Monday, November 21, 2016

Christ the King

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text is John 18:33-37:

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day that we celebrate and proclaim Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. It also represents the end of the Christian year, so happy New Year, as next Sunday is the first Sunday of Advent, and we begin to prepare the way, again, for the coming of the Christ child. Today sort of encapsulates one of the things that at the heart of our faith, and that is the dichotomy of things that we have to hold in tension, such as loving God with our head and with our heart, which can be opposite of each other. But the other and more important one is holding the tension between this Sunday and next Sunday, that is that Christ has already come, that Christ is already here, and that Christ has yet to come. Or as we say in the communion liturgy, Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. We pledge our allegiance to God who is with us, and cry out Maranatha, which means “Come, Lord Jesus.” But today, we celebrate Christ with us as our King, which concludes the series we have been doing on who Jesus is by looking at the three offices that he is said to hold, which are prophet, priest and King.

All three of these offices are historic positions found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and all of them had huge expectations for someone in each of these positions who would come to introduce, or bring about, the completion of creation, the fulfilment of the law, and the reign, or kingdom of God. When we talked about Jesus as prophet, we talked about the expectation that there would be a great prophet to rise up like Moses or Elijah, but this person would not be just any prophet, or just a prophet, but instead would be the prophet, the one who would fulfill prophecy and be the last prophet. It is clear that those who knew Jesus viewed him as a prophet, but in light of the resurrection it is this role as the prophet that the disciples and the early church claimed for Jesus.  And so in light of that, we should see everything that Jesus says and also what Jesus does as a prophetic witness, as the words of God come to us and to be treated with the seriousness that entails. Seeing Jesus as prophet, or even thinking of Jesus as the prophet is probably the least known and talked about aspects of Jesus’ three roles.

Like with the expectation of a prophet, there was also an expectation for a great high priest who would rise up and lead Judaism back to its rightful place, who would purify the faith and bring fulfilment to the law. But the problem with the old priestly model was that because the priests also sinned, they could never bring wholeness or fulfillment to the law because they were broken themselves. So, to complete the law we needed to be someone different, someone who, although tempted and therefore understood our plight, was without sin themselves. And because they were without sin, then no sacrifices needed to be made on their behalf. But Jesus could make a sacrifice for us in giving of his perfection, and because that sacrifice for God’s forgiveness was not given on his behalf, but instead on our behalf, then the sacrifice was good for all time. No other sacrifices ever needed to be made again, either by Jesus, or by us. So, Jesus’ eliminated one of the major rolls for priests by abolishing the need for sacrifice, and set-up that there was no longer any need for humans to act as intermediaries with God, because Jesus, as our high priest acts as our intermediary, our intercessor. And while we might not know the theological language, every time we pray and say something like “in Jesus’ name we pray” we are invoking Jesus as the high priest to make our petition known to God, to be our advocate, and thus we know this office of Jesus even if we never thought of it that way.

But it is the final office of Jesus, that of King, that we probably use and think of the most.  While there were some who thought that the Messiah would be a great high priest, by far the greater expectation was for the Messiah to be a political leader who would bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth. Someone who would come from the line of David in order to restore the Davidic rulers to the throne of Israel as had been promised by God as we heard in the passage from 2 Samuel this morning. And in being installed as king, they would be anointed and this would truly make them the Messiah, as Messiah means “the anointed one.”  Translated into Greek, messiah becomes Christos, or as we know it, Christ. Thus, Jesus as king is the office we know the most, or at least use the most, because every time that we say Jesus Christ we are saying that Jesus is King.  Christ is not a proper name, it’s not like we would introduce ourselves and say “Hi, I’m John Nash,” and he would say “Hi, I’m Jesus Christ.” Christ is a title, and so we might better say Jesus the Christ or Christ Jesus, and in doing that we might also begin to remember what it means to proclaim Jesus as King.

Now there are lots of arguments amongst scholars about whether Jesus understood himself as messiah, and we don’t have time to go into the arguments both for and against that appellation, but it is clear that immediately after the resurrection that Jesus’ followers gave this title to him because it is clearly evident in the earliest writings we have in the New Testament, which are the letters of Paul. It is also clear that the way that Jesus may have understood himself, and certainly the way that the disciples and apostles understood this title, is very different from the way that the religious and political rulers understood the title. All four gospels record Jesus appearing before Pontius Pilate and him asking Jesus whether he is the king of the Jews. How Jesus answers that question is up for debate, although none of the gospels have Jesus out and out denying the title. The fact that the words “king of the Jews” appears over the cross was not just as a joke, that was what the Romans were truly concerned about, was people that we might do what we would call treason and rise up against them, try and challenge their authority, and so anyone who said that they were a king, or anyone who was acting as if they might have pretensions of such a thought would be taken care of, with crucifixion being the main way that they would carry this out.

