Sermon notes: Christ the King

SERMON NOTES, CHRIST THE KING (Year B, 11/25/12; preached at St. Peter’s/Ladue)

Through the Church year, the gospels show us Jesus in many different roles: as an infant in a stable, worshipped by shepherds; as a boy, confounding the scholars at the Temple; as a reluctant miracle worker-slash-sommelier at Cana. We see his baptism, his time in the wilderness wrestling with temptation, his gathering of the disciples. We watch him as healer, as teacher, as occasionally cranky prophet. We look on as his public ministry flourishes, and then as he suffers, dies, rises from the dead, ascends into heaven.

Today, we see Jesus as Christ the King.

We’re at the end of the Church year; the cycle begins anew next Sunday with the start of the season of Advent. Advent is a time of preparation, both for the coming of that baby in the stable and for beginning new lives in Christ.

Today’s readings contrast John of Patmos’s apocalyptic vision with the evangelist John’s account of Jesus’s words to Pontius Pilate. Revelation was probably composed during the Church’s first major bout of persecution, under Nero; it is concerned with suffering and tribulation, and with the ultimate triumph of Christ and the Church.

In the gospel, Pontius Pilate asks Jesus, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not of this world… 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.”

In hard times, frightening times, it is easy to get caught up in the world of the Revelation of John. Its frequently feverish imagery has appealed to Christians besieged by everything from paganism to Islam, from the Inquisition to modernism.

Such elements as “the Number of the Beast” encourage the ignorant and the self-certain to indulge in celestial conspiracy theories about the identity of the Beast. Like the occupants of Dante’s Inferno, who (curiously enough) tended to be the poet’s political enemies, the Beast always seems to be someone or something in philosophical opposition to the self-anointed prophet who’s doing the interpreting. (In fact, the numerology involved adds up clearly to “Neron Caesar.”)

More importantly, the Revelation, arising from cruel persecutions, is a book that encourages an intolerance of the imperfectly faithful and the unorthodox. It’s a book that sometimes doesn’t seem to reflect that message of grace and God’s redeeming love which informs the rest of the New Testament.

Revelation is a direct descendent of the Book of Daniel. Daniel is another apocalypse, but one dating from a disastrous period in the life of Judaism. Both books are best appreciated in the context of their difficult times.

The elements that save Revelation for me are its sometimes dazzling, often indelible poetic images, combined with its central emphasis on Jesus Christ as king and savior. Among those images is the vision of Christ which we just heard, from the book’s opening: the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of kings, the Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come.

That passage ties in perfectly with Jesus’s answer to Pilate’s scornful question in the gospel: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus replies, “My kingdom is not from this world.” His kingdom is not dependent on human power or authority, but comes directly from God. It is a different kind of kingship than anyone on Earth could then imagine.

Jesus was a different kind of Messiah than anyone could then imagine. The Messiah was to be a divinely anointed king of the House of David, who would save Israel from her enemies and bring all the world to the worship of God.

What that had come to mean – what all previous Messianic candidates had presented themselves as being – was a soldier-king, a man on a horse, a general blessed by God who would defeat Israel’s enemies in battle and then rule an empire.

That all previous Messianic candidates had wound up dead by unpleasant means, at the hands of the Romans or their surrogates, did not stop new ones from emerging. There was a particularly ugly case in 6 AD that resulted in hundreds of crucifixions lining the roads, as the rulers slaughtered the would-be Messiah and his followers. It was another would-be Messiah who led the revolt in 70 AD that resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem.

Jesus was something different. Pilate, who saw only a troublesome Jew brought by the tedious Jewish authorities, asked him questions but didn’t listen for the answers before condemning him without another thought.

Even Jesus’s own disciples had trouble understanding just how different he was. He was anointed by God to heal, not to overthrow; he came to bring peace, not rebellion. He threatened the establishment not with force but with a new way of following God’s law and of living. He gave his people a new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” That love is to be the sign that we are Christ’s followers.

Since the Ascension, Christians have awaited Christ’s return in power and glory, coming from heaven as a conventional messiah, an earthly king with heavenly clout who will reign for a thousand years and set everything right. Dates for that return have been set down the centuries by assorted would-be prophets, with the same kind of accuracy that accompanies those speculations on the Beast.

I do not know whether we will see Jesus riding on the clouds in glory. I think we should do our flawed best to live both as if he will show up right after coffee hour this morning, and, at the same time, as if the world will see another millennium of business as bloody usual.

I think we will find the answer if we listen to what Jesus told Pilate, and take those words to heart. Jesus’s authority is from God, not the world. He came to preach truth, and those who listen to that truth and follow his commandments are his subjects. His kingdom is not established on earthly power, but as we live according to his commandments.

Jesus is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, the ruler of kings, the Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come. His kingdom is here, in our hearts. He rules in love, always, and in us.

Lord, grant us the ears to hear your truth, and the strength to live in your love, in the expectation and knowledge of your kingdom. Amen.

– Sarah Bryan Miller


Sermon notes: Keep awake!

Sermon notes, Advent I, Year B (11/27/11). Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church/St. Louis

Well, wasn’t that a cheery set of readings?

