Sermon November 25, 2018

One of the stops we made on our recent trip to Southeast Asia was in Bangkok, Thailand. Bangkok is a thriving, economically strong city. As we were driven through the city, we saw many pictures of kings past and present prominently displayed on the streets of the city. One family has ruled the country since 1782 and the tour guide made a point of telling us about improvements made by previous kings. These kings were successful in keeping Thailand from being colonized as other countries in the area were. One recent King, Rama the ninth, ruled for 70 years from 1945 until 2016. He was very popular as he worked to improve living conditions for the poor people in rural areas and his love of music and the arts was appreciated by the people. The country is now led by a prime minister who took over in a military coup in 2014. But it seems that the role of the king is more than that of a figurehead. The latest king does not seem popular and there is a power struggle between the king and the prime minister.

Kingdoms in our world are defined by space and by borders. Kingdoms are defined by people who seek power that will last from generation to generation. Some kings or queens are benevolent, trying to help to make their country a better place but others seem to be only interested in themselves.

Today, we celebrate the feast of Christ the King. It was started 100 years ago as an effort to change our focus from the things of this world to the things of God’s world. We emphasize Christ as our king not earthly kings.

Everything that Jesus did turned the concept of kingship upside down. Jesus spoke often that the kingdom of God was near, but it had nothing to do with space or time, it had nothing to do with control over a group of people. It had nothing to do with how people would exert power over one another. Rather it had to do with love and servanthood, with caring and helping. As Jesus said it had nothing to do with this world.

My experience in Thailand gave me a brief glimpse into the good and bad that monarchies sometimes provide. It seems appropriate because our modern world does not give us a great deal of experience with monarchies. In the United States we tend to look to our Canadian and British friends to understand what a monarchy is like. Queen Elizabeth has reigned for 66 years and she has been a model for what we wish a monarch would be. She is kind and caring. She is a giving person. But we know that not every king or queen has been so wonderful. Our experience may not prepare us well for the radical message Jesus provided.

As I said, Jesus turned the entire concept of kingship upside down. I must say that there are times when I struggle with the image of Jesus as king. I feel as if our two images of God are contradictory. On the one hand, we have an image of God as all powerful. God, the creator, who made the heavens and the earth. God who can move mountains. God who can destroy the world in a flood and build it up once again. This is the God we find in some readings for today. The book of Daniel provides an image of God, the Ancient One, who has been in existence forever. This God ascends to a powerful throne with fire spewing out, a demonstration of God’s power. This God is worshipped by so many that they cannot be counted. And we are introduced to a figure that is like a human being, who is given dominion over all things. Our Christian minds see Jesus as that figure and we understand why we are called to worship him as a king. This passage from Daniel is part of what we refer to as apocalyptic literature. It is written as a dream that Daniel had about what will happen at the end of the world.

In the Psalm, we also encounter images of God. This time, God is clothed in marvelous apparel and placed on a throne. Then we hear about the glorious power of God, a God who can control the water. If you have ever experienced raging waters that are found in a flood or a hurricane, you understand the power of water. But God controls all water, even the oceans.

The book of Revelation is also considered apocalyptic literature, another dream about the end of the world. This passage is a little different in that Jesus is specifically mentioned in the dream. Jesus is the one who will ascend to the throne and be given power over all things. Jesus is our king.

On the other hand, we have Jesus as the servant of all. The one who gave up his life for our salvation, the one who spoke of love not war. In the gospel of John, we hear Jesus speaking to Pilate just before he is taken out to be crucified. I imagine that Jesus was bound in chains and perhaps bloodied by the thrashing that he had just received. This is not an image of God clothed in beautiful garments and sitting on a majestic throne. But it is consistent with other times when Jesus preached about being servants. In Mark’s gospel Jesus “sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”

Jesus demonstrated that he was a servant because he taught all who would listen, he was a healer who took care of the sick, and he forgave people who had sinned.

It turns out that Jesus is both the mighty ruler and the humble servant. We are called to accept both of these images of Jesus as our God. In fact, we learn about how we should behave from the actions of Jesus.

Eleonore Stump offered this observation about what appears to be opposite views of Jesus, “What most people reject as the worst things in life turns out in Christ’s crucifixion to be the prize-winning goods. On the cross Christ makes manifest that real winning is what looks to the world like losing.”

And we also recognize the glory of Jesus as king. Eleonore Stump said it this way, “There is a time for suffering, when all worldly values and all earthly desires are turned upside down, a time when we struggle with sin and suffering. But there is also a time when things turn right-side up again and then all struggle ends. At that time, each one of Christ’s people will say of every affliction, “That was then; this is now!” Only that now, when all sin and suffering falls away, is an everlasting now. And the cross is the way to it. It is best said in the letter to the Philippians, “he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:8.

The interrogation by Pilate gives us a great example of the humble Jesus. Jesus was not bullied or afraid. My kingdom does not belong to this world, he said. It tells us that worldly pursuits are less important than Godly pursuits. I saw a news article about some student council members who decided to invite a sophomore with learning disabilities who was eating lunch by himself to join them. It changed his day. We know that often it is the little things we do that make a big difference for others. It is an example of how we can be servants to others.

Jesus told Pilate that he came into the world to testify to the truth. Jesus was more interested in the truth than taking his rightful place as a king. The truth is that Jesus loved us and was a humble servant to all of us. The truth is that Jesus is God. The truth is that Jesus saved us through his sacrifice and reigns over the world at the same time. Although not included today, Pilate actually asked, “What is truth?” That is a question that we should ask ourselves all of the time. We should always be seeking the truth of the gospel and the truth of God’s message to us. It may not always be clear and there are many people who may turn us away from the truth. But let us always be the ones who seek God’s truth. Let us share in both the humbleness that Jesus taught us and the glory of his crowning as the king of all. Let us celebrate and seek to find the truth which is best found in following Jesus. Amen.

 

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  • Matthew 2:4-6
    “When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written: “‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.’””