November 25, 2012

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

Over tea and homemade pie yesterday afternoon, a church member asked me about the church’s celebration of Christmas. He remembered that when he was growing up in Scotland there were no special church services for Christmas, and gifts were exchanged at New Year’s rather than on December 25th. Indeed, Christmas didn’t become a national holiday in Scotland until fairly recently.

Unfortunately, I didn’t know when Canadian Presbyterians or other Protestants began celebrating Christmas, nor did I know when Canada made Christmas Day into a statutory holiday. I could point out that all the Churches have gone through some significant liturgical reform over the last 30 or 40 years. One significant reform is the celebration of the Church Year in most of the mainline Churches. The Church Year includes not only special Christmas services, but also special seasons like Advent to anticipate and prepare for our Christmas celebrations.

Growing up in a Canadian Presbyterian Church in the 1980’s, we were already lighting Advent Candles on the Sundays leading up to Christmas, and I think it was a fairly long standing tradition to gather for worship on Christmas Eve for a service of lessons and carols that was one of the highlights of my early religious experience.

Reading a little more about Christmas celebrations online yesterday, I discovered that the earliest celebrations of Christmas on December 25th took place as early as the fourth century. And though some of the Protestant Churches went through periods of banning Christmas celebrations because of a belief that they were too Catholic, Christmas has been a pretty big part of most Christian Churches for a very long time.

The special Sunday that we mark today, however, is a little more recent. It was Pope Pius XI who, in 1925, declared a special feast day for Christ the King. It was a time in history when respect for the church was waning and state control over the church was increasing in many countries.

Stalin and Mussolini were names in the news, and Hitler had just published his autobiographical book, Mein Kampf (My Struggle) in which he presents his ideas about the state of the world, and his decision to completely exterminate the Jewish presence in Europe. It was gutsy for the Pope to declare to the people of those times that Christ is our King! The holiday in and of itself was a reminder to people both inside and outside the church that our allegiance is to Christ – not to any political or popular leaders in our country, our world, or even our Church.

Most Presbyterian congregations in Canada likely began observing Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday in the mid-90’s with the adoption of the 3-year Revised Common Lectionary cycle. And the scripture texts assigned for today invite us to reflect on what it means for us to say that Christ is our King.

If you know your Old Testament quite well, you may remember that God resisted Israel’s requests for a king. They were a People who lived and organized themselves into twelve tribes, and they had judges appointed who helped them to live together in peace with justice. But the people wanted a king, perhaps to bind them together as a People, perhaps to strengthen them against their enemies, and eventually God relented and gave them one.

The hope, of course, was that the kings of Israel would be good, wise, just kings who would rule the people fairly and make the land a better place. But, of course, that didn’t always work out. The first king, Saul, was a disgrace, but when the prophet Samuel anointed King David there was renewed hope and optimism.

In many ways, David was a good king who loved God and strived to please God as a leader. But he also made some pretty terrible mistakes… jealousy, adultery, murder, greed… He was far from the good king that God would have hoped for. And yet, God blessed him and was faithful to him.

At the end of his life, David was still striving to be the kind of king that God needed for Israel. In his final words he described what a king should be like: “One who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God, is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”

“Was my kingdom like that?” David seems to ask God. “Well, sometimes,” we may imagine God answering. But David has reason to give thanks for God’s grace and mercy, because God makes with him an everlasting covenant. God promises to remain faithful to David’s line, to allow his sons to rule even though the kings who follow will not be perfectly good, or just, or faithful either.

Until Jesus, that is. For the Gospels portray Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, in the City of David, as the long-awaited Messiah, the new king born in the line of David, who will finally fulfil God’s vision for a good and just King of Israel, for a good and just King of the whole world.

Of course, the whole world didn’t recognize him as their king. He wasn’t rich. He didn’t seem powerful. And he didn’t command great armies or even fight for his life when people started to throw accusations at him.

Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus didn’t exactly say yes, and he didn’t exactly say no. He said, “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.”

My kingdom is not from here. Any normal king would have been worried about the fact that his own people had turned against him. Any normal king standing in front of Pilate that day would have been coming to terms with the fact that he was no longer going to be a king. The people were rejecting him, and his reign was over.