Third Isaiah calls on God to rip open the heavens, and confesses that we have all sinned, horribly. Mark speaks of the approaching end of the world, and warns that no one knows when it will come: “Keep awake!”

This is not exactly the message we’re picking up from the world around us right now, unless the idea is just to keep awake long enough to be the first in line for the big Black Friday – or, increasingly, Black Thursday Night – sales.

On the first Sunday after Thanksgiving, the secular world tells us to get shopping, because Christmas is coming. On the first Sunday in Advent, the Church tells us to get prayerful, because Christ is coming. And there is a huge difference between the two.

Every age has its own vision of Jesus. Today we tend to see Christ as an all-accepting buddy – as a forgiver of sins, yes, but as a rebuker of those sins? …not so much. “Hey, that’s okay. No problem!”

In times past, though, he was seen as a stern judge, coming to separate the sheep from the goats, to gather up the elect for heaven, and send the non-elect to someplace you’d really rather not be.

Advent, then, was a little Lent, a time to repent and make ready for the return of Christ and all that it meant. The first Sunday in Advent is the first day of the new church year. It’s a time to be thoughtful, to consider what God wants for us. The lessons for these weeks deal with preparation, with the coming of God’s kingdom.

Repentance is a key part of that. The Christ who will return is not a kind of celestial Mr. Rogers, who likes us just the way we are. Think of him more as a Marine drill instructor who wants us to be the best we can be. Unlike the Marine, however, Jesus’s desire for us to change and grow better is based on pure love.

In Isaiah, the prophet points out that the relationship between God and humankind is a two-way street: “You were angry, and we sinned; but because you hid yourself from us, we stepped over the line.”

God is the potter, and we are the clay that God has shaped – but God is also our parent, who loves us. God is not some bully of a bearded sky god who flings down destruction whenever he’s annoyed; God is the Creator, who cherishes all of Creation and the people in it.

In the reading from Mark, in what is known as the “Little Apocalypse” – the big one is in the Gospel of John – we hear of the frightening time to come, when the world as we have known it will fall apart, when the powers that have ruled the Earth will pass away, and when Christ will step through the clouds of chaos to rule.

Jesus specifically says that no one knows exactly when this will all take place, except for God. The angels do not know the hour; even he does not know. (This might be an indication that math-happy preachers who predict the end of the world on a particular day can be safely ignored.) Therefore, Christ’s message: Keep awake.

That message usually gets lost. That’s true not only in the larger society around us, but in the Church. Some Christians are already singing Christmas carols this morning, skipping over the whole season of Advent (not to mention the wonderful hymns of Advent).

We tend to get caught up in the coming drama of the baby in the manger, without considering the whole story that comes first.

That story is not just about a young woman told by an angel that she will bear the son of God; it’s not just about overcoming the suspicions of her fiancé, and a long hard journey to a strange town. It is not just about a birth in a stable, accompanied by choruses of angels and shepherds.

That’s a wonderful and meaningful story, but it’s not today’s story. That story comes at the end of the four weeks of Advent. Before celebrating Jesus’s birth, this is a time to consider the meaning of his humbling himself to be born as one of us, after considering his coming again.

And as unsettling as that image is, of Christ descending upon the clouds, robed in dreadful majesty, at its core it is really one of comfort. Then as now, the world was a mess in almost every way we can imagine. Then as now, the world was filled with injustice and suffering. Then as now, God’s hand was not always immediately apparent.

But now as then, God is in control. Now as then, God calls us to work to end injustice and suffering wherever we find them. And now as then, God loves us, and shows that immeasurable love in ways that we can hardly understand.

Keep awake!

Apocalypse when?

Where are they now? A screenshot from this week's Millennialists.

“But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father alone.”

– Matthew 24:36

Judgment Day started out sunny and warm, and perhaps a bit too humid for comfort: no worse than most days in this part of the world at this time of the year. Should I turn on the air conditioning and run up my power bill? Why not, if the Rapture is on the way?

Of course, the Rapture never came. Nobody but a handful of sincere but delusional oddballs thought it would. After all, everyone knows the grand finale will come  – in accordance with the prophecies of Nostradamus and ancient Mayan calendars – in 2012.

Predictions of the end of the world abound in times of great stress, and these are times of extraordinary stress around the world. It’s nothing new: many Europeans expected the second coming of Christ in 1000 AD, no less a figure than John Wesley thought he would arrive in 1836, and there have been a wearying number of apocalyptic forecasts in our own day.

I don’t buy into Premillenial Dispensationalism, as the concept is known in theological circles. I have trouble with the whole “Left Behind” scenario for more than the goofy quasi-Bible-based reasoning behind it; I don’t believe that a few will be hoovered up to heaven while everyone else is left to suffer horribly on Earth. It’s just not the sort of thing that the loving God I worship would do.

Ideally, we should all live our lives as if they might be demanded of us at any moment: virtuously, faithfully, generously, thoughtfully, in harmony with God and our neighbor. Repent now, and avoid the rush.

– Sarah Bryan Miller