Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Kingdom Not of This World

Texts:  2 Samuel 23:1-7; Romans 1:1-6; John 18:33-37


As good Americans, of course we will reply we don't want a king.  That's why we fought a revolution.

All right, then, what kind of president do we want?  What kind of leader do we want at our head to guide us and guard us and make decisions in our behalf?

Well, taking it from history and recent events, typically we want rulers with the common touch.  We want someone who can sympathize with our needs, aspirations, and desires-- and help fulfill them.  Someone who can identify with us as his fellow human beings. He should be down here and present with us.  We want his kingdom to be a kingdom of this world.

At the same time, we want our leader to be a little better than we are, just like us but more so.  Accomplished and superior enough so we can look up to him, but not so high that he's totally detached.  We want him to symbolize our own aspirations for power and greatness, because we want to think of ourselves as great.

We want our leader to be accountable to us.  Even the most powerful of emperors could be taken down by a vote of his nobles, or by a palace coup.  We want him to bear in mind that with all his power and riches and fame, he's only our ruler as long as we allow him to be.  We want him to reign over a kingdom of this world and answer to us, because we're very much of this world.  That's the kind of king we want.

So how does Jesus Christ fit into this?  Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day when the Church has traditionally celebrated our Lord's exalted status as king of heaven and earth. Is He the kind of king we traditionally want?

In some ways, yes.  In 2 Samuel 23 we have a valedictory psalm of David, his official last words.  In it, among other things, he celebrates that God has made with his house and family an everlasting covenant.  This refers to the fact that the Lord God promised that there would never fail to be a descendant of David sitting on the throne of Israel. And who was David?  He was the despised shepherd boy whom God had raised up to shepherd His people Israel.  And who is Jesus?  As St. Paul reminds us in Romans chapter 1, Jesus is the descendant or son of David.  Jesus has humble family origins.  We can identify with Him.

And also in Romans 1, the apostle speaks of Jesus' human nature. Jesus as He walked this earth and proclaimed His coming kingdom was a human being just like we are.  He was subject to the physical laws of this earth.  He needed food and sleep.  The rain wet Him and the dust of the road dirtied His feet.  Jesus shares our humanity.  Very good, He's like us.

In His ministry we see how Jesus definitely had the common touch.  He gently and tenderly dealt with those who were sick and hungry and hurting.  Mothers eagerly brought their children to Him to be blessed.  He stood up for the poor and oppressed and defended them against the powerful.  His heart was with the people and their needs, and His actions were, too.

In all these ways and more, Jesus seemed to be the kind of king people traditionally want.  A king of a kingdom of this world, taking care of our worldly needs and desires.  Think of what St. John tells us about the crowd after Jesus fed the 5,000, how they wanted to take Jesus and make Him king by force.  They knew a good candidate when they saw Him!

But even in His time, people knew that if Jesus was a king, He wasn't the ordinary kind.  He was also fulfilling the expectations for the great king who would be the special Anointed One, the Messiah of Israel.  Through Him God would work in a unique way.  It was only to be expected that Jesus should identify with the people by performing signs and wonders and miracles for their sake.  At least, they figured it was all for their sake. What else?  The crowds were filled with admiration at how the powers of nature took a back seat to this Man whenever He spoke a word.  They were thrilled at the authority with which He taught.  And they delighted in how He overturned the pretensions of the religious leaders who opposed Him.  Jesus was that ruler who could be looked up to and admired.  As David sang long ago in his farewell psalm, Jesus the Son of David was One through whom the Spirit of the Lord spoke.  He ruled over men in righteousness, and in His day He was like the light of the morning sunrise to those who labored under oppression of every kind.

So far, Jesus was and is the kind of king we humans naturally want.  But there's a problem.  Jesus refused to be bound by our desires and expectations.  Yes, He fulfills our need for a king who is like us and from among us, One who sympathizes with our weaknesses because He has known them Himself.  But Jesus came to be a far greater king than that, and His kingdom is not a kingdom of this world.

