November 19, 2018
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
It’s interesting that this year Christ the King Sunday comes just a few weeks after a very divisive American election. Actually, as of this writing, it’s not even over yet, as recounts continue in closely fought races. On top of that, the Gospel for this year is a tense conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the representative of the supreme political authority of the Roman empire.
This might cause a tightening in the chest for some preachers who have been busy trying to bridge the divisions in their congregation that mirror those in the whole country. What am I going to say that will not be understood as your taking the side of any group?
Of course, there’s an easy way out of this bind, out of this tension. All you have to do is focus on Jesus statement: “My Kingdom is not from this world.” You see, it’s got nothing to do with politics. Jesus’s Kingdom is “spiritual,” it’s not about the politics of this world.
You probably already know this, but if you take that route you will be betraying the text and failing your congregation. An honest grappling with this text will probably not be satisfying for any “side” in the congregation, but it will deeply satisfying for those who really want to hear the gospel. Jesus takes the whole thing to another level altogether.
Just before our text, the priest Annas and his son-in-law the High Priest Caiaphas have already decided that Jesus must die. As Caiaphas puts it, it is better to have one man die for the people. (18:14) But they don’t have the power of capital punishment which Rome has reserved for itself.
So, they take Jesus to Pilate, but there’s a complication. It’s just before Passover, and if a Jew entered the pagan courts of the Roman procurator, they would be ceremonially unclean and unable to eat the Passover. They bring the Messiah to be executed, but are so punctilious about God’s law that are afraid of becoming unclean. To call this ironic would overload the word.
This means that Pilate has to come off his judgment seat and out from under all the trappings of imperial power to meet this Jewish mob in streets. And he is not only perturbed, he is placed into a political bind. The last thing he wants to do is get into the middle of a Jewish religious hassle right when thousands of Jews from all over the empire are packing the city for Passover.
Pilate tries to wiggle out by telling them to take care of it themselves, but they throw throw the regulations back in his face. “We are not permitted to put anyone to death.” So, after that prickly interview with his Jewish accusers, Pilate goes back inside to get the facts and decide the case.
He summons Jesus. He asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” But what’s the tone of the question. Obviously this was not a question meant to get at the facts. Pilate knows he’s not king of the Jews. I think it was more like this: “So, you’re the “King of the Jews,” are you?”
But Jesus response is astounding. He doesn’t seem bullied or afraid. He certainly acts like a king of some sort. In contrast to the synoptics, in John’s gospel Jesus is never a victim; he always seems in control of the situation. His reply to Pilate is hardly deferential. Pilate asks, “Are you King of the Jews?” Jesus replies with his own question, “Is that your own idea or theirs?”
Very shrewd. Jesus is pointing out that if the question came from Pilate it would be something like this: Are you claiming to be some kind of king challenging the authority of Rome? The answer is clearly, No. But if it was a Jewish question, it would be something like this: Are you the messianic king of Israel? To that the answer would be, Yes. So Jesus, like a skillful attorney, wants to know who’s asking the question and what it means?
Pilate is put on the spot, and he doesn’t like it. He nearly spits his disgust with the Jewish leaders who wouldn’t even enter his house; “I am not a Jew am I? It’s your own people who have handed you over. It’s all part of their political-religious garbage with self-proclaimed messiahs who were nothing but dangerous terrorists. Now let’s get down to brass tacks. What have you done?”
For some reason his mouth is going dry. There’s something unsettling about this man who may be king of nothing but stands before him with remarkable dignity and cool confidence.
So, now Jesus knows where Pilate’s coming from. Pilate needs a lesson in the politics of God’s kingdom. “OK”, says Jesus, “You want to know who I am and what I’m all about, I’ll tell you. Call me a King, I’ll accept that, but then you must understand it by my terms and my definitions, or you won’t understand it at all.”
And then Jesus speaks the words that form the hinge on which this whole drama swings, “My Kingdom is not from this world.” But what does he mean? Some older translations had it as “My Kingdom is not of this world.” That would mean that his kingdom has little or nothing to do with this world and its politics.
