The church that I learned my theology from growing up had a very odd, but now rather popular, notion of the Kingship of Jesus. I learned to believe very early on that Jesus was not yet the king. One day, in the not too distant future, Jesus would secretly return to take away all those who believe in him. After that, there would be 7 years of hell on earth under the reign of Antichrist, the end of which would be Christ’s final return. Then, and not until then, would Jesus become king, and he would reign for exactly one thousand years. At the end of this thousand years, there would be one final war with Satan. Jesus would win, the heavens and the earth would be destroyed, a new heavens and earth created, and we would all be once and for all divided up into those going to heaven and those going to hell.
The Bible gives us a different picture of the kingship of Christ than the one I learned.
This morning’s lessons come from Daniel 7:9-14, Revelation 1:4-8, and John 18:33-37.
Daniel 7:9-14 and Revelation 1:4-8
The scene pictures God, the Ancient of Days, handing the rule of the earth over to “one like a human being,” or rendered in other translations, “One like unto a Son of Man.” By far, and it’s not even close, Jesus’ most oft-used title for himself was “Son of Man.” Now most of us have probably heard, at one time or another, someone say, “Jesus is both God and man. He’s called the Son of Man, and that’s his humanity, and Son of God, and that’s his divinity.” But given how often Jesus called himself “Son of Man,” this doesn’t seem quite right. It would have been pretty odd for Jesus to run around Israel, repeating over and over, “I’m a human! I’m a human!” Certainly the most difficult part of Jesus’ teaching was not his humanity. They all believed he was a human just fine. It was his claim to be the Son of God that was scandalous.
And the title, Son of Man, is actually a very strong claim to divinity, because he was connecting himself directly to the reading from Daniel, in which the Ancient of Days hands the reign of the earth over to “one like unto a Son of Man.” Throughout Jesus’ entire ministry, he was basically saying, “I AM that divine figure. God will give me the rule of the earth.”
“Coming with the Clouds of Heaven”
Both Daniel and Revelation make reference to Jesus coming with clouds. What is that about? The language about “coming with clouds” is Old Testament, apocalyptic language for judgment. A storm is coming. Judgment will rain down upon the world. The Son of Man, the one who was slain, is said to be coming on the clouds in judgment. Now that shouldn’t been too shocking a statement to anyone who recites the creed every week. “He shall come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.”
Hold onto that thought. We will return to it and try to make sense of it.
Speaking of the Creed…
There are two pretty significant things missing from the Creed about Jesus: Everything he did between his birth and death, and everything he’s doing between his ascension and return.
And it turns out the information about what Jesus is up to in those two significant periods of time is exactly what we need to get a handle on When, How, and Why Jesus is king, and who we are as subjects of his kingdom.
Jesus on Earth
Sometimes it’s hard to know what to make of the Gospels, the accounts of Jesus’ life. I want to suggest to you a way of reading them in light of Christ the King Sunday, in light of the truth that Jesus is King. This comes from N.T. Wright, so I want to give credit where it’s due. Read the Gospels and the life of Jesus in this way – Jesus’ ministry was his answer to the question: What would it look like if God were King?
Imagine that everything he said and every act he performed was his way of answering that question. Because that’s exactly what he was doing when he continually referred to himself as “Son of Man.” Consider the context: Rome is the occupying power. There are continual conflicts between the Jews awaiting their Messiah and the Roman Empire. While Jews have been allowed to return to their own land from Exile, they are constantly under the power of another kingdom. What they want and believe God has promised them is the Messiah who will deliver them from Rome, be the great Davidic King who vindicates Israel and judges the other nations, a political King who will launch a military campaign that leads to victory.
Then Jesus, the Davidic King, shows up. And he has a much different idea about the kingdom of God. He heals the sick and forgives sins. In fact, he walks around Israel doing things that only God could do. He scandalizes the religious elite of the day by saying, “You’ve missed it. You’re missing the kingdom altogether. Look. The sons of the kingdom have to wait in line, while the prostitutes and tax collectors and sinners make their way into the kingdom first.”
And then instead of overthrowing Pilate and the rest of the Roman army, he stands before him. He submits to the authority of Rome, while reminding Rome that it would have no authority in the first place if he wasn’t allowing it, and gives us these words: I am a King, but my kingdom is not from this world. The word “from” there is very important. Some translations say “of.” But that obscures things a little. Because while the kingdom is not from this world, it is a kingdom that is for this world.
And from that point, the king of the world submits to death on a cross.