We see this starkly in our reading from John 18.  Here we have Jesus standing His trial before Pilate, the Roman governor.   "Are you the king of the Jews?" Pilate asks Him.  Is he asking a serious question?  Of course not.  The idea that this beaten and battered Man before him could be the king of anything is absurd.  Something else must be going on.  So Pilate asks, "What it is you have done?"  And Jesus replies, "My kingdom is not of this world."  And just in those words we have the basis of the religious authorities' charges against Him.  He refused to be the king of a mere earthly kingdom; He asserted ultimate divine power.  His kingdom is not of this world, and as such He and it were an offense not only to the Jewish leaders, He is an offense to what we are in our natural sinful state.

For now Jesus is really claiming to have control and authority even over the terrible situation He finds Himself in.  Pilate has pointed out that the Jewish people and chief priests have handed Him over to him.  Jesus replies that the very fact that His servants didn't fight to prevent His arrest is proof that His kingdom is from another place, and doesn't follow the rules of kingdoms here.  Maybe Jesus was including the disciples among His "servants" in this verse, but much more likely He's referring to the holy angels.  As He reminded Peter in Matthew 26:52-53, when the apostle drew his sword to try to protect Jesus from arrest, "Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" But He did not put in the call, because like a good king and general He was working out His plan to bring in His kingdom which is not of this world.  If an ordinary man made this kind of divine claim we'd laugh at him.  And it's true, people laugh at Jesus and His royal talk, too. But they're forgetting the innumerable displays of power over nature, sickness, Satan, and sin He displayed throughout His ministry.  They're ignoring all the times the authorities tried to seize Him and He miraculously eluded their grasp.  No, the very fact that Jesus allowed Himself to be arrested showed that He was in charge of a plan that went beyond simply bringing in a new earthly kingdom.

Pilate, in his worldly cynicism, responds, "You are a king, then!"  Like, "Sure, right, tell me a new one."  Jesus, however, takes the governor's bare words and confirms the truth of them.  "You are right in saying I am a king."  I'm a substitute teacher, and sometimes a kid will say something to be funny or sarcastic that is more true than they know.  You have to latch onto that and confirm it to snap them out of their silliness and bring them face to face with true knowledge.  Yes, Pilate, it's true.  I, Jesus of Nazareth, am a king.  As king my first duty is to testify to the truth.  Those who are on the side of truth listen to me and are my natural subjects.

Our gospel passage leaves out Pilate's flippant reply, "What is truth?"  But it's worth answering.  According to the Scriptures, truth first and foremost is God Himself, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Truth is all God says and all God does.  Truth is His word communicated to us in Holy Scripture.  And truth supremely is the testimony that, as John records in chapter 3, that "Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil," but "whoever by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God."  And how do we come into the light?  As Peter writes in his first epistle, it is God Himself (and God alone) who has called us out of darkness into his marvellous light. We need to be ruled by something or someone outside of this world for us to be part of Christ's kingdom, and His divine power reaches in and conquers our souls for our own good.

Pilate made a flippant reply about truth because he was the mighty Roman governor dealing with a prisoner who was totally at his mercy.  But when we in our sin make belittling comments about Jesus and His truth, we show our discomfort that with the fact that Jesus' kingdom is not of this world.  His kingdom of Truth shows up all our dishonesty and lies.  Jesus the King of Truth convicts us of our sins and calls us to repent and believe in Him, who is the Truth.  As heavenly King He has the ultimate right to judge, for He answers to no earthly constitution and is accountable to no earthly court.

This is not like the kings and kingdoms of this world!  And see how Jesus the King ascends to His throne-- through the cross!  The servants of an earthly king would fight to protect His person and His realm.  But Jesus the Son of God goes forward to fight and die alone to win for Himself a kingdom that is not of this world.  As Jesus says in John 12, "But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself."  Some He will draw for salvation, some for condemnation, but by His death Jesus won the right to be the eternal ruler and King.