The issue here is not the whether Jesus’ power and authority as King has anything to do with this world. Jesus is not saying his authority is purely spiritual, otherworldly, having little or nothing to do with life here and now.
There is a segment of Christians for whom matters of faith have has little or nothing to do with this world. It’s about heaven, not earth; it’s about religion, not politics. The Kingdom of God is about the personal and private side of life, not the public and communal.
There is another segment for whom matters of faith have everything to do with the politics of this world. That has certainly come to the fore in this era where some Evangelical leaders have declared that candidate and now President Trump is chosen by God to lead the nation. Some advocate that in order to be truly blessed by God, the nation needs to follow God’s laws, a near theocracy.
How does Pilate see it? Well, he’s worried about a threat to the political power of Rome and to his own civil authority. There is only one kind of politics to Pilate, and it is the kind that requires the exercise of power for the interests of the Roman Empire.
“My Kingdom is not from this world.” The way Jesus places the issue before Pilate, it is not about the extent of Jesus’s Kingdom rule and authority, but its origin. Where does it come from, who authorizes it.
Jesus says his kingship does not originate in this world; it is not cut from the same cloth as the kingdoms of this world. The Kingdom of God is the coming of God’s judgement and salvation to the world. Therefore Jesus’s kingly power and authority rests on a completely different foundation than the power and authority of Rome. It has a different origin and employs different tactics.
“If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” (18:36) Jesus is saying, “I refuse, I reject, the use of power or coercion to win the world to my kingdom.”
Then how does this Kingdom operate? How does it conquer? The answer rings clearly from every page of the gospel. Love! “Lead on O King Eternal,” a hymn which certainly ought to be sung on this Sunday puts it just right. “For not with swords loud clashing/ or roll of stirring drums. / With deeds of love mercy/ the heavenly kingdom comes.
When Pilate and the Jewish authorities had exercised their ultimate weapon, the weapon of violence, when the true and only King was nailed to a cross, there, the Bible says, he was lifted up as King and would draw all people to himself. The heartbeat principle of the Kingdom of God is this: Love conquers all.
Jesus repeats again, “My Kingdom is not from here.” Pilate finds this theological discussion tiresome. Pilate is a practical man. And the business at hand is the defense of the power of Rome. That’s all he cares about. He cuts to the chase. “Well, then, You are a King?
Here it is; a straight question that deserves a straight answer. Yes or no, are you or are you not a king? But Jesus is not about to be trapped in Pilate’s practical logic, or stumble into Pilate’s definitions.
“You say that I am a king….” Or as one translator nicely puts it, “King is your word, not mine.” Having told Pilate what his kingdom is not, Jesus now sets out to tell him what it is. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
His kingdom is a kingdom of truth. His royal mission begins in heaven and he has a divine mandate. He was sent to unveil the truth. When Jesus talks about truth he’s not just talking about honesty or truthfulness. He’s not saying he is merely here to say true things. He is the truth.
Truth in John’s gospel is reality, God’s reality. His voice is God’s voice. His words are God’s words. And everyone who recognizes the ring of truth in him belongs to the truth. The very Creator of all things has revealed himself in the world through this one authentic man. He is the King of truth.
But by now Pilate has had it with all this enigmatic talk. “What is truth!”, he says, and turns around to deal with the Jewish leaders. What does all this talk of truth have to do with the reality of power politics that was going on outside his door?
The irony is that Truth is the only authority and power that Jesus wields. He stands as the naked truth that upholds the universe before the lies of religion and power politics. The religious leaders refuse to listen to the truth, and Pilate isn’t listening either. They will ultimately conspire together to destroy him. But the truth cannot be overcome. It is the light that shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.
CEP Director Scott Hoezee has been on sabbatical this Fall 2018. He will return to his regular writing of these sermon starters next week (Advent 1C). We would like to thank Len Vander Zee for stepping these past 3 months.
