Sermon for Evensong, Christ the King, 2016
1 Samuel 8:4-20
Of Kings and Kingdoms
Usually our Sunday evening readings follow on from the usual weekday lectionary – but not this week as the Church marks the end of our liturgical Year with the celebration of Christ the King. However our morning readings this week have had a very strong emphasis on Kingdoms and Kingship which would not be out of place as we have followed the book of the prophet Daniel (and the Revelation of St John)
Both of these texts are examples of ‘Apocalyptic’ literature – stories and readings which sound strange to our ears – yet which were very much part of the Jewish culture of the time of Jesus, the years preceding his birth and afterwards for some two or three hundred years. Daniel may well date from the mid 2C BC. The Revelation given to John, although traditionally dated quite late in the 1C, may actually be one of the earliest pieces of Christian Scripture, and several other writings such as the books of Enoch had a strong place in the Christian culture really until the time of St Augustine not long after the conversion of Rome. Let us say that Apocalyptic texts, replete with references to the Rule of God, weren’t terribly conducive to the business of running an Empire 🙂 Early Christians were only taught The Lord’s prayer at the last moment before their baptism – it was and is so subversive to ‘business as usual’ to pray ‘Hallowed be THY name – Thy Kingdom come . . .’
So these texts were marginalised and many were not included in the final canon of the Scriptures as we have received them – which does give us a rather lopsided view of the milieu into which Jesus was born – and this whole question of Kingship.
There is in every age a legitimate desire for what we would now call ‘stable government’ – Earthquakes as events in the US suggest to us, can be political as well as geological and potentially every bit as much if not more destabilising. Texts which at the very least placed human authority under notice – such as the Daniel stories, which tell of Nebuchadnezzar exalting himself and thus being exiled to live amongst the wild animals as a judgement – or the narratives of St John the Divine, seeing the fall of the great trading power ‘Babylon the Great’ – these texts declare the provisionality of all human rule – and are so powerfully prescient in terms of their descriptive power – of how the meek and the poor suffer endlessly under ANY rule, so it seems – and of how nations rise against each other.
When Jesus says ‘nation shall rise against nation’ – he could be speaking of any time in human history – wars and rumours of wars. Daniel Sees in a dream a great Ram with two horns fighting against a great Goat with a single horn – he sees these animals as it were charging back and forth across the world. Like Kingdoms, or competing trading blocks exerting their influence, across the face of the Earth. This vision and its interpretation to Daniel left him utterly ill and exhausted – like someone perhaps caught up in the terrible anxiety which seems to beset us at present. It is, I suggest the smallest of jumps to get from Daniel to Trump and Putin, To the USA and Russia and China – and of course Britain and France etc before them. Kings and Kingdoms do not generally get a good write up in history, once we look beyond the pageantry which is of course carefully crafted to deceive our senses. Or to use the Revelation motif – Babylon the Great can be discerned in this and every age
YET this is true throughout all of the Scriptures. We do not need to read long before we find a profound critique of Kings and Kingship. God’s people suffer terribly under the harsh economy of the Pharaoh who brings all of Egypt under a form of economic enslavement – and repeatedly the message is given to God’s people – remember from whence you have come. The Ten Commandments open with the words ‘I am the Lord your God who brought you out from the land of Egypt . . . we can if we have an ear to hear, hear THEREFORE . . . the Ten Commandments as a framing for Life irrespective of the rule of any human king in a human Kingdom, and thus making these things at best highly provisional . . . The Kingdom of God is not to be found under the reign of any human authority
Yet that message is, to say the least slow to sink in, and people still seek ideological utopias through political systems and the people of God are not now, nor were then immune to such fantasies. So as we come to one of the most significant parts of the Old Testament for us, 1 Samuel Chapter 8 – the people, who had in the wilderness complained about their lot, their freedom, now, in the land of promise, hanker after a king, and come to Samuel, the prophet of the LORD asking for a king, for Samuel’s sons don’t follow in Samuels paths, looking for some kind of human certainty, rather than have to deal with the Living God – and Samuel tells them what it is like under a King – always . . . –
‘‘These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to run before his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his courtiers. He will take one-tenth of your grain and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. He will take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle and donkeys, and put them to his work. He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves. And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’
Rulers take some to enforce their military power – others to accumulate the wealth of the earth – militarism, economics, taxes etc etc it is always the same . . . down through the ages people say ‘If we just got the right rulers, all would be well . . .’ And in a democratic system of course . . . A choice between Donald Trump about whom we all know so much, and Hilary Clinton, whose campaign was funded by 11 of the 12 largest armament manufacturers in the world . . . Utopian visions of Egypt led the people to want to return – down through the ages there is either autocratic rule or rule based on utopian visions of making this or that or the other country ‘great again’ (Certainly this was in part what swayed so many in England over Brexit . . . Utopia, a word invented by Sir Thomas More to describe place which doesn’t exist – literally ‘no place’ Which is a sign of the failure of Google, by the way, for strictly speaking, if you put Utopia into a search engine, it should come back, ‘Your search returned no results . . .’ 🙂
Which brings us to this feast day – Christ the King. And Israel has not learned after all these years. Her blindness is ours as well. She still believes in this Utopian vision – led on by an overly glamourised picture of the reign of David, who committed Murder and adultery and whose son, Solomon enslaved his people with his imperial pretensions. And Jesus’ encounter with Pilate brings it all to a focus in that Jesus will not take upon himself the mantle of King. To all of Pilate’s questions Jesus refuses a direct answer. ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ Jesus answered, ‘Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?’ ‘So you are a king?’ Jesus answered, ‘You say that I am a king . . .
Part – perhaps the biggest part of the danger with calling Christ the King is that we are still looking for a King. Yet as Brett showed us this morning, Christ is the King who subverts kingship – the one who announces the reign of God which instead of the hard work of rule over us, opens the door to something at once more wonderful and far far more challenging. God’s Reign in Christ is to live in the freedom which he brings – the Truth is the Life of God embodied in Jesus. to live as God’s children is to Love hIm with heart soul mind and strength and to love one’s neighbour as oneself – if your neighbour has no food and you have food . . . how difficult is this? This is the Truth . . . but we prefer Kings . . .
In crucifying Jesus we reject the demanding liberation of living in the pure, simple uncreated Light of the Command of God. We still hold out a hope a government or ruler who will put it right, rather than Live Right with relation to our neighbour and God. What doe this command say? If your neighbour is hungry, seek to change the government? No, King Jesus says, ‘if your neighbour is hungry, feed him, if your enemy is hungry feed him’ This is how Love works in and through the world to transform it – it is the only way, but it challenges us and faces us with our own lack of Love, and calls us to change, to conform ourselves to God’s King.
Reminds me once more of that moment at our last synod, when it was suggested that if parishes were having trouble with paying their share to the diocese, they could speak with other parishes around them, they could Love one another, they could as it were ignore the formulas handed down from on high and love one another as Christ has loved us – yet the idea of doing this, of living under the reign of Christ rather than the rule of formulae handed down from on high seems to hard for us . . . so we ask for another formulae, another ruler, another bishop another King . . . anyone but God’s King . . .
So today is the feast of Christ the King, but remember it is Christ the King. Christ qualifies and subverts our meagre imagination – and calls us into a freedom apart from the World’s Kingdom’s and utopian projects which continue to crush and enslave. The Son, and only the Son sets you Free indeed – let us live in his Freedom