Ruling Justly - Sermon for Christ the King Sunday (2 Samuel 23)
2 Samuel 23:1-7
We usually begin the church year singing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive, Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the Son of God appear.” The season of Advent begins by remembering Israel’s exile. We do so in the hope that Emmanuel, the one whose name means “God is with us,” will usher in the reign of God. Then the “Desire of nations” will “bind all peoples in one heart and mind; bid envy, strife and quarrels cease; [filling] the whole world with heaven’s peace.” [Chalice Hymnal 119].
The journey that begins in Advent concludes this morning with Christ the King Sunday, and we’ll close out this journey by singing “Rejoice, the Lord is King! The risen Christ adore! Rejoice, give thanks, and sing, and triumph evermore.” [Chalice Hymnal 699]
The title “Christ the King Sunday” is rooted in an earlier time when monarchies were the most prominent form of earthly government. Things have changed over time, but the concept of monarchy is still present in our minds. There are earthly kingdoms and heavenly ones, as Jesus reminds us in his response to Pilate, as he faced a Roman trial. When Pilate asked whether he was the king of the Jews, Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world (Jn. 18:33-37). If Christ’s kingdom is not of this world, does it have any impact on our earthly lives? If it does, how does it differ from the reign of Caesar?
In the reading from 2 Samuel we hear the oracle of David, son of Jesse, the one whom God exalted and anointed, “the favorite of the Strong One of Israel.” This psalm is known as “the Last Words of David,” reveal that while David was a worldly ruler, he was also beloved of God. In these “last words” given through David by the Spirit of God we find a definition of godly rule. The godly ruler is “one who rules over people justly, ruling in the fear of God,” and “is like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”
A just ruler is one who brings blessings to the people. We know from the rest of Scripture that David had his challenges. He might have been close to God’s heart and Israel’s greatest king, but he wasn’t always a just ruler. Nevertheless, he became the model for messianic aspirations, which Jesus took hold of and transformed.
Christ the King Sunday invites us to envision a different realm, where justice and peace reigns, and all of creation is blessed. This realm of God is contrasted with the godless realm, that’s marked by thorns that must be removed with an iron bar and the shaft of a spear so they can be consumed by fire. That is, realms marked by injustice will not last.
In our Wednesday afternoon Bible study we’ve been working through the Book of Daniel. One of Daniel’s messages is that human empires rise and fall. They might rise to great heights of power and influence, but in the end they don’t endure. After a time, they’re replaced by yet another kingdom. The Book of Daniel speaks to a community living under duress and wondering if God is truly present. God’s promise, as revealed in Daniel, is that despite how things look, God’s realm will endure forever, while worldly empires fall under divine judgment.
In one of his dreams, Daniel learns that “one like a human being” will come with the clouds of heaven. To this figure will be “given dominion and glory and kingship, and all peoples, nations, and languages shall serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.” [Dan. 7:13-14]. I believe this is the realm that Jesus spoke of in his conversation with Pilate. Yes, Rome will have its turn, but it won’t endure forever, as history has revealed. Remember that the Byzantine Empire celebrated a thousand years of existence, but in the end their empire didn’t stretch very far beyond the walls of Constantinople. The sun may have never set on the British Empire, but its dominance didn’t last for long either. However, the realm of God shall never be destroyed.
So what does Christ’s realm look like? How does it differ from human realms? The word we hear in this song is that the one who rules justly and in the fear of God brings blessings, while the godless realms are marked by thorns.
Perhaps the way to look at these contrasting visions is to think in terms of the ways our leaders reflect our values. This is especially true for us, who get to elect our leaders. Hopefully there are times and places where blessings flow to all; where the light of the morning shines as it rises on a cloudless morning. When such a rising of the sun occurs, it will be a reflection of the “everlasting covenant” God made with the house of David and with creation itself.
Many years ago, not long after he left his congregation in Detroit to serve as a professor at Union Theological Seminary, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a powerful book titled Moral Man and Immoral Society. In that book he explored the challenges of human society, and the struggles we have in creating a political system that is just and equitable. In the closing paragraphs of the book, which he wrote at the height of the Great Depression, while fascism emerged across Europe, Niebuhr wrote that when the human spirit rises above the power of nature, we discover that “there is beauty in our tragedy.” Then we will be “rid of some of our illusions.” When that happens we’ll no longer be able to “buy the highest satisfactions of the individual life at the expense of social injustice. We cannot build our individual ladders to heaven and leave the total human enterprise unredeemed of its excesses and corruptions.” [Moral Man, p. 277].
Jesus spoke of a kingdom that is not of this world. That vision sometimes gets interpreted as if it has no bearing on our lives here on earth. But, remember that Jesus gave us a prayer, which we recite each week. In that prayer we ask that God’s “will be done on earth as in heaven.” So how is God’s will done on earth as in heaven?
Last Sunday evening, after the TIG Thanksgiving celebration, I was talking with two dear friends who have been a blessing to me these past ten years. Padma is a Hindu and Amin is a Muslim. I wrote a blog post on Wednesday that referenced these friendships, and ones like them, that have emerged since I became pastor of this church. We were reflecting on our friendship and how it transcends religious differences. We talked about how our friendship has strengthened our faith commitments, not detracted from them. Then Amin mentioned the power of hate that often gets unleashed, especially around election time. Once it’s unleashed, it’s difficult to stop. It’s a lot like those thorns that David mentions in his oracle. Perhaps this most recent election has helped us let go of our illusions that we can go on with our lives, as individuals, climbing our ladders to heaven, without taking into consideration the world around us. I know that in this life there won’t be perfectly just political systems, but there can be just rulers, who bring blessings like the gleam of the sun rising on grassy land after a rainstorm. David’s vision can bear fruit, if we allow it to take root in our lives.
When Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom is not of this earth, he was telling Pilate that the methods of God’s realm aren’t the same as those typically used by earthly rulers. He revealed to us the possibility that when we allow God’s reign to break through into our lives, then justice can reign, and blessings will flow like rain upon the grass.
When it comes to this rain from God, Kathryn Schifferdecker reminds us that in ancient Israel, rain was a rare commodity. It was a “precious resource,” so that when it falls it enables the land to flourish. The same is true of “a good, just king, one who rules in the fear of the Lord. Both enable life to flourish.” [Working Preacher].
On this Christ the King Sunday, as we come to the close of another Christian year, having begun the journey in anticipation of the coming of Emmanuel, let us celebrate the coming reign of Christ on earth as in heaven. So, while empires rise and fall, let’s remember that the realm of God lives forever, because God is faithful to God’s covenant promise. With that promise ever on our hearts, let us commit ourselves to living into the kingdom in ways that reflect Christ’s just rule, so that we might see the reign of God come “like the light of morning, like the sun rising on a cloudless morning, gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.”
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Christ the King Sunday
November 25, 2018