that was insufficient because it gave me too narrow of an understanding on the Gospel. To know Christ as Savior only is to know that one day you will go to heaven and that is that. And what will we do in heaven? Oh I don’t know but I think it includes clouds and wings and harps. So the Christian life is getting saved and waiting to go to heaven.
But then I started reading about the kingdom of God and it was as if scales had fallen from my eyes. How did I not see it before? What was Jesus first sermon? It was not, “Pray the sinner’s prayer and go to heaven.” It was “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” And what were His parables about? Were they about how we should behave? Sure some of them are but how many of them began, “The kingdom of God is like…..” And what did He teach us to pray? “Lord let me go to heaven.” No. He taught us to pray, “They kingdom COME…on earth as it is in heaven.” And in Jesus’ revelation to John we do not see folks sitting on clouds with wings playing harps. We see the heavenly Jerusalem, which is a symbol of the Kingdom of God, coming down to earth and making all things new.
The Gospel includes our individual salvation but it is so much larger than that. The Good News is the Gospel of the Kingdom where God not only wants to restore us as individuals but He wants to restore all of His creation under the gracious rule of His Son. He wants the kingdoms of this world to beat their sword into plowshares and become the kingdoms of our God and of His Christ. He wants to make a new heaven and a new earth, and as N T Wright would say, put His creation to right, so that the lion will lie with the lamb.
How will He do this? It begins with a people who will live as kingdom people, not when they get heaven, but in the here and now because His kingdom is in the here and now. That is what He called Israel to be but they kept choosing other kings. And now through King Jesus that is what He calls the Church to be… we are to be a kingdom people.
And this world needs a kingdom people. The tragedies of this world are not going to be solved by the Republicans or the Democrats, Communism or Democracy, Socialism or Capitalism. The wounds of this world will only be healed as the Kingdom of God comes in fullness and the Church is to be an agent in making that come about.
But that is easier said than done. We do not become a kingdom people easily. We do not become a kingdom people haphazardly. That is what Jesus meant when He said that violent men take the kingdom by violence. We are to have the same zeal about the kingdom as a warrior does about winning a battle and collecting the spoils.
We need to be alert and cautious because like Israel we can so easily lose our focus. The world, the flesh and the devil draw our attention away from the kingdom. Jesus warned that not even family should be allowed to do that. And so Jesus said that we are to seek FIRST the kingdom of God. He told us not to worry about our needs because our heavenly Father knows what we need and will provide. Our focus must be on the kingdom and it must be the priority of our lives.
In his book The Good and Beautiful Life, James Bryan Smith offers us some important wisdom that will keep us in line with King Jesus’ priorities. He says, “Sometimes we focus all of our attention on a cause, a discipline or even a commandment of God, which are all essential aspects of being Jesus’ apprentices. But the most important thing is to seek first the kingdom of God. Then everything falls into its proper place. I pray, care for the poor, fight injustice and attend church not because my concern is prayer, poverty, justice or worship, but because my primary concern is what God is doing. When I am concerned about God and his kingdom, I will naturally do these things as they are needed. The moment I put any of them ahead of the kingdom of God, they become idols, though they are good things.” (p.179).
For Jesus to be King and to have a Kingdom it requires that He have subjects. His subjects include angels and archangels and dominions and princedoms and powers but the incredible news, the incredible good news of the kingdom is that it also includes knuckleheads. Knuckleheads like the ones in the Bible who lied and schemed and manipulated. Knuckleheads who were flawed and broken and sinful. Knuckleheads like you and like me.
But the good news gets better. He accepts us in our knuckleheadedness but does not leave us as knuckleheads, “Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.” He gives us peace and security, that we have been accepted in the Beloved, and He sends us His Holy Spirit to make us new. Like the Good Samaritan He does not leave us where He finds us.
But the good news gets better still. While the kings of this earth work real hard at keeping their subjects as their subjects, Jesus does just the opposite. The kings of this world use edicts and taxes and might to keep the people in check. Power drunk democratic governments are every bit as guilty of this as kings.
And doesn’t it astonish how people will sacrifice their freedom and give into all of these demands for the sake of the relative security that their earthly king provides. It blows my mind that one billion Chinese have given power to their government to tell them how many children they are able to have. They are ruled with an iron fist and kept in check. Many nations around the world tell their people whom they may and may not worship and in some places it is a capital offense to disobey the authorities on that matter. Dictators, like the ones in North Korea and the former Soviet Union, allowed hundreds of thousands, if not millions of their people to die of starvation while they still found the money to build stronger militaries. And in our own country it boils my grits when our government treats us like a bunch of children who need to be protected from ourselves and go way beyond the constitutional authority to pass laws to keep us in check.
What a relief it is therefore to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God. Not only is Jesus not using His authority to keep us in our place, but also He is using His authority to call us to a new place. He calls us to join Him in His authority. As our great High Priest He calls us to be a kingdom of priests to serve our God. As a Son He calls us to be heirs of God and joint heirs with Him. As King he promises to the faithful that they will rule and reign with Him when His kingdom comes in its fullness. Rather than oppressing us as His subjects He calls us to royalty, to be sons and daughters of God.
It is said that good theology always leads to doxology and so as we hear what it means for us to be people of the Kingdom living under the loving reign of King Jesus it can only but lead us to worship. I am grateful for the wisdom of the Church in having us set a day aside to proclaim Him King of kings. Amen.