In our natural sinful way of thinking, Jesus is not the kind of king we want.  He claims to be in control of the forces of history-- and in control over us.  He claims to personify Truth-- and His truth judges not only our sin, but also our goodness, and finds it wanting.  Jesus claims that His kingdom is not of this world-- and refuses to let us co-opt Him and it for our own earthly purposes.  In short, He asserts that in all His humanity, in all His status as the Son of David, in all His sympathy with us and our needs,.He is more than that and beyond all that.  He was, as Paul says in Romans, "through the Spirit of holiness . . . declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead."  But the glorious and comforting thing is that on His cross Jesus won the victory over sin and death, and that included our sin and our death.  Jesus our King has removed the blindness from our eyes and the stubbornness from our hearts, so that we can recognise Him and long for Him as our true and only King, whose kingdom is not of this world.

What does this mean for our every day lives?  For one thing, it would keep us from confusing our own government or any other earthly system with the kingdom of Christ.  Bad earthly rulership does not tear God's kingdom down, neither does good human government cause God's kingdom to come.  All is in the Father's control, and His kingdom will prevail when every human administration has passed away.

And since we are not merely subjects, but also children and heirs of Christ's kingdom, we know that whatever happens to us in this world we belong to  a heavenly commonwealth that will never be destroyed.  This world is a wonderful place to travel through, but it's even better to know that one day we're going home.

And because Jesus' kingdom is not of this world, we know that He will definitely succeed in His ultimate purpose, to call us with all His saints to the perfect obedience that comes by faith.  We have been called to belong to Jesus Christ, and King Jesus will not fail to transform you into His image, no matter how guilty and sinful you feel you are.  He is the King whose kingdom is not of this world, and He can and will do it.
So let us depend on Him for all things and honor Him in all we think and do and say.  He is your Lord and King-- mighty, powerful, high and lifted up-- but also humble, gracious, and able to sympathize with your every sorrow and need.  Give Him praise and glory, for Jesus Christ is just the King we truly want and truly need.  Amen.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Worth Repeating

Texts: Psalm 136; Romans 8:31-39

       O GIVE THANKS TO THE LORD, FOR He is good:
        for His steadfast love endures forever.

Is this a statement worth repeating?  Our spiritual ancestors the ancient Israelites thought so.  All through the books of Kings and Chronicles, at times of celebration at the Jerusalem temple, frequently when the armies of the Lord go out to war, we read of this call and response being made between priest and people. It stands as a confession of faith for the Old Testament church.  And since the Lord's church is one church, it is a confession of faith for us.  The Lord is good; His steadfast love endures forever.  This is a confession we should take upon our lips daily.  We should find it marvellously worth repeating. 

    But what happens when the goodness of the Lord seems to fall short?   What if we feel that His love isn't exactly steadfast, or not exactly what we'd define as love?

    I was moved to preach on these two passages a couple weeks ago, long before a hurricane called Sandy began making its way up the Atlantic coast.  Around here we got off pretty light.  But elsewhere--!  Even now there are still people in New York and New Jersey who are cold and hungry and suffering.  They have no heat and no running water and they're short of food.  Ordinary people just like us in a terrible situation.  What if that was us?  Would we still be able to respond, "His steadfast love endures forever!"?  Would we want to?  Today's readings teach us that not only should we want to, even in the worst of circumstances, but through that same steadfast love of God, we can.

    The first step is to understand what this steadfast love is.  It goes way beyond a feeling or preference, it includes the active kindness and mercy of God toward men.  The word is hesed, and it describes how God is in Himself and also how God behaves as He reaches out to us in grace and favor.

