Sunday, November 15, 2015

Sunday 22 November 2015 - Christ the King / The Reign of Christ / Sunday before Advent

[Note: this Sunday could also be Aotearoa Sunday]

Theme: Christ the King / Christ Reigns Over the World / Christ Reigns in Me / Stir Up Sunday [i.e. preparation for Advent]

Sentence: But as for me, I keep watch for the Lord; I wait in hope for God my Saviour; my God will hear me. (Micah 7:7 adapted)

Collects: (The collect for Stir Up Sunday is so lovely it is a pity not to cite it here].

Stir up, O Lord,
the wills of your faithful people
that, richly bearing the fruit of good works,
they may by you be richly rewarded;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Christ our Redeemer King,
you have crushed the serpent's head;
you have freed us from our sin;
rescue all your suffering world from the evil that attracts us still. Amen.

Readings: (related)

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Psalm 93
Rev 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37


Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14

Daniel is an extraordinary book on any reckoning, combining as it does court tales from Persia, miraculous deeds of rescue and protection, extraordinary stories of discernment and interpretation of dreams and visions, as well as descriptions in the second half of the book of Daniel's own visions of impending events. In these visions the common thread (itself coherent with great themes in the first half of the book) is the question of rulership. Who rules over Israel? Is it one of the invading, oppressing empires, symbolised by the wild beasts of Daniel 7:1-8? Is it the Lord God of Israel?

The answer is not surprising: God rules! But the form it is given in is surprising for readers unused to the colourful, if not bizarre language and imagery of apocalyptic literature. In our first two verses we see God as 'the Ancient of Days', ('Ancient One' in NRSV) described in human, earthly terms familiar to us: clothing, hair, throne, wheels, white, snow, wool, flames, fire. We do not for a moment think that God looks like this, or indeed, is merely an 'ancient' being rather than a timeless being (i.e. a being unshackled by time). So we ask, what does this vision of God convey to us? It conveys (at least) unshakeable power and lots of it. The Ancient of Days has a throne, takes his place on it (9) and exudes power as fire issues and flows from it and as a vast multitude serves him and stands on attendance to him. Moreover, this retinue constitutes a court of judgement (10). In the context of the "wannabe" kingdoms envisaged in the first eight verses of the chapter, verses 9-10 should give all readers (who are on God's side) confidence and hope. Indeed, in verses 11-12 we see judgement leted out to the beasts.

But there is a twist to the vision of divine power in verses 9-10. In verses 13-14 we are introduced to another impressive, powerful figure, 'one like a human being.' This figure is clearly powerful ('coming with the clouds of heaven,' 'To him was given dominion and glory and kingship ... his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed'). This figure is also clearly subordinate to the Ancient of Days: 'he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.' Who is this kingly figure? Scholarly debate ranges over three identifications. Briefly, this human like figure has been identified as (1) the archangel Michael, that is, as the principal angel whose focus of guardianship is Israel (see Daniel 10:13, also Revelation 12:7); (2) the (forthcoming) Messiah, that is a new Davidic rule, reminiscent of the power and might of the great King David; (3) a representation of Israel, that is, this single figure in some way sums up the whole corporation of Israel - see verse 18 where 'the holy ones of the Most High' receive a kingdom similarly to what the human like figure receives in verses 13 and 14. But there is a further identification, which Christian readers are open to reading back into the text, prompted by Jesus self-identification as 'The Son of Man:' this vision is a prophetic view of one who comes in the future, one with Davidic Messianic character (as Jesus had), who in some sense represents Israel (as Jesus did) and who has heavenly characteristics, reminiscent of great angels such as Michael (as Jesus had - in the first Christian centuries there was quite a bit of discussion about whether Jesus was an angel or not)!

Psalm 93

In this psalm we sing the praises of the Lord who is king (1). The character of the Lord's kingship is worth noting, especially in these days when the world is terrorised by bombs and indiscriminate shootings. 'He has established the world; it shall never be moved;' (1b). Challenging times ask of us what faith we have and what we have faith in. The psalmist invites us to have faith in the Lord girded with such strength (1a) that the world - notwithstanding any appearances to the contrary - is established, it shall not be moved.

