Archives for posts with tag: King

Sermon for the Sunday next before Advent, Christ the King: 22nd November 2015

Daniel 5

Today in the Christian year we celebrate, we talk about, the idea of Christ the King. The expression ‘King’ comes up when he is on trial in front of Pontius Pilate, which seems to have been the most extraordinary scenario. ‘Are you a king?’ Pilate asks.

Pilate seems to me to have been a rather normal bloke, in a difficult position, having to deal with a bunch of fanatics who were zealots who caused a lot of trouble: possibly we might say they were in the line of ancestors of the people who are Zionists today, contributing to dissent and and unrest in the Holy Land. 

Well, perhaps that’s not a legitimate thing to say, but we can say that the Jews presenting Jesus for judgement by the ruler, by Pontius Pilate, were certainly not thinking about how to promote peace and harmony in the long run; they just wanted to rub out Jesus. He was asking awkward questions, which they did not find easy to answer. It was said that he was King of the Jews.

The idea of the kingdom of God in Jewish theology is a mixture of the idea of the Promised Land and the theology of God’s Holy Mountain. ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9) – the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and so on. We all know to some extent about Jesus’ rather upside-down concept of kingship. The first shall be last, washing people’s feet, giving up all that you own and giving it to the poor, when dealing with somebody described as a “rich young ruler”, a sort of prince.

But I’m afraid that I will rehearse all these stories, and then add a couple of pious sentences, saying that somehow you should follow them – and then you will forget this sermon and the ideas that it contains, probably before the end of the service, if not a few moments later.

I’d be very doubtful if a sermon, which concentrates on telling you, just in an academic way, what the meaning of kingship was in relation to Jesus Christ, would influence your life in any meaningful way, because you would find the way of life then so different, so alien from what we do now.

We have to build a bridge. What would Jesus do if he were here today? If we go back to the trial before Pontius Pilate, there’s an awful lot of irony in it. Pilate clearly is the representative of the ruling establishment, of the empire of Rome. So the idea that somebody else should come forward and present themselves as a king looks rather counter-intuitive, when it was so obvious that the ruler was a Roman.

Maybe Jesus’ kingship was a bit like all those grandly-named sort-of kings that survived in India after independence – I think largely for the purpose of owning classic vintage Rolls-Royces. The Maharajah of Jaipur, or the Nawab of Pataudi, for instance. Possibly Pontius Pilate had something similar in mind when he was tackling Jesus. ‘Are you a king?’ Meaning, ‘Are you one of those symbolic kings?’

I’m pretty sure that that’s not what the earliest Christians, what the contemporary readers of the Gospel, would have had in mind. The idea of some kind of symbolic king without any power just doesn’t chime with the whole of Jewish history. It’s more likely that they thought of a king as being like King Belshazzar the King of Babylon, the King from Ur of the Chaldees, portrayed in the wonderful fifth chapter of the Book of Daniel.

That King’s father, Nebuchadnezzar, was so confident in his own legitimacy and strength that he had invaded the kingdom of Judah, overrun the Temple, and nicked all the treasures, the gold goblets, plates and things used in the Temple rituals; he turned them over for use at parties, at his court banquet. It was pretty insulting to the Jews, but he had the power. 

Was their God so weak, so inferior to Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar’s god? The Jews didn’t believe this. What that King did, what Belshazzar did, was sacrilege to the Jews. Even today, in theological debates, now between Moslems and Christians, the heart of the matter is precisely that both sides think they have the correct understanding of the most important question ever, namely, what the nature of God is.

But then, despite all his power, Belshazzar encountered the writing on the wall. What did it mean? And Daniel, the Jew, explained. Despite all his power as a king, Belshazzar was finished.

What would happen today, if the confrontation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate was re-run in a contemporary environment? Was Jesus a king? And if so, what sort of king? Well, in St John’s Gospel, Jesus very clearly reserves his position, and points out that the kingdom that he rules as a king is not of this world. So we can’t judge him by how big a country he rules or how big an empire: or whether he has given up his power and become a constitutional monarch like the Queen; or whether he is still an absolute monarch, like the Saudi King, for example.

There’s a faint colour of artificiality about the move which I’m trying to make, between Jesus the king in the Bible and some kind of contemporary interpretation. But never mind; let’s pursue it. I’m confident that it will illustrate what needs to be said here. 

What would the kingdom of God look like? Is it like Belshazzar’s banquet, or is it ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’ as Jesus proclaimed in St Luke chapter 4 [4:19], fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah [Is. 61:1,2]? Is it ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain’? Or is it, ‘The last shall be first, and the first shall be last’, in the Gospel story itself? [Matt. 20:16]
What does it mean to be a king? I think that the idea of kingship can be taken in more than one way. 

