Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

Royalty Stoops

Rev. Kathy Donley

11/22/15

 

Scripture Lesson:  Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37

 

 

In the church calendar, today is called Christ the King Sunday.  Or if you want to avoid using the masculine language of King, you can call it Reign of Christ Sunday.  I have been sensitized to the problems that arise when the only images of God ever encountered are male images.    Parts of the Bible, especially the psalms, refer to God as King a lot.  And that’s problematic.   It’s problematic because kings are male and if God is a king then God is male.  It’s problematic in our context because we don’t have any real-life experience with kings. Our experiences are of kings as figure-heads or kings as people in fairy tales.  Neither of those are especially useful for theological formation.  And then, the other kings that we know about are historical figures most often remembered for the ways they slaughtered their enemies in battle and the ways they exploited and oppressed their own subjects.  So, when I imagine trying to talk about God as king, my internal self immediately throws up all kinds of objections and it hardly seems worth it to try to qualify and limit and re-interpret the word “king” to salvage it as a good image for God. 

 

It wouldn’t be worth it, except for two things –

1) the confession of the first Christians was “Jesus is Lord” which meant “Jesus is King.”  They said “Jesus is Lord” because it was more common to say “Caesar is Lord.”  “Jesus is Lord” was a statement of faith, a statement of political subversion and a statement of ultimate allegiance.  If the image of God as King was that important to the first Christians, maybe we need to take the time to understand it. 

 

And 2) this week, more than any time in recent history, I am wondering about the conflicting demands of allegiance to Christ and allegiance to country.  Even though we don’t have an identified Caesar to compete with Jesus’s place in our lives, I am wondering about where Jesus’ teachings about loving enemies ranks.  I am wondering where the idea of being neighbor to the wounded person on the side of the road – how does that line up against concerns for national security?  Never mind that I don’t like the image, what if Jesus is actually king? 

 

Pontius Pilate knew what a king was.  He served the most powerful king in the world at the time.  Being a king really meant something in those days -- the absolute authority that he wielded and the power that he had to compel obedience when it was not willing given.

 

When Jesus was accused of being a king, Pilate took notice.

The religious leaders of Jesus’ day saw him as a threat to their rule and power over the people.  Jesus said and did too many things that exposed their authority and so the ministerial association was out to get him executed.  They knew that one sure way to get him in trouble was to say that he was a traitor, that he was setting himself up as a political ruler and trying to get the Jews to revolt against Rome.  So they told Pilate, “He wants to be king.”

 

“Are you King of the Jews?”  Pilate asks Jesus.  Surely the question is a joke.  The Jews are a captive people.  They have no army.  Pilate stands there, backed up by a huge Roman occupation force.  Looking at Jesus, the bruised and beleaguered man, a common peasant, Pilate must have thought it ridiculous that he could be taken for a king.

 

And Jesus calmly responds, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me? And we think the tables may be turning. 

 

“My kingdom is not from this world.”  The kingdoms of this world depend upon armies and violence for their power.  But Jesus says, “My kingdom is not like any you have every seen before.” 

 

And everything shifts.  We start to ask “who has the power here?”  It should be Pilate, with the backing of Imperial Rome.  It should not be the man on trial for his life.  But Pilate is jumping all over the place, moving back and forth seven times from one room to the next, checking with this legal expert and that judicial scholar,  torn between doing what he believes to be right and what is politically expedient.

 

Pilate peppers Jesus with questions, “Are you a king? What have you done? What is truth? Where are you from?’  By the end we know the answers.  Jesus is king.  He is truth.  He is not from any earthly kingdom, but rather from God’s kingdom which is breaking into this world in his person.

 

In the end, Pilate has Jesus crucified with the words “King of the Jews” posted over his head in three different languages.  He is being sarcastic, mocking the Jews for having such a pitiful, powerless king by having the sign put up.  He does not believe what he has caused to be written. 

 

I wonder if it is the same for us.  Do we, like Pilate, name Jesus as King in our church songs, in our church language, without stopping to think about what it means when Jesus says that his kingdom is not from this world.

 

The image of Christ as king is useful to us as long as it doesn’t become the only way we think and talk about Jesus.  The Bible gives us many many images of Jesus.  Some of them even seem at odds with each other.  Jesus is both the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace and the one who said that he came to bring not peace, but a sword. And so, when we call Jesus King, we must be careful to understand what that means.   When we talk about Christ as King, we are not talking about an earthly king who has absolute power over a certain geographical area.  We are using the idea of king to describe something that we don’t have words for. 