Rev 1:4b-8

The Book of Revelation is mostly understood as an example par excellence of 'apocalyptic literature', full as it is of visions (revelations). Since these visions have a prophetic character in the sense that they convey the judgement of God against injustice, Revelation is also an example of prophetic literature (see 1:3). Less noticed and discussed is that Revelation also has the form of a letter. But this observation begins with this passage. In verse 4 John writes like Paul, Peter and James: "John to the seven churches that are in Asia." The greeting in verse 4b is particularly reminiscent of Paul writing to the churches: "Grace to and and peace from him ..."

But the description of the God in whose name this greeting comes is quite a bit different from anything Paul writes at comparable points in his letters. Where we might meet 'God the Father' we are greeted by 'who is and who was and who is to come' and where we might have invocation of the Spirit or Holy Spirit we hear 'from the seven spirits who are before his throne'. What is being communicated here has occasioned quite a bit of debate. Are there seven spirits, really? Surely John means the 'sevenfold' Spirit? Are the 'spirits' effectively the 'angels', groups of seven of which reappear in Revelation? We will pass by such discussions since today's reading has been chosen for 'Christ the King Sunday.'

The greeting from Jesus Christ is a bit closer to what we find in Paul's writings, who speaks of Christ's faithfulness, of his being the first born from the dead and one who has dominion over all things (noting especially Colossians 1 and Ephesians 1). But the specific phrase, "the ruler of the kings of the earth" is unique to John's language about Christ. Why this phrase in this book? As the visions unfold it becomes clear that God is communicating through John to the churches that when they are pressed and pressured by 'kings of the earth', principally the great king or caesar of Rome, their trial is temporary not permanent, for these kings are subject to another king, to Jesus Christ who is ruler of the kings of the earth.

John 18:33-37

Is Jesus a king? Yes and no, as we read this passage. When asked the question, "Are you the king of the Jews?" (33), Jesus does not give a straight answer (34-35). The nearest he gets is to talk about "My kingdom" (36) and to acknowledge that Pilate has made a statement which he does not deny, "You say that I am a king" (37). But since Jesus says, "My kingdom is not of this world" (36) we readily understand why he does not give a simple answer to the initial question about being 'the king of the Jews'. In everyday terms, referring to a human ruler of human citizens, Jesus is not king of the Jews or any other sort of earthly king, "If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews" (36). Yet Jesus has a kingdom, even if it 'is not of this world,' so he is a king of a kind we do not ordinarily experience on earth. What kind is that? That is, what does Jesus mean when he says he has a kingdom but the kingdom is not from this world?

Sticking to the passage, we are given a clue in verse 37: "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."

Working backwards the logic seems to be this: a king has loyal followers, that is, people who "listen" to the king's voice; such people "belong to the truth"; in order to be such a king "I came into the world, [not to conquer it, nor to inherit some pre-existing kingdom, but] to testify to the truth." Jesus is not "king of the Jews"as such but "king of the belongers to the truth, of the listeners to his voice (including those Jews who so belong)."

But that begs the question, which Pilate helpfully asks on our behalf, "What is truth?" (38) No answer is given in the succeeding passage, but the answer, in one important sense, is given by the Gospel of John understood as a whole: the truth that Jesus Christ is the Son of God and Saviour of the world. Jesus is the king of those who believe in him, who assent to this truth and who abide in the One of whom this is the truth.

In our world today - accentuated by news from Beirut and Paris these past few days as I write - we see the clash of kingdoms of the kind whose followers are willing to fight (see 36). But the willingness to fight for a kingdom presupposes a belief in the ultimate importance of that kingdom. Jesus' kingdom may not be 'from this world' but it is connected to the kingdoms of this world because the kingdom of Jesus is a kingdom which embodies ultimate truth, truth at variance with the beliefs on which other kingdoms are founded.

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