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2018/
Preaching the Text:
The preacher needs to make a choice about this text. Am I going do my best to avoid the fraught politics of this time and place by treating the text purely in its own historical context, or interpreting it only in spiritual terms? Good luck with that! The congregation will see right through that and either feel relieved or betrayed. Another choice is to use this text to take sides, and I suppose that it’s possible to interpret the text in any political direction you may choose.
The best choice, and the most challenging, is to honestly and carefully seek to provide your congregation with biblical guidance on how to navigate the choppy waters of politics today as a Christian. You may not be able to avoid any hint of “politics,” but it is more likely to be helpful to the congregation and stay true to the text. If that’s what you want to do, here are a couple of possible directions to go.
1).What does it mean, both in principle and in practice, that Jesus’ kingship is not from this world? In my own Reformed tradition there is a famous saying by Dutch Reformed theologian and politician (Prime Minister) Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
By this Kuyper did not mean that Christians should establish a theocracy. He taught that human life is divided into various “spheres” of influence. Politics is one sphere and the church is another, and they should seek to avoid intruding on each other’s sphere of sovereignty. Yet, for the Christian, Christ is the King in all spheres of life. We need to follow him as best we can as in business, in education, in family life, in church, and in politics. So, as a citizen and voter, that may mean one thing, as a politician in a pluralistic country, that may mean another. The question then is: what does it mean that Jesus is King in my arena of life in this world, and am I willing to bow to his authority?
2).Jesus said about his kingship that he came to testify to the truth. As I mentioned above, In John, truth means more than factual veracity. It means reality, deep down truth. Jesus is the “true vine,” “the way the truth and the life.” But it does also mean truth in the sense of veracity. In chapter 8:44, in response to the Jewish leaders, Jesus says, “You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
There are few things more damaging to the welfare of a society than the demise of truthfulness. Of course, politicians have always played fast and loose with the truth, but when lies become pervasive the very value of truth is in danger of being lost. Lies corrupt the person who speaks them, and they corrupt the body politic in which they become acceptable.
3.)It is always important to see Jesus’s kingship from an eschatological perspective. As the old saying goes, the Kingdom is already and not yet. The King has come and established his reign of peace, but, as the epistle for today makes clear, he has ascended to the throne in heaven there to wait, “until his enemies be made the footstool beneath his feet.” (Hebrews 10: 13)
We are not going to establish Christ’s Kingdom on earth. We can live certainly live in obedience to the King and seek to establish the principles of the kingdom in our lives. But whenever we try to take it into our hands we forget that it is not from this world. The King is coming, and so is his kingdom. We prayerfully wait for it: “Come Lord Jesus.”
2 Samuel 23:1-7
Author: Stan Mast
Like other great leaders of Israel before him (Jacob in Genesis 49 and Moses in Deuteronomy 33), David concludes his life with famous last words. Though he undoubtedly spoke other words after this (cf. opening chapters of I Kings), “[t]hese are the last words of David” in an official way, his last pronouncement, his prophetic word to posterity. It is fitting that the last words of “Israel’s singer of songs” should be two songs (chapter 22 and these words). Chapter 22 summarizes David’s experience as Israel’s greatest King, while II Samuel 23:1-7 expresses his hope for Israel’s future kings. As a prophetic song, this reading is a fitting end to the church year, when we celebrate the reign of Christ the King and look forward to the Advent of the new born King, the greater Son of David.
It is no stretch to call this a prophetic song, because David explicitly uses the Hebrew word for prophecy as he opens his song. Twice he says that what follows is “an oracle.” Here is a king functioning as a prophet, an unusual thing in Israel. But this is an important moment, so God’s people need a word directly from God. That, says David, is exactly what he is about to speak. “The Spirit of Yahweh spoke through me, his word was on my tongue. The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me….”