 

Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom was different.  He said to  his disciples “Earthly kings lord it over their subjects, but I am among you as one who serves.”  Jesus was a servant king.

 

 

There are some stories of earthly kings that help us understand Christ as King.  During World War II, London was the site of many bombing raids.   Buckingham Palace, the home of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, was a prime target and it was hit at least once.  People who could afford to leave the city did so or at least sent their children away. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth chose to stay. The Queen said, “The girls will never leave without me.  I will never leave without the King and the King will never leave." This action gave enormous encouragement to the working people of London, those who had no choice but to stay through the bombing.  The good King does not leave his people, but endures whatever they are enduring alongside them.  Jesus was that kind of king.

 

Princess Diana was not a king, but she was royalty.  She was the beautiful, fairy-tale princess.  Americans, who have chosen not to have kings and queens, watched her wedding by the thousands. In the media coverage around her tragic death and funeral, everyone wanted to talk about what made Diana special.  But the key to what Diana did is this: in the princess of Wales, majesty stooped.  She undoubtedly had her flaws, but she was willing to lay aside the trappings and prerogatives of royalty, to be with those who were downtrodden.  One American physician accompanied her on hospital rounds where there were no cameras.  He said she did not hesitate to touch and linger beside patients with disfigurements and symptoms that were distressing even to medical personnel.  That capacity, the doctor emphasized, cannot be faked. 

 

Royalty stooped.  The princess let go of her right to be served and became the servant.  She did not pay someone else to minister to these sick and dying people, but walked among them, caressing and comforting them. Jesus was that kind of king.

 

Philippians 2 tells us that Christ Jesus, who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself and took the form of a human.  Royalty stoops.  Jesus, who is God, becomes an ordinary, humble human being.

 

Here’s why that matters:  we affirm that we are made in the image of God.    Whenever we make that affirmation, we need to be mindful of who that God is, of what that God is, and of how it is that we bear the image of that God.  And so if we say that God is a king and by that we mean an earthly dictator, then we may be tempted to see ourselves as co-rulers, equal with God and to lord it over others.  But if we mean the God is the king who stoops, the one who shares power, the one who enters into human suffering, the one who confronts evil with strength but not violence, if that is what we mean by God as king, then it implies a whole different thing for us.  A whole different understanding of how we act in bearing God’s image.

 

It has implications for every aspect of our lives.  Especially this week, it has implications for how we weigh concerns for our national security against the needs for safety and security for people beyond our borders.  It has implications for how we respond to evil and violence.  It has implications for whether we reflect Pilate’s style of kingship, which seems mostly driven by fear, or whether we acknowledge the fear and chose to act with courage and love anyway.  I would submit that’s what we see Jesus doing here – it is not that he is unafraid, it is that he is undaunted and unwilling to repay evil with evil. 

 

I have listened to many of you this week.  I believe that you are dismayed by those in our government who would reduce the number of refugees we receive.  I believe that you know that perfect love casts out fear and that you would choose to lean into love even if you are afraid.  I don’t need to tell you the story of the man on the Jericho Road or remind you of what Jesus said about loving your enemies.  In fact, I said to a group of strangers on Facebook this week that when Syrian refugees arrive in Albany, I have no doubt that you will act as good neighbors to them. 

 

I think you act out “Jesus is Lord” in your everyday life and you probably didn’t need the theological refresher you just heard.  But I also think that sometimes you and I get weary.  Sometimes the problems are huge.  Sometimes it seems too late for love, too late for peace-making.  Sometimes maybe we are tempted to give in to our fears and just quit trying.  On those days, we need to know that every once in a while, goodness really is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate.  And so I offer to you one such story.

 

Video at this link was shown:

http://www.odysseynetworks.org/on-scripture-the-bible/radical-hospitality-building-bridges-respecting-differences-revelation-14b-8/

 

Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world because his followers do not fight to keep him from being handed over.  The clip demonstrates the real power in choosing not to fight evil on its own terms, not to  return hatred with hatred with evil,  but to win over fear and hate with love.

 

Today we close out the church year.  Next Sunday we begin the season of Advent, the time of expecting Jesus coming as a baby in a manger and also as the Lord of all.  Some say that when Jesus comes again, it will be riding a white stallion, wearing robes of glory, with a crown of gold on his head, and with a gleaming body. But others say that when he comes again, he will not be different. He will be riding the same little donkey that he rode before, wearing the same simple garment that he wore before, with the same crown of thorns on his head and with a body marked by the same wounds as before. The difference will be this: that the world will at long last recognize that THIS is what constitutes his glory; this is royalty stooped.  Amen.

 

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