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The Kingdom Come

Rev. Terry McKinney
Sun, Nov 25

Reign of Christ Sunday
Text: John 18:33-37

In our liturgical calendar, today is the last Sunday of the year, Christ the King Sunday. Actually, in Protestant circles it’s Reign of Christ Sunday. And even though last Sunday was observed in the church as Thanksgiving Sunday, you and I both know that after our holiday, today is really Thanksgiving Sunday.

We don’t have many Thanksgiving traditions in my immediate family except to name here and there during the meal things you’re grateful for. It’s not structured at all, but I like the spontaneity, and that it creates a general atmosphere of thanks.

I also loved joining in on the more structured Thanksgiving tradition at my grandmother’s house once. Everyone outlined their hands on paper, decorated the outline to look like a turkey, then put something they were grateful for on each of the turkey finger’s outlines. Before the meal, everyone shared their five gratitudes. I’m not sure the folks who prepared the meal were all that appreciative of this tradition as the food got cold, but I found it surprisingly meaningful.

Every year, I always enjoy re-learning the history of where the tradition of Thanksgiving came from, what its origins are, and how it developed, though there’s debate about all of it. Most of us in school are taught the familiar story of how the Pilgrims were giving thanks both to God who provided the much needed rain, and to the native people who showed them how to plant corn.

That simplistic story is very much up for debate, but despite that, we can remember that what brought the Pilgrims to the colonies in the first place was to escape the tyranny of institutional English rule that prohibited them from worshipping in the way they believed God called them to. These separatists believed that the relationship with God – the Kingdom of God – came from within, and that any institutionalized form of religion interfered with that.

So it’s easy to guess that they were probably not huge fans of the rule of King James I, and kingly rule in general. What might they have associated it with? Tyranny, oppression, abuse of power, dictatorship, suppression of anything displeasing to the king that might result in dire consequences. It’s no wonder they fled to escape being subject to that rule, and instead be subject to their inner relationship with God as they discerned.

At that first meal, I don’t suppose anyone stood up and raised a glass to toast the king, and for many today, just as it had for the pilgrims, kingship has many similar associations: tyranny, abuse of power, and patriarchy, just to name a few.

It’s no wonder then that we’ve excised as much reference to kingdom language as we can from our worship. It can make us uncomfortable, awkward, or even distressed. For example, the hymn, “Praise, my soul, the king of heaven. To his feet thy tribute bring” has been changed to “Praise, my soul, the God of heaven. Glad of heart your carols raise.”

We tend to use the word “Lord” sparingly, we alter psalm texts to avoid kingdom language when we can, and when we have a choice of readings for any given Sunday, we nearly always choose the ones that avoid the words “king,” “royal,” “robe,” “kingdom,” “diadem,” “Reign,” “majesty,” “throne,” “scepter,” “realm,” “crown,” and other words that evoke kingship.

That’s a lot of work to go through to avoid king language. So why do we do it? For some people, it’s because it’s irrelevant to today’s world. For some it’s distasteful, for some it’s painful, and for some people it’s very distressing. For many, saying “Christ the King” is audacious at best, and anathema at worst. I’m not sure “Reign of Christ” is any better.

The problem however is that, while we can do our best to soften the blow of kingship language, it’s part of our scriptures, and part of our heritage. How do we reconcile the scriptures our faith is based on, and the legacy we’re received, with great sensitivity to the impact that language has?

Unless we can reconcile that language, people can miss the message underneath the language that’s trying to be conveyed, and others can be hurt enough to consider not returning to church. Neither of these is acceptable, and it can feel like we’re stuck with this significant problem. So what do we do?

We can’t chuck out the scriptures, and there’s only so much we can do to take out language that would have been meaningful to its earliest hearers that pervades the scriptures, but that has become a symbol of the very things we’re avoiding: Tyranny, oppression, abuse of power, dictatorship, suppression. So why is so much of kingship language in there? It’s there because Jesus used it, of course, BUT he used it to challenge the reality of his time. And so can we.