You can of course look historically at who has actually been a king, and identify the qualities these historic kings actually had. But equally, another way of looking at it is to see kingship as a kind of metaphor for the whole business of government, of leadership of people. What would a really Christian government look like – a government where Christ was really in charge?
Would he be democratic, for example? Surely yes. We believe that God loves every single one of us: indeed that he has called us all by name [Isaiah 43:1], and that therefore we are all worth knowing. That would imply that we should each have a vote; it would imply a need for democracy. 

But would Jesus approve of our particular version of democracy? So many people didn’t vote in the last general election. So, although the government claims a majority, in fact I believe that only 24% of the electorate as a whole actually voted for them. Many more, 36%, didn’t vote for anyone. It’s at least arguable that our current arrangements are not as democratic as one feels they might be, if we were trying to create heaven on earth. It’s something to think about.

Again, after Bishop John Robinson’s ‘Honest to God’, we now understand that the Kingdom of God isn’t in a particular place, where Jesus, the Lamb or God Himself is, up there somewhere on their thrones. In a spiritual sense, the Kingdom is with us here and now. We are God’s workers – ‘Take my hands and let them move | At the impulse of thy love’, as the hymn says [Common Praise no 581]. It’s up to us to work to bring about the year of the Lord’s favour. Jesus is our King – not in a temporal, earthly sense, as he says when Pilate questions him – but he does rule; he rules in our hearts. 

I worry a bit, when I say that. I worry because I think that it might be the same type of reasoning which IS, Daesh, uses in support of its ‘Caliphate’. They talk about their Islamic State having a king, a ‘caliph’. But the difference is that, whereas their caliph is to be a sheikh, an Arab king, who is defined as the successor to, or deputy for, Mohammed, in Islam, and is king, caliph, by virtue of that divine authority, in Christianity, as Jesus says, the king is not a secular ruler. ‘My kingdom is not from this world’, he said, in John 18:36.

And definitely, on our God’s holy mountain there will be peace: ‘They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:9). It’s so tragic that people who support Daesh believe that God supports violence. We understand that Moslems as well as Jews all worship the same God as we do – but the IS people don’t recognise that if their Islamic State were a real Caliphate, governed by God, then God ‘will dwell with them, they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them’: 

that we agree on; but we believe that 

‘he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more.’ 

That’s in our Bible, in the Book of Revelation, 21:3-4. To be fair, I think that most Moslems do not support the idea of a a militant ‘caliphate’, based on terror. They wouldn’t recognise a Daesh Caliph as a real ruler, whoever he might be.

So, even if there’s no kingly pomp, let us give our allegiance, let us indeed sing hymns and praises, sing the National Anthem of the Kingdom of Heaven, even, to our King, to Jesus.

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Sermon for Evensong on the 25th Sunday after Trinity, the Feast of
Christ the King
2 Samuel 23:1-7, Matt. 28:16-end

The other day in the Guardian there was an extended article, in a section which they now call ‘the long read’, about Prince Charles, and what sort of a king he would be when eventually he accedes to the throne. Apparently it’s not something he likes to talk about, because to do so would necessarily mean that he would have to be thinking about the death of his beloved mother, the Queen.

I think that’s rather endearing. I read the article with extra interest, knowing that I was going to be preaching tonight, on the Sunday when we celebrate Christ the King. It’s a relatively new festival in Christianity – it began in the Roman Catholic Church in 1925. Pope Pius XI instituted the Feast of Christ the King as a reaction against what he perceived as a rising tide of secularism. People had forgotten the importance of God.

Actually I preached only last week about the text from the Gospel according to St Matthew which was our New Testament lesson tonight, Jesus’ Great Commission, to go and make disciples of all the world.

It isn’t the Gospel reading which one most readily associates with the idea of Jesus as King. This morning the lesson was Matthew 25, ‘Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you for the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat, …’ You remember, when they asked when they had done this, Jesus replied, ‘inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me’ – one of the most powerful social justice and charitable love messages that Jesus ever gave.

Jesus the King was King in heaven, and He was dividing the sheep and the goats in the Last Judgment. The Gospel writer expected Jesus to be an absolute monarch, splendid in majesty and power.

We are not used to absolute monarchs now, today in England. After Magna Carta our kings are ‘constitutional monarchs’ with powers constrained and restricted. The will of the people, expressed in Parliament, is sovereign.

King David, the greatest king of the Jews, in his last words, in the first lesson, from 2 Samuel, affirmed that God had told him that ‘One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of the morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.’ That’s the poetry of the man who wrote the Psalms, describing kingship in a similar vein to Magna Carta. The king is subject to higher authority, and, respecting that higher authority, he must rule justly: not capriciously or cruelly.