That is not the proud boast of a powerful man. Indeed, David takes great pains at the very beginning of his prophecy to give God all the glory for his kingship. It was the Most High who had exalted David, the God of Jacob who had anointed the son of Jesse. This is no Nebuchadnezzar boasting about his accomplishments. This is no partisan modern day leader crowing about how much he has accomplished. This is a humble shepherd acknowledging that he was made the Shepherd of Israel by the Great Shepherd (Psalm 23).
He wants to remind his people and all future leaders (be they kings of Israel or Prime Ministers of Canada or Presidents of America) what great leaders look like and accomplish. Or, more accurately, God wants to remind the world about the requirements and possibilities for great leadership. These words come not from David’s experience and wisdom, but directly from the mouth of God (verses 2 and 3a).
The words of II Samuel 23:3b and 4 should be emblazoned over the desk of every leader in the world (with adjustments for gender, of course). “When one rules over men in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning, like the brightness after rain that brings grass from the earth.” The two qualities that make a leader truly great before both God and humanity are justice, a concern for personal and public righteousness, and piety, a humble reverence for God before all other powers.
Such a leader is like sunshine and rain for the people that leader governs. As the earth flourishes only when there is adequate sunshine and rain, so a people can flourish only when the leader is just in his dealing with the people and faithful to the God who made him or her leader. Take away either (sunshine or rain, justice or piety) and a nation, a people, a church cannot thrive. Thus saith the Lord.
That is an important word from God, but then in verse 5a David speaks his own word. “Is not my house right with God?” Is the implication there that David has always governed with righteousness and the fear of the Lord? Of course, that isn’t true. David had been guilty of terrible unrighteousness, when his own desires overcame his fear of the Lord. And his house had been terribly divided by his sin. While that history may illustrate negatively how true the words of God in verses 3b and 4 are, it is not true that David’s house was right with God because David had always been the ideal king.
So how can he claim that his house is right with God? The next words tell us; it’s because of God’s gracious covenant promises to David and his house. “Has he not made with me an everlasting covenant, arranged and secured in every part? Will he not bring to fruition my salvation?” David is referring here to God’s promise in II Samuel 7:14-16 that David’s line will never die out. His kingdom will never end. Even if his sons sin and are disciplined, God will remember his covenant and will supply a king who will reign in righteousness and the fear of the Lord.
That promise, of course, came true in Jesus Christ, as the angel said to Mary in Luke 1:32, 33. II Samuel 23 not only describes the ideal Jewish King, but also promises the very real King of the Jews and the Gentiles who will bring peace/Shalom to the earth. The coming of that perfect King was absolutely sure because it was rooted in the unbreakable promise of God, “arranged and secured in every part.” As the Old Testament predicts in so many places and the New Testament promises in its eschatological passages, that King will renew the whole earth like sunshine and rain. Under his leadership, the creation will flourish in the new heavens and the new earth where righteousness dwells.
The New Interpreter’s Bible points out that David’s last song is the counterpart to the Song of Hannah in I Samuel 2. She sang in anticipation of God’s anointed one and the power of God through this royal agent to reverse the injustices of the world. The song of David in II Samuel 23 “makes it clear that God has not abandoned his resolve to work through his anointed King. After David’s sin and the abuses of his children, these last words remind us that God will continue his covenant promise in spite of the imperfection of David.” But his line must rule righteously and in the fear of God. When they finally demonstrated that they couldn’t, God sent the last, best Son of David, the Son of God.
It feels anticlimactic that David’s last words don’t end on the high note of verse 5, but they don’t. They end with the low note of judgment, the basso profundo of God’s intention to get rid of the thorns who have ruined God’s good earth. Like so much of wisdom literature, David’s last words balance the good news of grace with the bad news of judgment. Maybe that’s because the bad news of the final burning isn’t really such bad news at all. Maybe it is part of the Good News. God assures David that the thorns that have hurt so many people, that have ruined God’s good earth will finally be burned up, so that the earth can flourish again. Yes, the forces of evil are so tough and tenacious that human hands cannot root them out. But the fire of God will burn them up “where they lie.” That’s the hard edge of the Good News, but it is good news. How can the new heavens and the new earth be paradise, if any unrighteousness remains?