But Jesus wasn’t worried, because his kingdom was not from the earth. It wasn’t from the people. His kingdom was from heaven, from God. And his kingdom didn’t depend on him being physically present, sitting on a throne, making rules and laws, and demanding that his subjects follow them.

His kingdom was characterized by righteousness, peace, and joy, and it was already springing up like seeds growing into thriving trees, like yeast leavening whole loaves of bread… and there would be no stopping it. It was already taking hold among God’s people, and within them, and between them as they learned how to love one another as Jesus had loved them.

There were, of course, hard times ahead… for Jesus on the cross, and later for his followers when they experienced persecution and often martyrdom during the first few centuries of Christianity for their insistence that Christ alone was their King.

But in the midst of that terrible persecution, somewhere around the year 90 CE, a Christian leader, known in the tradition as John, wrote a letter of encouragement to the Christian Churches and their people who were suffering. And although his letter follows the usual pattern of epistles or letters of the time, it is particularly special and unique because in it, John shares an amazing vision of heaven, full of apocalyptic (or “end of the world”) themes and images.

As the American Presbyterian preacher, Thomas Long, explains, the text of the Revelation first invites the reader to look up. John has taken a visionary journey up into the heavenly realms, and he reports on “all that he saw.” The idea is that heaven is an unseen reality above the earth, with events taking place simultaneously with earthly history. On the earthly plain, John’s community is troubled, experiencing faith-quenching distress of some kind, including violence and persecution.

In response to this crisis, John, “in the spirit on the Lord’s day,” has travelled up to this heavenly realm, and now returns with a report on what he witnessed. What he sees is good news for the community below. Down below, their robes are drenched in the blood of violence, but in heaven the saints are gathered in praise around the throne of God, their robes washed “white in the blood of the Lamb.”

While things look bleak on the earthly plain, the glimpse of the heavenly realm reveals a different truth. Even as the suffering goes on, the victory of the saints is already accomplished in the heavenly realm.

Today’s passage provides a first taste of this triumph when it greets the community from the God “who is and who was and who is to come.” This is the God who holds all time – past, present, and future – in the divine hand.

John also sees and brings greetings from Jesus Christ, who is “the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.” There is encouragement in that too. Even if the Christians are killed, they have hope for everlasting life. Christ has been raised, and so they will also be raised. And despite the seeming power of earthly rulers in the world – power that is so often being used for evil and violence – John gives them the assurance that Christ is truly the ruler of all in the Kingdom of God.

But Tom Long points out that if heaven and earth remain forever on parallel tracks, this text would be cold comfort. “All hell is breaking loose on earth, but don’t fret,” it would coo. “Things are just fine in heaven.” But in John’s apocalyptic vision, parallel lines eventually meet, and the triumph of heaven becomes earthly victory as well.

After asking readers to look up into the heavenly realm, John next asks them to look forward into the future: “Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him.” What is now visible only to the eyes of faith – that Christ is the Alpha and Omega of human history and the Lord of all – will one day be known by the whole cosmos.

Our troubles and trials today in this place may pale in comparison to the violence and persecution that the earliest Christians experienced, and they may also be mild in comparison to the struggles of Christians in other parts of the world. And yet, I believe we too need the encouragement of John’s Revelation.

Some of us are worried about the future of the churches. Will Christian faith survive the Western move towards secularism and the growth of other world religions? Some of us have serious questions about what difference we can make in the world as Christians and Churches. Can we make any significant contribution towards justice, or peace, or love between Peoples and Nations? Some of us are struggling with personal issues, with addictions, or illness, or brokenness in our relationships and families. We are looking for some relief, and for some strength to hold on until it comes.

As the first readers of the Revelation did, we are invited to look up to heaven, to the God who was, and who is, and who is to come, and to Jesus Christ who is the King and ruler of all. And we are invited to look forward into the future, and to trust that heaven and earth are not parallel lines, but that they will eventually meet.

Indeed, heaven broke into our world when Jesus was born. When God-self came and lived among us, the Kingdom of God started to spring up and to grow among the people of the earth. As we proclaim today and every day that Christ is the King, and as we live, day by day, the kingdom values that Jesus taught us, may God’s kingdom grow among us, within us, and between us… until the day when every eye will see Christ coming on the clouds, and his kingdom of peace, and justice, and love will be complete. Amen.