So, in some ways it doesn’t really matter what Jesus might have thought about himself, because clearly the Romans thought he was holding pretensions of authority, and he himself gave them some indications through his words and behaviors. He has 12 disciples, who represent the 12 tribes of Israel, and he talks often about the Kingdom of God, and what does every kingdom have? A King. But, what does that kingdom look like and what does that king do? That’s what was not clear to those who sought to challenge Jesus, and it’s not often clear to us today. I can say that because one of the common misinterpretations is from the passage we heard from John today, and that is Jesus’ answer to Pilate. When Pilate says “are you a king,” and notice that he asks this question of Jesus twice, again giving indication of how serious Pilate takes the question. The first-time Jesus asks whether the accusation is being made by Pilate himself, or if it has been made against him by someone else, to which Pilate says that since he is not a Jew it’s clearly an accusation made by others. And as an aside I will mention again that the portrait we get of Pilate in the gospels is totally at odds with that we get from other Jewish and Romans writings of the time.

But the second-time Pilate asks, Jesus gives an entirely different answer. Now when we hear that, and how it has been interpreted over time, is that Jesus is saying that his kingdom is not of this world, but that’s not what he says. Instead, Jesus says his kingdom, and we might say his authority, is not from this world. There is a big difference between saying it’s not from this world, versus not of this world. When we say that it’s not of this world, it means that God’s Kingdom is about some time to come in the future, probably as the afterlife, and therefore that it’s not something we are working for here and now, but instead working towards at some distant time as a heavenly realm. It makes everything we do about the afterlife. But although that seems to be the message that many Christians preach, Jesus actually talked about the afterlife very little. Instead it's about the Kingdom of God here and now. God’s Kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven. Because when Jesus says that his authority and Kingship is not from this world, it means it was not given to him by humans, by the political establishment, by only ¼ of a populace voting for him to be in charge. His authority comes not from us, but from God. His Kingdom is not from this world, but it is of this world, and it is greater than any kingdom of the world because there are no geographic or tribal boundaries, because he is the King of kings and Lord of Lords. He is over all of it, and what Jesus came to proclaim and what he came to bring about was the reign of God, the vision of God not of who we are, but of who we are called to be.

What that means is that there is a call of allegiance that is different from what the world wants and desires of us.  As I have said before, there are lots of little caesars that want us to bow down to them, and I’m not talking about the pizza place. There are lots of things which want our allegiance, which want us to see them as our savior, our safety net, or security, that want us to see them as the place where we find hope. But they are not our savior, they are not our hope, they are not our leader, they are not our king. Our allegiance is to, and only to Christ. Jesus says that you cannot serve God and mammon, which is translated as money, but could be representative of anything else, because you will love the one and hate the other. This is our call to allegiance. Whom are we going to serve? Whom are we going to follow? Where will our allegiance be? Will it be to Jesus, or will it be to something else? Will it be to the kingdom of God or will it be to some other kingdom? Will it be to live into our name as Christians, or will some other identity become more important? Because, remember Christ means Messiah, which means that he is the one who has come to fulfill the law and to bring the reign of God, it means that he is King, and so if we are going to say I am a Christian, it means that we have to proclaim that Christ is King and that nothing else takes that place, nothing else takes that priority, nothing else claims our allegiance, or at least primary allegiance. Because that’s where the problem lies.

As Al Gallagher said about the greatest sport, “There are three things in my life which I really love: God, my family, and baseball. The only problem — once baseball season starts, I change the order around a bit.” God doesn’t say we can’t have other interest, or other passions, but it’s where we put them as priorities. God says “you shall have no other God’s before me.” So, if something is seeking to become a god for us, something else that we would worship, literally to bow down to, something else that will attempt to claim our allegiance then we are going down the wrong road, because that is when we are committing idolatry. That is when we give our adoration and reverence and veneration to someone or something other than God. Jesus is Christ and Christ is King.

We are called to work for the Kingdom of God, not for some time in the future, but in the here and now, and to say that we are working for that kingdom means that we are not doing work on our behalf, or even at our own initiative, but on behalf of the King. That means that even today as we turn in our estimate of giving cards for what we believe we will be able to give in the coming year, we are not giving to Mesa View, we are not giving to the United Methodist Church, you are not giving to me or for me, we are giving for the Kingdom. We are giving for the Kingdom work that God is doing through this church to make our lives different, to make our neighborhoods different, to make our city different, to make our world different, to, in fact, bring about a little bit of God’s kingdom here and now. And we don’t give because we have to give; we give because we get to give. We get to give out of the abundance that God has given to us. We get to give because we hear Jesus’ prophetic words about God’s love for the world and where God wants us to be. We get to give because of the sacrifice that Jesus gave as our High Priest is a sacrifice for all time and Jesus acts as our intermediary and intercessor with God. And we get to give because we have a King who came not to us because God so loved the world that he sent us a son not to condemn the world, but to save it, to fulfill the law, to fulfill the promise and to bring in the reign of God. The reign has begun, it’s here right now, and we are called to participate, to be witnesses to the Kingdom and to work towards its completion. But all that begins when we choose who we are going to follow. Are we going to follow and pledge allegiance to the things of the world, or are we going to follow and pledge allegiance to Christ the King? Christ is our prophet, our priest and our King. May we reaffirm that loyalty this day, and every day so that we can proudly say “Christ is our King.” I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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