    But here's our problem: We get the idea that if somebody loves us they should give us exactly what we think we want right now, whether it's the best thing for us or not.  And if he or she doesn't give it, it means they don't love us after all.  This attitude can make it hard for us to repeat that "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    I hope you and I aren't so childish as that.  I pray the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to see that God shows His steadfast love towards us first and foremost in giving us a relationship with Himself, in allowing us to catch even the reflection of His greatness.  The psalmist proclaims,

        Give thanks to the God of gods,


        Give thanks to the Lord of lords.

Think of it!  Only we among the creatures are made in His image.  Only we are privileged even dimly to recognize who He is. The animals, the rocks, the trees: they worship God in being what they are, but they are totally unaware of the splendor and majesty of their Creator.  But Lord God has granted that we should see His glory, and in His love He has enabled us to enjoy Him in worship.  This is a privilege that nothing can take away from us, for God in His splendor always remains God.

    But as we see from verse 4 through 9, this loving God is more than great in Himself, He is also the Doer of wonders who made heaven and earth and all that are in them.

    And that includes us.  Our very existence is proof of the Lord's steadfast love!  He didn't have to create us.  He wasn't forced to give life to you or me in particular. We breathe and inhabit this earth out of the loving mercy of the Lord, and this should call forth our thanks-- even when that existence is threatened, because even in danger our lives are in His loving hands.

    For He knows our trouble and frailty.  Our God is not a wicked king who takes delight in being a tyrant over his subjects.  Our Lord is a God who shows His steadfast love in saving His people.  Verses 10 through 15 speak of the Exodus of Israel from Egypt.  That was the great founding event in the history of the Old Testament church. At the Red Sea God displayed His power and salvation right there in human history and forged the Hebrew people into the nation of His choice. A Jewish friend recently asked me how we could know that the God of the Bible exists.  I reminded him that the God of the Bible has actually acted in loving acts towards real people in real time to real effect.  As a Jew this friend isn't particularly faithful to the Scriptures, so I don't know how much my reminder convinced him.  But for us who are under His New Covenant, these verses about Israel's salvation from Egypt should move us to thanksgiving, for they remind us of the greater salvation the Exodus looked forward to.

    For as great as God's victory was over Pharaoh and all the gods of Egypt, even greater was the victory of our Lord Jesus Christ when He triumphed over sin, Satan, and death on the cross of Calvary.  As wonderful as God's love was when He safely brought His people Israel through the Red Sea, even greater was His love when He brought His Son through death to resurrection.  This was love shown to us, for we know that when Jesus rose from the dead, all of us who were chosen in Him from the foundation of the world were raised with Him as well.

    God shows His steadfast love for us in salvation.  But like the people in Staten Island and Queens, we want to be saved now and saved the way we want to be saved.  We can't judge those storm victims for being in the state they're in.  Even if they had evacuated, they couldn't have gotten far and they'd still be in dire straits.  And who of us can really visualize a fifteen foot tidal surge slamming up and washing away homes and taking out the power supply?  But when it comes to my sin and your sin and the sin of all mankind, we must judge ourselves.  I must give thanks for God's lovingkindness in salvation, because I myself am a sinner who needs to be saved.  No, none of us is Adam or Eve who first rebelled against God in the beginning.  But every day by my human nature and by my sinful acts I follow in my first parents' footsteps and I am covered in guilt.

    And so are you, and every human being who ever lived.  We do not deserve God's steadfast love or His favor.  In fact, it was the sin of mankind in Adam that disrupted creation so that superstorms like Sandy are so terrible and devastating.  In our chapter from Romans if we read verses 19 to 22 we see that creation was subjected to frustration and is in bondage to decay, because of the sin of mankind.  God in His steadfast love decreed that the creation should not be freed until we His elect are revealed as His glorious adopted sons.

