Thursday, July 1, 2021

What can we say November 21? Christ the King

    Christ the King Sunday. What a curious, yet lovely way to end the year. The shape of his kingship begins next week, in silence, waiting, hope hidden in a womb, then a cry, the vulnerable being held tenderly. Jesus got bigger, but never in a muscular, threatening way, always humble, vulnerable, downright laughable and puzzling, so un-powerful did this powerful one seem. His crown was of thorns, his entourage common criminals and poor fishermen, his throne a cross, his palace a tomb. When explicating this week’s texts, it’s this King, not any other, who is the lens through which we read and preach.

   2 Samuel 23:1-7. Robert Alter speaks of this poem’s “mystifying features” which suggest “great antiquity,” suspecting (unlike most historical critics!) the poet might really have been David himself. If so, it puts a quirky twist on the “sweet singer” image, which pious books and preachers seem fond of applying to David. Did David actually, late in life, say this about himself? Those who knew him, who’d witnessed his tawdry behavior, who’d borne his violence, would shudder, or snicker.

    Walter Brueggemann is right: this poem masks the ambiguity of what a real king behaves like earlier in the story. Yet the ideal persists, the dream lingers. Kings should be life, fruitfulness, light and joy. And it’s God’s faithfulness, not the uprightness of kings, that sustains history. Such a king, unlike David and his progeny, is coming – the one who indeed proved to be “like light of morning, like the sun rising,” the one revealed as king Easter morning.

   Revelation 1:4b-8 is a perfect text for such a Sunday. The feel of this turn of the year is apocalyptic. The year ends, a new one opens before us, and the curtain is pulled back for us to delight in a peek into eternity, which isn’t endless time so much as the constant presence of “the one who is, was and is to come.” Eugene Boring points out that it was said “Zeus was, Zeus is, Zeus will be.” But John – not just being but action, presence: “he comes.” Our God loved so much God could not remain aloof in heaven, but had to come down, to be with us.

   Eugene Peterson, in his brilliantly titled book on Revelation, Reversed Thunder, explicates this text by noting how we think of the Bible as something to use, instead of a means to hear God. And if we dared to hear God through it, we realize Scripture isn’t courting our favor or trying to please, but seeks to subject us. But how?

   Barbara Brown Taylor’s great sermon, “God’s Daring Plan” (in Bread of Angels), should be reviewed now! She envisions God in heaven informing the angels of his plan to come down. They plead with him not to do it. “The baby idea was a stroke of genius, it really was, but it lacked adequate safety features.” I wish I could preach like this: “Once the angels saw God was dead set on this daring plan, they broke into applause… While they were still clapping, God turned around the left the chamber, shedding his robes as he went. The angels watched as his midnight blue mantle fell to the floor, so that all the stars collapsed in a heap. Where the robes had fallen, the floor melted and opened up to reveal a scrubby brown pasture speckled with sheep and a bunch of shepherds. It was hard to say who was more startled, the shepherds or the angels…”

   Indeed. Jesus is God’s “witness,” translating the Greek martus, yes, like martyr. God’s coming provokes hostility and ends in suffering – but doesn’t really end at all.

   The empire’s army detail couldn’t keep this one in the grave. Jesus is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Really? How much more politically subversive can you get? We’ll see Pilate in our Gospel reading tremble a bit before this vulnerable, weak one. The preacher must play on the irony: it is the bloodied, beaten weak one who is “omnipotent.” The Greek is pantokrator – 
which is the way Christ is dubbed in so much classic art, as in the painting at St. Catherine’s on Mt. Sinai. Jϋrgen Moltmann, in his best pages of The Crucified God, explores how omnipotence is way inferior to love. Omnipotence can only be feared and obeyed; love can be… loved. Even better is the comment on our passage from G.B. Caird: “John has learned from Christ that the omnipotence of God is not the power of unlimited coercion but the power of invincible love.”

   John 18:33-37. My friend, the archaeologist Shimon Gibson, has definitively revealed to us where this trial before Pontius Pilate took place: not in the traditional praetorium along the Via Dolorosa, but along the western exterior wall of the city, where Herod’s impressive palace was located. Pilate would have stepped out onto the platform before the huge crowds pressing in from the countryside, not down narrow urban lanes.

   The conversation about kingship, in so few words, opens up deep wells of emotion, underlying meanings, nuances and shifting tides of power! Raymond Brown notices that “the accused criminal asks questions as if he were the judge, and from the first words of Jesus, it is Pilate who is on trial! Pilate is a man who is facing the light and who must decide whether he will prefer light or darkness.” For my tastes, the feel is captured marvelously in Jesus Christ Superstar, especially the fantastic 2000 Gale Edwards production. Watch this! Fred Johanson is pitch perfect as Pilate, strong, muscular, impressive, yet with an undercurrent of uncertainty, then defensiveness, a grief that can still retaliate.

   I don’t know how to “illustrate” all this in a sermon. I’m not sure the preacher needs to. The story is the story, and it’s plenty sufficient, it works as is, doesn’t need dressing up. It is worth pondering that “king,” on this Christ the King Sunday, was far from Jesus’ preferred way of thinking of himself.



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