The hard ending of David’s last words should be heard with gladness by all those who have ever suffered injustice at the hands of those who do not fear the Lord. Our world is filled with aggrieved parties right now, and justifiably so. But David’s song calls us higher than solving our immediate problems with injustice. I usually hesitate to use long quotes from commentaries, but The New Interpreter’s Bible says it profoundly. “Surrounded by a troubled and broken world and in the crises of our own lives, we lose sight of God’s power at work beyond and in spite of our own human limitations and sin. In the name of realism, we define ourselves, our goals, our communities by our failures and not by our visions. We settle for problems to solve rather than ideals to embody. If we are so busy in the church realistically analyzing our institutional and societal issues that we fail to dream dreams or see visions, then we will perish like the ‘worthless ones’ of II Samuel 23:1-7. If, however, we claim with David the everlasting covenant of God’s promise, then the hope of our future world will be based in a reality that transcends the powers of this world.”
Two old hymns capture the soul of David’s final words. The first is a Christmas carol known to everyone, “Joy to the World.” But do we realize what we are singing in stanzas 2 and 3?
Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns; let all their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy
No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found.
The second hymn is a perfect song for celebrating the reign of Christ the King. Stanzas 1 and 4 of Jesus Shall Reign shout the praises of the coming King.
Jesus shall reign where’er the sun
Does its successive journeys run;
His kingdom spread from shore to shore,
Till moons shall wax and wane no more.
Let all the people rise and bring
Their special honors to our King;
Angels descend with songs again
And earth repeat the loud Amen.
Author: Leonard Vander Zee
Digging into the Text:
Psalm 132 is the longest of the Psalms of Ascent, and bears little resemblance the the themes and forms of the other Psalms in this collection. Many scholars think the Psalms of Ascent were used by Israel especially for the pilgrimage feasts (Passover and Pentecost) for which large numbers of pilgrims would make their way “up” to Jerusalem for the celebrations.
How does this Psalm fit into the pilgrimage milieu? It may have been used as a kind of liturgical reenactment in Israel while still under a monarchy. It first celebrated David’s capture of Jerusalem and then the carrying of the Ark into the city (II Samuel 5-7), followed by the remembrance of God’s promise that one of David’s sons would sit on his throne forever (II Samuel 7.
The Psalm is divided into two sections:
Verses 1-10 are a prayer for the Lord to remember David and his desire to build a dwelling place for the Lord.
Verses 11-18 offer a poetic rendition of the promise or oath that the Lord swore to David (II Samuel 7) that one of his sons would occupy his throne forevermore.
After 587 BCE and the exile, Israel had no king and came under the rule of foreign empires. The Psalm then expresses Israel’s abiding hope and prayer for the restoration of the throne of David in Jerusalem. The plaintive cry of verse 8-10 picks up that theme of desperate hope:
Rise up, O Lord, and go to your resting place,
you and the ark of your might.
Let your priests be clothed with righteousness,
and let your faithful shout for joy.
For your servant David’s sake
do not turn away the face of your anointed one.
Since this is Christ the King Sunday, all the readings have something to do with the reign of Christ inaugurated in his death, resurrection, and ascension to God’s right hand. As Christians, we also read Psalm 132 from this perspective. In Christ, God’s promises to David has been fulfilled. He is the new temple, the dwelling place of God with his people. He is the anointed king who will sit on the throne forever.
The more we dig into the relationship between David and Jesus Christ, the more theologically and spiritually rewarding it becomes. There is no question that David occupies a prominent place in the Old Testament. The story of David is the longest single narrative in the whole Bible. It stretches all the way from I Samuel 16 when he is anointed by Samuel through I Kings 2, where he hands the kingdom over to his son Solomon. Forty-two long chapters. We know more about David than about almost any other single person in the whole Bible.