    And this is what God has predestined us to be.  Our God doesn't merely rescue us and let us go where we will; He also guides us to our new home in Him.  This is what we see in verses 16 to 22 of Psalm 136.  Especially significant are the verses about the defeat of Sihon king of the Amorites and Og king of Bashan.  We can read their stories in Numbers 21.  The Israelites always knew they were going to have to fight the Canaanite peoples on the other side of the Jordan.  But Sihon and Og ruled on the east side of Jordan, and both of them attacked Israel with no provocation.  Oh, no!  Do we see terrible situations coming at us like that and conclude that God's love isn't steadfast and doesn't endure forever?  No!  That's when we like Israel stand strong in the power of the Lord and trust His steadfast love to help us overcome the foe. 

    Verse 23 and 24 tell us how even after Israel entered the Promised Land there were still times when, due to their disobedience and sin, they suffered humiliation and attack by their enemies.  But even then God's merciful love towards them prevailed and He saved them again and again.  And that's how God acts towards us who belong to Him through Jesus Christ.  In His steadfast love He keeps on forgiving our sins and redeeming and repairing what we destroy in our own foolishness.  It is worth repeating: "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    Let us never forget: God's salvation isn't something we deserve, it's something we need.  And in God's perfect timing, there it is for us!  Even as we cry out "How long, O Lord, how long?" we can also affirm that His steadfast love endures forever, because our God is a God who keeps His promises.  Did you know that the Lord told Abraham that his descendants would be oppressed for four hundred years in Egypt, and then He would save them?  Four hundred years!  All that time, God was working out His perfect plan, making the conditions just right.  It was the same in the centuries before Jesus won our salvation on the cross.  But what about all those who died before Moses?  Who died before Christ?  God's loving kindness extends to them as well.  All whom God has chosen are included in His great salvation, no matter when they lived and died.  The One who made the moon and stars is capable of seeing to that!  And one thing we must learn and hold onto: The salvation of God is not limited to this earthly life.  Its goal and purpose is to bring us into His presence in the life of the world to come.

    And so in the midst of storm and trouble; yes, even as "the nearer waters roll; while the tempest still is high" we can respond "For His steadfast love endures forever!"  Because we know that God in His grace and wisdom is working all things out for our salvation; and not only for our salvation, but also to make us holy and wholly glorified in Jesus Christ.

    For as we read in our verses from Romans 8, it is actually in the midst of trouble and persecution that we can lift up our heads and repeat that "His steadfast love endures forever!"  For above all we see His love displayed in His Son Jesus Christ, who suffered trouble, persecution, and death for our sakes.  The loving Father God who has saved us from our sins will certainly not let us be overcome by those who hate and harm us because of our salvation!

    It is sad, tragic, even, that so many Christians have been falsely taught that as soon as you ask Jesus into your heart all your troubles will be over.  And when trouble comes, they conclude God doesn't love them or isn't faithful, and they fall away.  Our unbelieving enemies sneer at us on the strength of this lie:  See, they say, your God isn't so powerful or loving after all!  Will we listen to their trash?  Will we let their attacks and taunts make us doubt the steadfast love of the Lord?  When we suffer  "tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword" for the sake of Christ, shall we conclude that all this means that God has forgotten us?

    No!  "In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us."  It is no mere mantra or affirmation when we repeat that God's "steadfast love endures forever"; we know it's true because of what Jesus Christ did for us.  In Him God is totally, irrevocably, and lovingly for us, so who or what can be against us?  He has given us His Son Jesus Christ!  What an immense and unfathomable act of enduring love!  Truly, "His steadfast love endures forever!"

    And lest we falter, lest we forget, our Lord has given us this sacrament of the Lord's Supper.  Here at His Table we have physical elements that we can see and touch and taste.  Here God confirms that just as surely as we take this physical food into our bodies for our nourishment, just as surely His Spirit nourishes us with the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ our crucified and risen Lord, to the nourishment of eternal life.  Brothers and sisters, as you partake of this holy meal, remember that no matter what happens, God's love is faithful.  For

    . . . neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Amen.  So give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.  And let God's people repeat: "For His steadfast love endures forever!"