Sunday, 22 November 2015

A different king, a different kingdom

Sermon preached at Castle Hill United Reformed Church, on 22nd November 2015. Texts: Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; John 18:33-37.

Who is our king? Who is our Lord? To whom do we owe our allegiance? At a time when violence and war are stalking our world, when madmen with guns destroy innocent lives in so many places, when refugees are fleeing disaster and receiving little welcome, when so many people in our own rich country have little to live on and little hope – at such a time the question becomes even more urgent than ever. To whom do we owe our allegiance? Are we followers of the kingdom of power and war that Pilate represented, or followers of the kingdom of peace and truth that Jesus proclaimed?

It’s important to start at this point, because it’s easy to hear the readings as a bit weird, a bit esoteric. We keep the trial of Jesus before Pilate for Holy Week, and we keep the apocalyptic bits of Daniel and Revelation for – well for as little as possible. But what I want to say today is that they have real implications for how we live, for how we manage our society, here and now. And today is Christ the King Sunday, the Reign of Christ Sunday, and on this day we remember that the words at the start of the service from Revelation – that Christ is King, that Christ was King, and that Christ will be King.

As we discussed already when the children were in, kings are mostly not as powerful today as they once were. But at the times when the Bible were written, they were all-powerful. The book of Daniel was written when Israel had been invaded and was under repression by the Seleucid Empire, of the successor empires of Alexander the Great. Jerusalem was a city under occupation, worship of the Jewish God in the Temple was forbidden, and the Jewish people were persecuted. So they expressed themselves through a book that expressed their powerlessness and despair through wild visionary language. It wasn’t a prediction about the future but a statement about the present, a deeply political book about a different sort of kingdom and kingship. It was a call for God to intervene here and now.

In the same way, although Jesus did not really answer when asked by Pilate whether he was a king, he did set out the nature of his kingdom. And he presented his kingship as being different in two important ways. First, he denied that it would come about through violence. He could have got his followers to protect him with swords when the Roman soldiers came to arrest him. He could have started the sort of armed insurrection that many would-be leaders of the Jewish people had started against their rulers. But that would be just the same old kind of kingdom. It would be based on violence, and who could seize power through the biggest weapons. That kind of kingdom had been seen throughout history, it’s been seen many times since, and it will sadly continue into the future. But it’s a way that always fails. Violence ultimately only has one outcome – more violence, and more violence. The rulers who come to power through violence, or their successors, are destroyed by more violence. And in the mean time, people suffer. The costs of that kind of kingdom are appalling. We saw those costs in the streets of Paris. We saw those costs in Beirut, and Mali, and Syria, and Iraq. We’ve seen them again and again in modern day Palestine and Israel. We saw them a hundred years ago when so many lives were destroyed for metres of muddy ground in Flanders. And Jesus says: enough! Enough of this form of kingship. I’ve come to show you a better way.

Jesus showed us that his alternative kingship consists of service to others. It consists of being a shepherd to his sheep. It consists of being a servant, of being the last rather than the first. It consists of eating, of making friends, with the oppressed and the marginalised. And it consists of being willing to give up everything you have to serve the kingdom – even, in the end, of Jesus being willing to give up his life.

Here’s how that bit appears in The Message translation:
“My kingdom,” said Jesus, “doesn’t consist of what you see around you. If it did, my followers would fight so that I wouldn’t be handed over to the Jews. But I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king.”
There’s a really important point of language here which The Message captures well. The NIV, and a number of other translations, has Jesus saying that “my kingdom is not of this world”. It’s easy to read this as a suggestion that Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with this world, that it is confined to the world to come. It’s a reading that has plagued certain parts of the church, who want the gospel to be solely about individual salvation rather than a call to action in this world. It’s not. Remember that Jesus taught us to pray, as we still do, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. Rather than hearing Jesus saying that his kingdom is not of this world, hear instead him saying that he’s not the world’s kind of king. He is the king of the world but he’s a different sort of king.

This is also important for another risk with this passage. However much some of us may grumble about secularism and the sidelining of Christian values – and it’s a fair point in many ways – we live in a basically Christian society. So hear Jesus described as king can sound rather triumphalist. It leads to all sorts of dangerous ideas of theocracies, societies where in the name of God people are told what to do and lead a miserable life – the likes of Saudi Arabia or Iran. We’ve had Christian brushes with those sorts of societies too, and there are those in the United States in particular who would love to impose their version of Christian living on everyone, but that’s just another version of the kingdom of violence that Jesus came to deny and to overthrow.

Martin Luther King put it really well, as so often. He wrote:
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
Jesus also told Pilate that he was born and came into the world to testify to the truth. The beginning of the gospel of John tells us that Jesus was the Word of Life, the Logos, which could be translated Truth as well. Jesus is truth in himself, and he promised his disciples that by following him, they would know the truth, and the truth would set them free. So it is for us. We are set free by the truth Jesus brings – by the new relationships he promises us, of loving God and of loving others as much as we love ourselves.

So how do we live in that truth? How do we recognise Jesus as our king? As the theologian Tom Wright puts it, what would it look like "if we really believed that the living God was king of earth as in heaven?”

The first part is to recognise where our allegiance lies. We are citizens of a particular country, but more importantly we are citizens of the kingdom of God, the kingdom ruled over by Jesus. Violence has no place in our lives in that kingdom. We follow the prince of peace, not the drumbeat of war from the powerful empires, past or present.

The second part is to live in the power of the kingdom of God that Jesus described in parables – the place that is within us and among us already, that is small as a mustard seed but as precious as a pearl. The kingdom which proclaims good news to the oppressed, that turns up in the most unexpected places. The kingdom which turns away no-one, whether they are black or white, male or female, gay or straight, rich or poor, settled homeowner with a good career or homeless drug user who has lost hope.

And finally we might remember some of the things that Jesus taught us about how to live our lives in the kingdom of God. He talked of the king who came to judge the nations and he will bless those who feed those who are hungry, give drink to those who are thirsty, welcome those who are strangers, clothe those who are naked, visit those who are sick or in prison; and that when do this for the least of people, those most disliked by society, we do it for Jesus. So I’ll say directly: I’m proud of the work you do through this church in Spring Boroughs, helping those in such need. I’m proud of the work you do with Streetchurch, supporting those who have lost so much. Jennie Crane’s work is brilliant, but she’s able to do the work she does because you all support her. This is the kingdom of God.

So on the day of Christ the King, know that he offers us membership in a kingdom that leads to peace and to truth, to right relationship with God and with others, to service to others. Jesus Christ is king of the universe, was king of the universe, and will be king of universe for evermore. Amen.