Tuesday, November 27, 2007

King of kings and Lord of lords

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A sermon for Proper 29, given at St Alban's on November 25, 2007.

In 1925, Pope Pius XI established the feast of “Christ the King” to be celebrated on the last Sunday of October throughout the Western Church. The object of that new celebration was to reassert the authority of our Lord to rule all the nations as well as the authority of Christ’s mystical Body, the Church, to teach the human race, to proclaim Christ crucified, and to call people to repentance and so “establish the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.”

While Christmas and the Epiphany highlighted themes of the royalty of Jesus, this feast was to focus sharply and exclusively on the reign of Christ. When the lectionary was being revised for the Missal of Pope Paul VI in the 1960s, other churches were engaged in a similar effort and formulated together a three year cycle of Sunday readings. It was understood that each season had a theme: Advent is a time of preparation for Christ’s coming, Christmas is a celebration of the Incarnation, Epiphany explores the manifestation of Christ to the world, Lent is a time of penitence, Holy Week and Easter explore the great mysteries of our redemption and Christ’s triumph over sin and death.

It was also recognized that the long seasonless period of readings through the summer also developed some related themes in its collects and readings. It is a time of the Church’s growth and learning. The readings are mainly from Christ’s teachings in the parables. Toward the end of the liturgical year, there is an increasing focus on the kingdom of heaven, the saints, and the afterlife. It seemed fitting to close the Christian year with a celebration of the lordship of Christ, especially as the end of the year leads into the Advent theme of his second coming in glorious majesty as judge and lord of all. In our Prayer Book, the last Sunday of the Church year is not an official feast day, but “Christ the King” is definitely the theme of the collect and readings.

There is a clear agreement in the gospel records that the kingdom of God was the main theme of Jesus’ message and the focus of his theological discourse. The kingdom is not a new idea for the scriptures, however. The Old Testament is filled with the notion that God is king and lord of the universe, and that he wishes to rule the lives of his faithful people. Though the Bible speaks often of God as reigning over all the earth, sea, and sky, it should be remembered that the Hebrew concept of kingdom refers more to the force of rule that it does to a territory known as a kingdom.

That concept is even taken at first to exclude the possibility of earthly kings for God's people. Hence the period of the judges is the story of Israel’s struggle with practical government in the absence of an earthly king. It required the direction of God through the prophet Samuel to anoint an earthly king—a man to act as God’s royal proxy. And yet, the fact of an earthly king was properly seen as a part of God’s cosmic dominion. And even though God is presently the King of the entire universe, the eschatological hope for Israel was that his lordship would be further and further revealed until all the nation would finally come to submit to his gracious rule. The messiah was to be the final and perfect king—the one to exercise that perfect rule over all nations and all peoples, to show clearly that God reigns on earth, just as he does in heaven.

Last year, I taught a class on the book of Revelation. One of the key sections is chapter 4-5, when there is an open door in heaven, and St John gets to look inside. He sees God seated on the throne of heaven, surrounded by the patriarchs of Israel, with serafim and cherubim, and a myriad of the heavenly host, bowing down before him and joining in the endless hymn of praise: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of Hosts.”

Everything is exactly in line with first century Jewish expectations of heaven. But now, something completely different. An angel cries out to creation, asking who is worthy to open the seals of the book of destiny. No one is worthy, and John begins to weep. Then one of the elders says, Do not weep. The Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David has conquered, and he is worthy to open it. To the scroll comes a lamb—a slain lamb, though now standing, and now invested with all power and authority. The hosts of heaven begin a new song: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom, and strength and honor, and glory, and blessing! . . . Blessing and honor and glory and power be to him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb, for ever and ever!”

It was something that no one had expected—God’s messiah had conquered creation as a helpless sacrificial lamb, and the Lamb now reigns in glory. Christ conquered sin, and death, and hell for the kingdom at the cross. As we read in St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” Who would have thought it would end this way?

The one constant pressure Jesus faced in his ministry—from his temptations in the desert up until his crucifixion, was to claim an earthly throne: to begin a revolt, root out Roman occupation, and restore the Davidic kingdom of Israel, just as the Maccabees struggled to do to their Greek oppressors a century before. But Jesus always refused.

When the Romans crucified a prisoner, there was normally a placard over the head of the prisoner, noting the crime for which he was being executed. Crucifixion was not simply about getting the job done of execution, nor even so much about being cruel, it served a fearful reminder and a warning to everyone who passed by and saw. It says, “This is what happens to people who do this.” For if Jesus is Lord, then Caesar is not.

Certainly the two thieves crucified next to Jesus had this placard noting their crimes. For Jesus this wooden sign, called the titulus, had written upon it: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”—in Hebrew, Latin, and Greek. Those who had brought Jesus to Pilate complained, “It should say, This man said, I am the King of the Jews.” But either because it was too much of a bother to change it now, or perhaps because Pilate wanted to through it back in their faces a little bit for forcing him get involved in this local mess, he responded, “What I have written, I have written.”

And so there, on a lonely hill outside Jerusalem, our Lord and Savior at last willingly claimed his throne, wore a crown of thorns, and was raised up high before the crowd of subjects, nailed to a beam of wood which bore the sign: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.

It was not to long before that dreadful day that Jesus had spoken of the event: “When the Son of Man is lifted up [on the cross], then you will know that I AM.” His first royal edict is to make our peace through the blood of his cross. All dominion and authority in heaven and earth belongs to him. And Christ has made all who have faith in him and bear his name to be heirs and joint-heirs of that kingdom. Jesus is the King of all creation, Lord of the cosmos, he has rightful claim to all things. But Jesus does not force anyone to belong to that kingdom against their will. He has conquered sin and death, but the territory of the heart must be willingly surrendered to him as Savior and Lord. Surrender to him anew every day as lord of your life, even the darkest corners. Let everything be his; carve out no territory for yourself alone.

All that Jesus reigns over will be ushered into his everlasting and glorious kingdom, it will be redeemed and renewed and become part of his new creation. All that is left unsurrendered will be cast into the fire. If you are carving out a territory for yourself, it will be lost. Jesus stands at the cross, his arms are open in love, beckoning you and all people to enter the gates of the kingdom of God, saying, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”

When the Feast of Christ the King was established in 1925, a new preface for the Eucharistic prayer was composed to be used on that occasion. As we pray together now, open up your eyes to see the Lord Jesus, the slain Lamb of God, now reigning triumphant on the cross, open your ears to hear his word and his call of faith, and open your hearts to welcome him to reign in you.

Let us pray.
It is right and a good and joyful thing always and everywhere to give thanks to you, O Lord, holy Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who anointed your only begotten Son, Jesus Christ our Lord with the oil of gladness to be a priest forever and king of the whole world, so that by offering himself on the altar of the cross as a pure victim and peace offering, he might perform the sacrificial rite of mankind’s redemption. All creation thereby has been made subject to his dominion, that he might present to your infinite majesty a universal and everlasting kingdom—a kingdom of truth and of life, of holiness and of grace, a kingdom of justice, of love, and of peace. Amen.

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