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