He is the man “after God’s own heart.” (I Samuel 13:14) His life is characterized by daring exploits worthy of any movie thriller, remarkable leadership, and shrewd statesmanship. As king, he takes Israel from loosely organized group of tribes to highly organized monarchy. He was also a deeply spiritual man who loved the Lord and worshipped him with Psalms and exuberant song and dance.
David was what in Yiddish they call a mensch. It’s one of those untranslatable words, which is why people use it. A mensch is an authentic, likeable, down-to-earth human being. Someone you can’t help but admire.
Think of it this way: David is the most complete, full-blooded, God-intoxicated human being we have in the Bible. Here is a portrait of a real human being who operated as a king in the real world of Iron-age Palestine. But he is also deeply enmeshed in an authentic, no-holds-barred, life and death, relationship with God.
David is the best we human beings can do. He’s one of the most fully alive human beings that ever lived, a man after God’s own heart. Israel wanted a King, and in David they got a real king, a successful king, a king they could all love.
But his life falls apart, spiritually, physically, and emotionally, just like ours. His family tears itself apart. He almost loses his kingdom to a rebellious son, Absalom. And within a few generations, David’s great kingdom begins to crumble. Beginning with this raging river of a man, David’s dynasty slows and meanders until it’s a stinking swamp of human ineptitude and sin. The best of us, like David, cannot build a Kingdom that will last.
After the demise of the Israel’s line of Davidic kings after the exile, Israel began to associate the the Davidic covenant with the coming Messiah. And that is where the story and David and the story of Jesus coalesce.
We see it already in Luke’s story of the annunciation. The angel Gabriel says to Mary about her promised son, “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” This marks the fulfillment of God’s promise to David in II Samuel 7. Later the angels tell the shepherds, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2: 11)
At Bethlehem, God takes the raw material David’s brilliant and flawed humanity, our humanity, and fuses it in Mary’s womb with his own divine Son to create a new humanity. As John writes near the end of Revelation: Christ is the “root and offspring of David, the bright morning star.” In Christ, the Holy Spirit is remaking us into a shining new humanity: righteous and robust, pure and passionate, kingly and kind, just and gentle.
During Jesus ministry he is often called upon by people seeing help of healing as “Son of David.” (Matt. 9:27, 12:23 etc.) This was another way of acknowledging their belief that Jesus was the Messiah. It is particularly striking, in view of Psalm 132 as one of the pilgrimage Psalms, that when Jesus enters Jerusalem with the pilgrims for the Passover in that climactic final week, the pilgrims break into a song of praise. “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
So, in Christ, God’s promise to David, that a son would sit on his throne forever, is finally fulfilled. In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus stands before Pilate who asks, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus coyly responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” When he is finally crucified, Pilate places a placard on the cross, “King of the Jews.” The irony of that movement from the crowds celebrating Jesus as the Son of David to that sign over his bruised and battered body on the cross is stunning.
The two halves of Psalm 132 are joined together and fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the house, the temple David wanted to build as a dwelling place for the Lord in Zion. But he is also the son of David, the eternal king who God promised will rule his people with love and justice forever.
As God’s pilgrim people, marching to Zion, we sing this Psalm with even greater gusto. The true king, the Son of David has come and will come again, and he will reign forever and ever.
For the Lord has chosen Zion;
he has desired it for his habitation:
“This is my resting place forever;
here I will reside, for I have desired it.
I will abundantly bless its provisions;
I will satisfy its poor with bread.
Its priests I will clothe with salvation,
and its faithful will shout for joy.
There I will cause a horn to sprout up for David;
I have prepared a lamp for my anointed one.
His enemies I will clothe with disgrace,
but on him, his crown will gleam.”
CEP Director Scott Hoezee has been on sabbatical this Fall 2018. He will return to his work and his regular writing of these sermon starters next week (Advent 1C). We would like to thank Len Vander Zee for stepping these past 3 months.
Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2018 Resources are now available on CEP: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/advent-2018/
Preaching the Text:
Christ the King Sunday (or as it is sometimes called, Reign of Christ) always seems somewhat anachronistic. After all, we do not live in a monarchy, and those monarchies that remain, the monarch’s power is severely limited. The other kind of monarchical (literally one person rule) is a dictatorship, but somehow that word seems a lot darker and more threatening.
One of the biblical aspects of Christ’s rule we need to recall is that his is really not a one-person rule. The promise of scripture is that we will reign with him. The goal of our salvation is our glorification with and in Christ. Jesus said, “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28-30). Paul writes that “When Christ your life is manifested, you also will be manifested with him in glory.” (Col. 3: 4).
As Ephesians says, we were raised with him and seated with him in heavenly places, in a position of rule and authority (Eph. 2:6). So setting our mind on things above, where Christ is reigning, involves our practicing that rule in the world now, but in a way of hope, knowing that our true life is hidden with Christ and will be manifested with Him—in glory.
The idea here is that as human beings, created in the image of God we were crowned with the glory and honor (Psalm 8) and are meant to rule upon the earth. It’s a rule that is cares for the creatures of the world even as it brings out the earth’s potential. King Jesus, the true human, restores us all to our God-given royal dignity. We not only submit to his reign, we reign with him.
Author: Doug Bratt
With this week’s Epistolary lesson the Lectionary takes its first step into the muddy waters that are Revelation. In fact, on this Year B Christ the King Sunday, Revelation 1:4-8 is the first step into Year C’s 6-stop journey through Revelation.
It’s an appropriate first step and stop because this text the Lectionary appoints answers some very basic questions about the entire letter. Verse 1 answers the question of why John wrote it: to show God’s “servants what must soon take place.”
It’s a revelation the seven churches to which the apostle addresses it desperately need to hear. After all, while Revelation’s precise dating is a bit murky, its context seems quite clear. The Roman Empire is doing what it can to limit or even eliminate the Christian Church and its influence.
After all, while the Caesar expected citizens of the Empire to worship and affirm that he was their “lord,” Christians, of course, couldn’t do that. They worshiped Jesus as Lord. Since the Caesar and his Rome thought of that as sedition, they viciously persecuted the early Church. In the face of that sometimes-bloody persecution, John reveals what “must soon take place” (1).
Revelation 1’s preachers and teachers will want to emphasize that “soon” can mean virtually anything. It may refer to next week, month of even year. But “soon” may also mean in the next decade, century, millennium or even millennia (since as many as 2,000 years have elapsed since God revealed this letter to John).
Yet biblical scholars note that the Greek word for “soon” can also mean “with speed, quickly or shortly.” So God isn’t necessarily talking chronologically. God is talking about the soon of now, of currently, of the present. God is talking about what’s happening in John and his readers’ world even as the apostle writes.
God is revealing to John how the gospel affects human life and history, including how that life and history responds to that good news that is the gospel. There are a lot of powerful forces at work in not only John and his first readers’ world, but also in our own. In that sense “what soon must take place” may even refer to Revelation’s mysterious images of human power and authority. John wants to help his beleaguered readers differentiate among those powers so that they may know just “who’s in charge here.”
However, we’re not sure just who this “John” (4a) is. The early Church seems to have assumed that he was Jesus’ disciple who was Zebedee’s son. Later scholarship, however, challenged that authorship. Yet those who proclaim Revelation won’t want to get too bogged down in that controversy. They may want to simply note that this John is some kind of Christian prophet or teacher whom the Romans have exiled to the island of Patmos for proclaiming the gospel.
This John writes the book of Revelation “to the seven churches in the province of Asia” (4b). Those churches were located in what most people now call modern-day Turkey. Some scholars suggest John was the pastor of at least some of those churches. “To the seven churches” suggests that while
Christians sometimes treat Revelation as some kind of mysterious code, it’s, first of all, a letter. John writes it to not just to the seven churches of chapters 2-3, but also to all the churches in order to tell them what God has revealed to him.