Reading the article about Prince Charles,[http://gu.com/p/43dtt, ] I found that the author was concerned that perhaps Charles, who has a habit of writing to people in public life and expressing very forthright views, would be much more assertive in public than the Queen has been, and is. The thrust of the article was to ask whether Charles would throw his weight around in an anti-democratic way.

I confess that I was somewhat uneasy about the Monarchy when I was a young man. What was it that made the Queen and her family better than you or me, so that we owed her respect – reverence, almost. What was her strength? Why would we go through elaborate rigmaroles when she was about?

That feeling in me changed completely, when my Father got the OBE. My mother, my brother and I went with him to the investiture in Buckingham Palace. We sat no more than a few feet away from where Her Majesty was standing. She had someone standing next to her to pass her the medals, but no notes or prompts.

She bestowed medals on about 75 people. What was amazing was that she seemed to know about every single one that she was giving a medal to. She spoke to my Father for a couple of minutes – which felt much longer, of course – and clearly she had carefully researched all that Dad had been doing.

She had done this thorough preparation for every single person that she decorated that day. It must have been a big task of preparation – and just think, she must have to do a similar job several times a year. It speaks volumes that, after so many years, the Queen still takes it upon herself to prepare and get to know exactly what her loyal subjects have been doing, the reason why they have been awarded the medals.

The Queen is reported to say that this hard work is just part of the job. She has a very strong ethic of service. The Queen is modest enough to do masses of homework, so that she can serve her people in a professional way. My Dad was really impressed. Although he was dying, the whole thing really bucked him up. He really did walk taller after getting his OBE from the Queen.

And I ceased to have republican leanings. In a minute we will pray for our Queen; I will lead the prayers; and I’ll really mean it.

I do hope that Prince Charles will be similarly imbued with an ethic of service. He has had to lead a rather odd life so far. In the article which I read, for example. It describes Prince Charles visiting Chester Cathedral.

‘Inside the cathedral, the strangeness of Prince Charles’s life came into focus. … Some modernist choir stalls, installed 15 years ago, caught his disapproving eye. “Doesn’t quite go,” the prince announced, locking eyes with the senior churchman. “It may be time for a review.” …. Finally, in the cloister, Charles was invited to hold Grace the golden eagle, a magnificent bird who, moments earlier, had evacuated her bowels explosively on to this reporter’s notebook.’ A close shave for the Prince.

Apart from the eagle, Charles seemed to act as though he was in charge. Telling the Dean of a cathedral that his seating ‘didn’t quite go’ and that it was ‘time for a review’ doesn’t sound like someone whose prime object is to serve.

But that is it. The Servant King. That is a modern hymn which we can like. Think of the passage in St Mark chapter 10: ‘You know that among the Gentiles [in the context, it must mean, among the Romans], those whom they recognise as their rulers [their kings] lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But …. whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, …’

Jesus’ kingship was not like a Roman emperor’s. Not even like Herod, the puppet king, king of the Jews, who would soon condemn Him. These men had considerable power in the secular sphere, we say, ‘on earth’. They had the power of life and death. Jesus, Jesus the man, didn’t have that kind of power.

‘Pilate said to Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?”… Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. 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.” So Pilate said to him, “Then you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say I am a king. For this I was born and for this I came into the world,to testify to the truth.”‘ (John 18:33b, 36-37).

So we come back to this question, what makes a real king. King David said that he must fear God and deal justly; our Queen is giving her service, committed and faithful to her people. Prince Charles already does a great deal of charitable work – but he must not stray into autocracy. He needs to be a Servant King, just as his mother is a Servant Queen.

And the Servant King, the original Servant King, will be with us till the end of the age. As Bob Dylan sang, ‘You’re gonna have to serve somebody.’ Christ the King. Let us indeed serve Him.

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on the Sunday before Advent, 24th November 2013
1 Samuel 8:1-20, John 18:33-37 – What it is to be a King

‘He will take your daughters to be confectionaries, and to be cooks, and to be bakers.’ Confectionaries – from our first lesson, from the First Book of Samuel. I love the idea of one’s daughters being makers of confectionery, sweeties; Yum Yum.

But we’re not talking about the Mikado, but rather, about kings. This is the Sunday next before Advent, when we also celebrate Christ the King, so our hymns are all about crowns and kingship, and the second lesson has Pontius Pilate asking Jesus whether He is a king.

The relevance of this is in the very interesting conversation which Samuel the old prophet has with the elders of Israel, about the best form of government. At that stage in their early history, the tribes of Israel did not have an overall leader, a king. They just had their tribal elders, and they had judges. The judges did what judges do today. ‘Samuel judged Israel all the days of his life, and he went from year to year in circuit, to Bethel, and Gilgal, and Mizpeh, and judged Israel in all those places’. [1 Samuel 7:15f]

When Samuel got old, he appointed his two sons as judges under him. This is a forerunner of what we understand as the rule of law. Moses had received the law: the prophets and the judges who came after him interpreted the law and prayed directly to the Lord.

