ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 22, 2015
KINGS AND KINGDOMS
Daniel 7: 13 – 14; Revelation 1: 4 – 8; John 18: 33 – 37
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
When I was a child I loved to play checkers. I enjoyed leap-frogging around the board, taking out my opponent’s pieces while making my way to the other side to infiltrate their “camp”. I especially loved that triumphant moment where I got to say “King me” not only because I liked to say “king me” but also because I knew this meant I now had the upper hand. In true Kingly fashion my “crowned” pieces were free to go anywhere on the board and dominate my rival. When I got older my 7 year old son started to play chess and he taught me so that he’d have someone to practice on. The dynamics of chess are different. There the “King’s” power is limited as he can only move one space at a time. The other pieces move strategically around the board with two goals in mind: to protect their king and take out the opposing King. In chess the King is vulnerable. In either game, to lose the King is to lose the kingdom.
In scripture the Messiah is portrayed as both types of King. Sometimes he’s triumphant, at other times vulnerable. Daniel’s vision has grand images of kingship. The prophet reveals an eternal Lord, the Messiah, who is granted dominion, glory, and supremacy. He’s a powerful King who establishes an everlasting Kingdom in which he reigns over all people of every nation, “To him was given dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples, nations, and languages should submit to him. His everlasting dominion shall not pass away, and his kingship shall never be destroyed.” (Daniel 7: 14) In Revelation we read of Jesus’ ultimate triumph: “Jesus Christ… the ruler of the kings of the earth… Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail.” (vs. 5 – 7). Jesus is the absolute “checkers” King, the victor of all. In contrast, John gives an account of Jesus’ final hours on earth when he stood defenseless before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate. Jesus had been roughed up, bound in chains, and beaten. Jesus appears helpless, insignificant, vulnerable and in need of protection. For one who’d been arrested for being “a king”, Jesus seems very “un-kingly”. Rather than pronouncing judgements, Jesus is questioned by a judge who has the power to give him the death sentence. Knowing he’d been set up by those who wanted him dead, when Pilate asked if he’s a king, Jesus let the question dangle. He told Pilate what kind of King he is not, “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.” (John 18: 36). On one level Jesus was saying he’s not a political king. He has no desire to gain world domination. He is no threat in any way to Rome. On another level he was admitting he is a king, a king whose kingdom is not “from here”. What Pilate couldn’t understand is the source of Jesus’ sovereignty. Jesus, even in this weak and vulnerable state is still king – a “chess” king perhaps but a king no less. He is King because of where his kingship comes from. Jesus is not king because of an earthly inheritance or a coup for power. His imperial claim comes from a time, place and person beyond anything Pilate can imagine. He is King – enthroned in heaven before the world began. He is King because he is “the Word made flesh” (John 1: 14). So scripture sometimes portrays Jesus as a “checkers” king, an exalted King with eternal power and sometimes as a “chess” king, a humbled King who is limited and vulnerable.
To which “King Jesus” do you relate? The exalted (checkers) king is a triumphant, hope-filled figure. This Jesus is a conqueror ruling over all. He has authority and power. He runs the show. Being a good king, he’s our protector. He keeps us safe. We can rely on this King to rule with justice and compassion. He’s a person of honour and integrity. A king we could easily join. By comparison the humbled (chess) King doesn’t instill confidence. He can barely take care of himself, never mind us. Yet this Jesus comes with many attributes that are rare in a King. Traditionally, Kings were distant and unapproachable, high and mighty. They would lord it over their subjects. They could be ruthless. This Jesus is meek. He’s one of us. His kingdom is not “from here” but it is here – right in the midst of us, because he was here in the flesh. He is present with us. He feels our physical pain and shares our human fears. He knows what it is to be dishonoured and degraded. A king to whom we feel close.
What does King Jesus want from us? The exalted King expects all people will fall before him and worship him. He commands respect. He charges humanity with obedience – he calls for a revival of our lives where our sole purpose will be to serve him and meet his needs. He calls for a restructuring of our wills so that we will live by his bidding in submission to his government. The humbled Jesus expects nothing from us. He knows that like Judas, we can betray him; like Peter, we can deny him; like the Jewish leaders, we will sacrifice him if it helps us; like Pilate, we can dismiss him; like the Roman guard, we may crucify him. So he’s King not because he wants something from us, but because, by grace, he wants to do something for us. Jesus isn’t a King who rallies his subjects to bleed for him on a battlefield, he’s a King who dies for his subjects. He claims his realm not by spilling his enemies’ blood but by spilling his own. He is a suffering King. He doesn’t demand “a King’s ransom” from us, rather he pays “a king’s ransom” by giving his life to set us free.
Given these two different aspects of “King Jesus” to whom do we respond and how? The exalted King Jesus is a little frightening – he causes some people to wail and he causes us to tremble. When we encounter him we bow down and pay him homage, we humble ourselves before him. We greatly admire the triumph of King Jesus but if we’re honest we also find him difficult. He is demanding and he covets our obedience. We hate that word – obedience. In a culture whose highest value is individualism, people resist authority. We love our autonomy – our freedom. We want to have choices and decide for ourselves. Words like “service, servant, servitude” evoke words like “dominance, dominion, Dominus (Lord)” and we don’t want anyone lording it over us. We want to do our own will, not the will of another – not even the will of a King; not even the will of God. So to love the exalted King Jesus is challenging. To live in this kingdom requires conversion. We need to change our ways of thinking and being. We need to let go of our own willfulness, to constantly consider what Jesus wants. Our ways of seeing the world need to change – we are no longer important; we give up our rights, we do not demand that life unfold according to our ideas of “fairness”. We enter this kingdom by pledging our allegiance solely to the king and being ready to lay down our life for him. During his reign, King Frederick William III of Prussia found himself in a costly war. He was seriously short of finances. To capitulate to the enemy was unthinkable. So he asked the Prussian women to bring their jewelry to be melted down for their country. He gave them a cross of iron as a symbol of his gratitude. Each was inscribed, “I gave gold for iron, 18l3.” The response was overwhelming and the women prized their gifts as they were proof they had sacrificed for their king. This established the Order of the Iron Cross. As Christians we too sacrifice for our King by exchanging the personal entitlements of our former life for a cross. The humbled Jesus is different. The response of many is to grab the gift of grace and run. It’s free. We don’t need to earn it. We’re saved so off we go. Statistics show that the majority of people who categorize themselves as “Born Again Christians”, rarely attend worship or have spiritual practices or devotions through the week. However the humbled King Jesus reminds us that he is not without needs. He needs our faithfulness, our strength, and our courageous loyalty. He calls us as those who “belong to the truth” to “hear his voice.” He relies on us to be his hands, feet and voice in our world. An Amish man was asked by an evangelist, “Are you saved brother?” The man replied, “Why are you asking me? I could say anything. I’ll give you the names of my family, my neighbours, my banker and grocer and farm hands – they’ll tell you if I’m saved.” We care for our humble King when we live as his kingdom in the world.
Although we’ve spoken today of King Jesus as if they were two separate beings, in reality there is only one King Jesus. The exalted King of eternity is the humbled King of the Jews. In Revelation we’re reminded that the exalted King who has dominion over all is also the humbled King who “loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, He made us kings and priests to God.” (Revelation 1: 5 & 6) Ignatius of Loyola brings these two images of Christ the King together, “He who is standing in a lowly place on the great open plains, is a sovereign, beautiful and bright, who draws men and women into a life of liberation. They will be freed of all false securities, whether spiritual or material. They will be a legion of humility, armed only with truth.” You see, contrary to games like checkers or chess or politics, in God’s design to lose the King is to gain the kingdom.