We have to remember that in Jesus’ time, there already was a Kingdom of God. The Caesar was to be worshipped as God, and of course Rome was his kingdom. And it was a powerful kingdom that ruled by oppression and occupation. It was a kingdom of dominance. The so-called Peace of Rome was achieved when all were sufficiently ruled that insurrection was not a viable possibility. This kingdom’s motto: “First power, then peace.”

In the context of Judaism at the time, there were many prophecies about who the Messiah might be. Chief among them became the rule of a new king who would free Israel from military occupation, and make Israel a mighty nation.

Here, then, comes Jesus preaching a kingdom whose characteristics include the opposite of oppression, power, and dictatorship. Instead, it’s a kingdom of non-violence, a kingdom of the meek, of widows and orphans, the poor, the excluded. His proclamation was of a kingdom that was not apparent in worldly terms, and didn’t come at you outwardly with swords, but could be within. Here, from the Gospel of Luke, (17:b-21) "The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation, nor will people say, 'Here it is,' or 'There it is,' because the kingdom of God is within you."

Nothing could be more illustrative of this dichotomy between who Jesus was and what Israel was expecting than on what we call Palm Sunday. The Caesar was approaching the gates of Jerusalem in chariots, countless weapons, and banners flying. And here on the other side is Jesus approaching Jerusalem, riding a donkey, with all the pomp and circumstance that palm fronds can muster. To say that he was not the king the Israelites were longing for is an understatement.

As we know, his kingdom language is what eventually got him killed. By others calling him the King of the Jews, whether seriously or in mockery, Rome made no distinction between different kinds of kingdoms that might pose a threat to its own.

Imagine how cryptic Jesus’ answers would have been to Pilate: “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."

I can imagine Pilate scratching his head and not knowing what to do. Was Jesus a king, or wasn’t he? A kingdom not of this world? What does that mean? A kingdom you can’t see? A kingdom where his followers didn’t fight? A kingdom of peace without power? That makes no sense at all.

Nor does it make much sense to us today. We don’t see countries dropping their arms and entering war torn areas with troops of the meek and widows. Nor do we tend to think of ourselves as subject to a king or a kingdom, do we? It negates the concept of democracy entirely. Imagine you’re eating your lunch in the cafeteria. You turn to your co-worker and say, “I’m a subject of my king of peace,” then return to eating your sandwich. I’ll leave it to you to imagine what responses you might get.

But we are invited into a kingdom. It looks like restoration, bringing people back into their communities. It looks like transforming the act of justice from punishment and fear, into love and inclusion. Just as we say here, “God is still speaking,” we believe that God’s kingdom is still breaking through, even now. And we’re invited to participate.

Perhaps we do indeed need better language than King and Kingdom because of what it evokes for us today, and because it may seem irrelevant for others. But whatever language we use for rule, it is tipped on its head with Jesus. Because any reference, depiction, or understanding of Jesus as a ruler of the kind this world knows, is missing the point. Instead, to use that very same language and mean something totally different is an act of holy subversion.

We – you and I – we are invited to usher in the Kingdom of God: Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done. As Jesus said, this is a kingdom not of this world. This kingdom’s motto: “First justice, then peace.”

Our passage from Revelation says Jesus made us to be a kingdom, serving his God and Father [1:6a]. How does it strike our ears today? Jesus made us to be a kingdom? It can be difficult to hear it through what might be the effects of distressing language, or the cynicism of hearing it as merely arcane.

But this is exactly our challenge: can we take language that is difficult or seemingly irrelevant, and subvert it for the Kingdom of God Jesus proclaimed? Can we say “yes” and join that subversive kingdom of peace which is already within each one of us? Can we accept the invitation to join in ushering in that kingdom of which we’re members?

It doesn’t square well with democracy, and it can challenge our sense of freedom of choice. But it is nevertheless our call as Christians: to usher in the kingdom. It’s breaking in right now, and it’s inviting you.

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