Sermon: The Return of the King

Reflection for North Balwyn Uniting Church
21st of November, 2021

2 Samuel 23:1-7
Revelation 1:4b-8
John 18:33-37

Last week I attended a lunch of local ministers during which one of them, a member of the Australian Monarchist League, mentioned that it was a boon for their cause that the British Royal Family so obviously took the climate emergency more seriously than most Australian politicians. (I wonder whether this is because royals are used to thinking in generations, while politicians think in election cycles.) I responded by teasing him and saying that as far as I was concerned the last real ruler of Great Britain was Queen Anne and the ‘proper’ monarchy ended in 1714. When I want to tease modern monarchists I tend to say either this, or that I think the last true king of England was Richard III who died in 1485 and that no one descended from the usurping Tudors is legitimate. But, of course, the only king I take seriously and certainly the only ruler I am ever at all likely to obey is Jesus.

Whenever we celebrate the Feast of the Reign of Christ, the last Sunday in the church year, I remind us of what a new festival this is. When people united their loyalty to ‘God, King, and country,’ as they did right up to the First World War, there was little suggestion that their loyalty to God might contradict their loyalty to an earthly ruler. But after that war fascism and communism began to dominate Europe, and so the Roman Catholic Church introduced the Reign of Christ as a feast to be celebrated in 1925. It was quickly adopted by Protestant churches as well, because in the 1920s and 1930s many Christians realised that a statement of their ultimate loyalty to Christ over all earthly rulers had become necessary, radical, and courageous. I have mentioned before Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his 1933 radio broadcast after Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on ‘The leader (fuhrer) and the individual’. Bonhoeffer argued that no mere human could have ultimate authority over other humans. Ultimate authority lies with God, and

[t]he fearful danger of the present time is that above the cry for authority, be it of the Leader or of an office, we forget that man stands alone before the ultimate authority and that anyone who lays violent hands on man here is infringing eternal laws and taking upon himself superhuman authority which will eventually crush him.[1]

But what does this mean for us, in twenty-first century Australia? I may become frustrated with Australian politicians, but they are certainly neither fascist nor communist dictators! No one is trying to prevent us from our worship or from identifying as Christian. We are not at risk of being taken away to concentration camps or gulags for proclaiming that Jesus is our Lord. What does it mean for us, here and now, to claim that we are citizens first and foremost not of twenty-first century Australia but of the kingdom of God?

The readings that we are offered today are an interesting collection. The first, from the end of the story of King David, describes an ideal ruler ruling over people justly, in the fear of God, and then condemns the godless who are to be consumed by fire. One commentator I read this week describes it as:

a harsh exit speech confirming a “teacher’s pet” blessing upon David and his dynasty. All good things flow from the throne on down. This was the way it was intended from all eternity, and shall ever be. Anyone who thinks or acts differently is just a prickly pain in the royal regime and deserves to be roughly uprooted and incinerated as garbage.[2]

Today’s Psalm gives a similar message; the dwelling place of the Lord has been Jerusalem ever since David brought the Ark of the Covenant there and his son Solomon built the Temple. God has chosen to live there among God’s people who are ruled over by the king with whom God has made a covenant. If God’s king rules justly, the Psalm says, God will give the kingdom into the hands of his dynasty forever: ‘If they keep my covenant in truth and my laws that I shall teach them, their sons also, shall rule on your throne from age to age’.

David may have been the teacher’s pet, but his dynasty did not last. After the reign of his son Solomon the country was separated into the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, both of which were eventually conquered by surrounding empires, which is why at the time of Jesus many Jews were awaiting a military messiah who would overthrow the Romans. Today’s readings from the Hebrew Scriptures describe a situation, God’s king ruling in God’s city and worshipping the Lord in the Temple, which was soon over. And yet we hear these readings today because they still mean something to us. For us as Christians they are not simply descriptions of the reign of the historical king David. They are hints, suggestions, of the descendent of David that we claim to be the true king. David did not always rule justly, his reign was not always ‘like the light of morning’. But we believe that the reign of Jesus is and will be. There is already a hint in the Psalm of the suffering and self-denial that the true king undergoes in service of God. It is unusual to praise a monarch for ‘all the hardships he endured’ in the service of one greater than himself, but that is how the Psalm opens. And Christians believe that the ultimate ruler of the world has been revealed not with pomp and circumstance, but in humility and suffering.

Jesus was not the military messiah for whom many of the Jews of his day were waiting. As he tells Pilate, his kingdom is not of this world. If the kingdom he was announcing was like other kingdoms, his followers would be fighting to keep him from being handed over. One thing the kingship of Christ does not include, according to Christ himself, is imposition by violence and military authority. Sadly Christians have tried to impose their faith and their version of God’s reign through violence. The Crusades are only the most obvious example in Christian history. Equally egregious was the Christian tendency to justify colonisation on the basis that it brought Christianity to those colonised, which is the history of Australia. Given this, it is important when we talk about the Reign of Christ for us to be clear that Jesus is not a king with an army or a police force. Christ’s kingship is a reign that began, apparently, in failure and death.

And yet we are here this morning because we do not believe that that was the end of the story. We believe that the one who Pilate had executed, the one whose body was pierced by the soldiers of the Roman Empire, is the same one who is ‘the ruler of the kings of the earth,’ who will have ‘glory and dominion for ever and ever’. We believe that there is no contradiction in Jesus being both the victim of capital punishment and the one who ‘is coming with the clouds’. Out of love for us Jesus lived and died for us, and through his life and death made us to be a kingdom. The author of the Revelation to John writes all this to communities living under persecution in the Roman Empire, to encourage and strengthen them in their faith. It may look as though the world’s violence has succeeded and that the various empires opposed to Jesus’ reign will always rule, but Revelation’s author tells us that there is always hope because Jesus who is, and who was, is also still to come.

We will be reminded of this hope through Advent. We often experience Advent as preparation for the birth of Jesus, because it culminates in our celebration of Christmas. But Advent is intended to prepare us for the coming again of Christ, the Parousia, when the new creation inaugurated when Jesus became the firstborn of the dead will come to fulfillment. In the meantime, today’s feast reminds that we are already to live as part of the new creation, as the citizens of the kingdom over which Jesus reigns.

We see what this kingdom looks like in Jesus’ life of faithful witness. It is a kingdom that reconciled a Samaritan woman and a Jewish man, a Roman soldier and a Palestinian peasant, the leprous and the clean, the stranger and the resident, Jew and Greek, tax collector and exploited farmer, male and female, slave and free. The new community gathered around Jesus broke bread together, shared their goods and their lives, and resisted the Roman Empire’s powers of division. The way of Jesus gathered enemies into one community, forgave and reconciled them. The community that Jesus created was the first taste of the peaceable kingdom. David described this sort of kingship as ‘like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land’ and it is to this kingship that we give our loyalty.

When the secular state acts in ways opposed to all this, as Nazi Germany did in the time of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and as Australia does today in its imprisonment of asylum seekers and refugees, Christians must remember that our first allegiance is to God.

Jesus’ kingship is unique. Unlike any earthly kingship that is bound by geographic borders, this kingdom is boundless, not limited to a particular racial or national group. Everyone is welcome to belong to it, especially the chronically unwelcome ones. We celebrate this today, as we do every day. We belong to God; thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, No Rusty Swords, (London: Collins, 1965) p. 203.

[2] G. Malcolm Sinclair in Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4, p. 319.

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