John’s letter to the churches is full of imagery that “reveals” or “unveils.” But those who proclaim Revelation 1 will want to state the obvious: its revelatory imagery was probably clearer to its first readers than citizens of the 21st century. In that way, its imagery looks a little to us like things like rotary phones and record players look to people born after the year 2000.
Even this week’s lesson gives us a glimpse of some of Revelation’s mysterious imagery. In verse 4c, after all, John greets the churches on behalf of “the seven spirits before” God’s throne. Even the NIV’s text note that suggests it may also mean “the sevenfold Spirit” doesn’t do much to make the reference clear. Yet as scholars note, since Revelation doesn’t explain most of that and other almost endless mysterious imagery, we assume it was more familiar and, thus, clearer to its first readers than us.
John uses that imagery and more to reveal to his readers Jesus Christ (1). N.T. Wright has written about that revelation, “For some, Jesus is just a faraway figure of first-century fantasy. For others, including some of today’s enthusiastic Christians, Jesus is the one with whom we can establish a personal relationship of loving imagery. John would agree with the second of these, but would warn against imagining that Jesus is therefore a cozy figure, one who merely makes us feel happy inside.”
So who is this Jesus whom God graciously reveals to John? John says he is “the one who is, and who was, and who is to come” (4b, 8). So God shows Revelation’s inspired author that Jesus is not, like those who read this Starter, limited to the mid-20th century to the early 21s century. Jesus somehow stretches out over time.
So it’s not just that the Son of God always was or that he was at the beginning of measured time. It’s not even just that Jesus is here and now, by his Spirit. It’s also that Jesus will come again and, in fact, always be. Verse 8 echoes that message: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, who is, and who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.”
This everlasting Jesus is, John adds in verse 5b, “the ruler of the kings of the earth.” While Christians find great comfort in that assertion, it was, to Caesar and his minions, fighting words. After all, Rome’s ruler and his cohorts assumed that he, as a son of god, was in charge. The Caesar convinced his Roman subjects that he was the “ruler of the kings of the earth.”
In the face of that, and the political and military evidence that seemed to back up that claim, John insists that Jesus is both the only natural Son of God and ruler over even Caesar. It’s no wonder the Romans banished John (and his preaching and teaching) to the end of their earth!
In verse 7 the exiled preacher goes on to promise that everlasting King Jesus “is coming with the clouds.” We generally link this promise to the prospect of Jesus’ return at the end of measured time to judge the living and the dead, as well as usher in the new earth and heaven.
Yet at least some scholars hear in this coming a reference to Daniel’s early prophecy of “one like a son of man” (Daniel 7:13-14). If that’s true, John may be saying that the “one like a son of man,” Jesus, has already come and, in fact, comes every day. John 3:13-14, after all, insists that Jesus is that Son of Man in and through whom God has worked, is working and will continue to work to accomplish God’s plans and purposes.
Those plans and purposes include, as my colleague Stan Mast notes in an earlier sermon starter on this text, the gifts of “grace and peace to” (4b) to Revelation’s beleaguered readers. That message of grace, in fact, virtually bookends John’s letter to the churches. After all, his “signature” on it is, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with God’s people. Amen” (22:21). So to the exiled John who writes to beleaguered Christians, it seems to be all about grace from start to finish.
My colleague Stan Mast’s Sermon Starter on this text (November 16, 2015) quotes some famous first words. He points out that the country song, “Famous First Words” lists some things you might hear first in a bar: “Hey, where have you been all my life? Haven’t we met somewhere before? Don’t I know you?”
Mast also quotes some literary first words. Consider C.S. Lewis’ The Voyage of the Dawn Treader’s, “His name was Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Or Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities’, “It was the best of times and worst of times.”
That got me to thinking about famous last words. Harriet Tubman’s “Swing low, sweet chariot.” Benjamin Franklin’s, “A dying man can do nothing easy.” Groucho Marx’s, “This is no way to live!”
But how often do famous first last words echo famous first words? Among Revelation’s first words is “grace” (1:4). Among its last words is also “grace” (22:21). There’s a beginning and end that you can give your life to.