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.

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