So in this discussion between the elders of Israel and Samuel, all sorts of things come up, which are still directly relevant and very topical today. You will remember the interview that the comedian Russell Brand had with Jeremy Paxman recently, when he said that he didn’t think there was any point in voting. There’s a lot of disillusionment with politics today.

It’s interesting to look at the list of things which Samuel brings up for discussion in this context. ‘You are old, and your sons do not follow in your way’. The sons were corrupt: they ‘turned aside after lucre, and took bribes, and perverted judgement.’ So the elders said, ‘We don’t want the judges any more to create policy for us: we need a king.’ I think they were proposing something like what Bismarck arranged in Germany and what Garibaldi arranged in Italy – and perhaps what the Romans did in relation to the city states of the Greeks.

Whereas in the time of Moses, the nation of Israel was made up of the 12 tribes, and there was no overall leadership, now Samuel is being asked to appoint a king, who will oversee all of them together, so that collectively they can be stronger.

Notice that there’s no discussion of democracy. Democracy came pretty late. It’s usually said that it started in classical Athens around 500BC, whereas this discussion with Samuel took place before 1,000BC. Interestingly, the ancient authors were not particularly enthusiastic about democracy. They thought it had tendencies to be populist, rabble-rousing rather than a wise way of governing.

So here the difference was between having a king, a monarchy, an absolute monarchy, and continuing in their small tribal units. The Lord told Samuel that the Israelites had rejected Him, the Lord; even though He had saved them from the Egyptians, they had turned aside and worshipped other gods.

Just as these ancient Israelites didn’t know about democracy, we don’t really know about theocracy; theocracy, which is, being governed by God. In the ancient world, nobody would do anything serious without consulting an oracle, or in the Jewish tradition, without consulting a prophet, to find out what the will of God was: whether in fact the proposed course of action was what God wanted.

The Lord accepted that the people of Israel were not going to continue to come to the tabernacle and worship in the old-fashioned way. The people of Israel were rejecting the idea of trying to discern the will of God as their main method of government. They simply wanted a king.

Today we in the west try to keep a separation between matters of religion and matters of politics or government, although the line does get blurred. In France they are very keen on saying that they have a secular state – but the state pays for the upkeep of the churches. In this country, of course, the Church of England is the ‘established’ church, the state church, and the Queen is the head of the church, so church and state are very much bound together.

God tells Samuel to warn the elders of Israel about all the things that could go wrong if they had a king over them. This is where ‘making your daughters to be confectionaries’ comes in. More seriously, he will ‘appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties … He will take the best of your fields and your 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.’ The King would lord it over the people.

Now we have Russell Brand and Jeremy Paxman agreeing with each other to turn their backs on politics. I wonder if there could be the same sort of conversation if we had a prophet today, or if Jesus himself came among us and saw how we were getting on. Would the rulers of the world today, and in particular our rulers, be guilty of any of the things that Samuel was warning about? Or does democracy tend to rule out the worst excesses of an absolute monarch? Did King John at Runnymede get it right in Magna Carta, with the separation of the powers?

With the movement to have independence in Scotland and the popularity of UKIP, wanting to pull us out of the European Union, are we yearning for an era where we were like the tribes of Israel, small, standing by themselves with no overall king?

Remember that what was wrong with the Israelites at that point was that they had forgotten that they did have a King in heaven, that God was their King, and that they were supposed to worship the one true God alone. They had forgotten that, and they were worshipping all sorts of other gods who were not real.

So then we come to Pontius Pilate’s famous dialogue with Jesus.

‘So you are a king?’ ‘Art thou a king then?
‘Thou sayest that I am a king’. You say that I am a king.

Jesus points out that if He were the sort of king that Pontius Pilate had in mind, then his followers would be fighting for Him, to stop Him from being handed over to the Jews. Instead of which, of course, His followers had melted away: none more so than St Peter.

I wonder if Prince Charles is thinking about all this. Or Prince William, indeed. What is it to be a king today? Perhaps it’s sensible for anyone who is going to be in government, in any way, to think about all the reflections which these passages produce.

The government has a balance of power with the rule of law, the judges. It’s important that judges should not be corrupt. It’s important that the rulers shouldn’t oppress the people – take their sons and put them in the Army, forcing them to fight wars. Will the government take your daughters to be confectionaries?

What is the right tax rate? One tenth of your grain and in your vineyards to go to the civil service. The best products that you make, the Rolls-Royces, the Jaguars, pressed into government service. ‘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.’

Do we think that Russell Brand was being somewhat prophetic, and that perhaps the original conversation between God and Samuel is the one to listen to – that the best way of government is a government that listens to God and forsakes all other gods?

As Jesus said, ‘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.’ Let’s hope that our leaders will listen too.