This is a shortened version of my sermon for Christ the King Sunday, November 24th, 2013.
It’s a familiar scene: the homeland has grown – it’s large and prosperous. Its language is spoken in far-off lands, its ambassadors are treated with great respect abroad. They’re on the cusp of a golden age, but there’s just one set-back: some of the neighboring countries are also flourishing and “expanding their sphere of influence.” You know that your country’s the best, the richest, the most enlightened, but deep down inside there’s a hint of concern: what if that other country gets the upper hand?
And so we put on a façade, we pump up our newly-elected leaders and we celebrate how great we are as a people and how great our leaders are because they epitomize our greatness – and all of a sudden we realize that we’ve handed them absolute authority. Maybe that’s wrong, but right now it’s fine because we’ve got to prove to our neighbors that we have a strong country, and how better to demonstrate that than by having a strong President, or Governor, or Chairman, or King, or Emperor?
The scene is China in the 1960’s, Germany in the 1930’s, Italy in the 1920’s, Russia in the 1910’s, France in the 1790’s, Rome in the 1st century BC, ancient Greece, ancient Egypt… the list goes on; pick your poison.
In 1925, Pope Pius XI devised a liturgical rebuttal to the rise of dictatorship in his day by creating and instituting Christ the King Sunday, which has since settled into this last Sunday before Advent – just in time to usher in that season of expectant preparation for the arrival of our King. Most Protestant churches in the liturgical tradition have followed suit, including us, but there are other ways that we keep Christ’s kingship on the forefront of our minds. Consider the beginning of the Eucharist service for most of the year: “Blessed be God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and blessed be his kingdom, now and forever.”
In short, this is a day we stand up against the world and say no to the Lordship of Mussolini, Hitler, Mao, Stalin, or whoever the Caesar of our day might be. For, as we were reminded in the Epistle reading, we’ve been transferred to another kingdom. We started off subject to the devil and all who play into his machinations, knowingly or unknowingly. But through faith, through Baptism, we’ve been naturalized into another country subject to another king: Jesus, the Son of God.
The Kingdom of God
One of the most popular verses about this Kingdom is what Jesus said to Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” Ooo, mysterious! This has been misapplied frequently by many people, assuming that the kingdom of God is therefore in heaven, and has nothing to do with this world. But that’s the wrong “of.” In Greek, Jesus’ words are “εκ κοσμου τουτου” which means “from this world.” So, when Jesus says “not of this world,” the “of” doesn’t mean “about” or “concerning this world;” that’d be a different word entirely. So Jesus’ kingdom is not from this world – but it definitely includes this world.
But first things first: if it’s not from this world, then where is it from? The Apostles’ Creed gives us the short answer: we believe that Jesus “ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” So Jesus’ reign begins in heaven. But what happens immediately before that is what helps us to make fuller sense of the extent of his reign.
Turn again to this morning’s Gospel reading. There, Jesus is on the cross, and his death is mere hours away, and he’s promising the repentant thief on a nearby cross that “Today you will be with me in paradise.” As long as Satan is the prince of this world and rejoicing in the death of every human, there’s no way earth could be described as Paradise, let alone hell – the place of the dead. And yet, Jesus promises paradise. Why? Because right there, on the Cross, Jesus was enacting a decisive victory over Satan which kicked him off the throne forever, leaving it vacant for its rightful King, Jesus himself! As one great 1500-year-old hymn puts it:
Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle,
sing the winning of the fray;
Now above the cross, the trophy,
sound the high triumphal lay:
Tell how Christ, the world’s Redeemer,
as a victim won the day.
And so, beginning in the grave, or hell, Jesus began his victory march, or more formally, his procession. Three days in hell and forty days on earth and finally he ascends into heaven and takes his seat on the throne of God, as Lord of all Creation: heaven, the earth, and under the earth.
Back to the first scene: growing prospering countries eventually clash with each other. As the Church – which is the visible manifestation on earth of God’s Kingdom – grows, it becomes an object of contention among the competing kingdoms. These are not so much kingdoms of flesh and blood with borders and governments, but rather kingdoms of religions and philosophies and anything else that people enthrone in Jesus’ place: kingdoms like Selfishness, Materialism, Islam, Deism, Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, Communism, even Democracy. Any place where a value or deity is more precious, revered, or important than Jesus is a competing Kingdom against Him.
Granted, spiritual warfare has its ups and downs – some of these kingdoms are more threatening than others at a given point in history. Some result in physical persecution of Christians while others may try to play nice with Jesus for a time. But at the end of the age, every idol will be overthrown and every false way will be uncovered for what it is.
So when the tension builds between competing kingdoms in your life, fight hard to make sure you’re seeking Jesus on the throne of all things. Lady Liberty has served America well for over 200 years, but she’s no Jesus. Capitalism has fulfilled many an American Dream, but it’s no Jesus. Unitarians preach a God of peace and love, but it’s no Jesus.
Finally, don’t just fight: celebrate! Celebrate Christ the fair glory of the holy angels, Christ the head of the Church, Christ the Savior of the world. Celebrate Christ the King.