Why would he do this? Because the only way for God’s kingdom to come is for the King to die and rise again.
What Jesus is up to now
Now, as I said earlier, there are those who believe that the world is getting worse and worse, and our ultimate goal is to escape it before it all gets destroyed. People pine for the good old days when everyone went to church and believed in God, and lament the tragic state of today. There are others who believe the world is progressing toward goodness, getting better and better as time runs on. People lament the old days of darkness and injustice and celebrate how enlightened we’ve become. Neither the traditionalist nor the progressive view is accurate, because it takes a lot more than progress or magical escape routes to fix the fallen world we live in. It takes the world’s Creator, its King, Jesus. And the way he’s chosen to bring this redeeming, reconciling, healing kingdom to the world is through the cross, and through a group of humble cross-bearers known as the church.
There’s a very good reason we come to the table every single week, rather than monthly or quarterly, in the Episcopal Church. It’s because the kingdom of God is spread through, and only through, the cross of Christ. So we proclaim it every week. The Kingship of Christ and his kingdom are characterized by humility, forgiveness, even suffering and death, so that that life can be known fully.
Why are we here? What are we doing in church this Sunday, at the end of ordinary time, as we prepare to enter Advent? Are you excited to be part of God’s rescue mission for the world? Growing a church is not an end in itself. We do not want to fill these pews in order to pat ourselves on the back for being able to get things going again at St. Michael’s. And we’ll never convince anyone to come here for that reason anyway. We need something to invite them to. Can you think of a better thing to invite someone to than the healing of the world by its Creator and King? I can’t imagine there are many needs and good desires out there in Geneseo that cannot be filled in abundance by the world’s King.
- You want peace in the world? Jesus, the King, won victory over a tyrannical army with sacrificial love, not by going to war.
- You want justice in the world? Jesus, the King, embraced and justified the outcasts of society and condemned the unjust power structures set up by the religious and political elite. One day he will make all things – all things – right again. And this is where we return to the statement that Jesus will come to judge the living and the dead. We spend far too much time wringing our hands over heaven and hell instead of focusing on the fact that the loving, merciful, gracious and just king will one day return to set the world right.
- You want to be free from fear of death? Jesus, the King, rose from the dead and invites you into his resurrection.
- You want to fight against the pollution of the earth? Jesus, the King, is its creator and redeems us to return to our original calling: faithful stewardship of the earth.
Our message to the community around us, then, isn’t primarily, “Hey, come to St. Michael’s. It’s really nice here.” Or “It’s just so great to be in community; you should join.” Or “We’re going to do a lot of things to help the poor; you should join us.” Jesus himself is what all of those things are founded on, and if our message isn’t founded on Christ, it is not compelling and we become a charity club rather than a church.
Is there something unique about Jesus, that he gets to be the King? Absolutely. Is he just another wise sage from another religion? Not if we believe our own creeds. He is the world’s Creator. It has been rightly observed that most religions and even non-religious people often arrive at very similar morality. And from there it is mistakenly concluded that it’s all just the same thing with different particulars. But is there something different about Jesus? The reason the same basic morality can be found all throughout the world is because the world was woven together by the Logos – that’s John’s word for Jesus – the Logos, the Word of God. The very fabric of reality is Jesus, and everything about the world points to Him and tells His story.
And as we’re about to learn through Advent, the Logos, the Word became flesh. The King had returned. He came on a rescue mission for his own creation. He told stories about Kings who went away and returned and warned that those who were listening might not recognize when their King arrived.
Then he stood before Pilate and confessed plainly: “Yes, I am the King. But my kingdom is not from this world.”
He’s the King. There’s no way around that. St. Paul doesn’t mince words: “Every knee shall bow. Every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Every. Every. But this need not, and indeed it is not, a forced, tyrannical thing, because he is not a forceful, tyrannical king. He is the good, loving, merciful and forgiving King who came here to rescue us, not to condemn us. We will want to bow the knee out of love, not compulsion.
This is why St. Paul was so eager to proclaim that if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord,” you will be saved. This is why for the early church, the gospel message that Jesus is Lord was so eagerly received, because Jesus is exactly the kind of King that we really want and need. He is not like our lying, fickle politicians just trying to stay in power, or a dictator. He is the King who gave himself up for us, and that makes all the difference in the world.
His kingdom was and is a kingdom for this world. We’re not talking about some kingdom way into the future, detached from our current experience. We are talking about the kingdom here and now. Oh, it will have a perfect future manifestation. But it is present now and working its way through the world now, and we are a part of that.