It’s Christ the King Sunday. Which means we are going to talk about religion and politics. Because that always goes really well.
Christ the King Sunday is also known as Reign of Christ Sunday. Which eliminates the masculine designation of “king” but does not change the political message inherent in the title. This is a very new addition to the liturgical calendar. It was instituted by Pope Pius 11th in 1925 as a countercultural observance. He saw a world becoming ever more dominated by totalitarian governments and exploitative economies and knew that Christians, all types of Christians, needed a reminder of where our allegiance and trust must be. Thus, Christ the King Sunday, Reign of Christ Sunday.
So let’s be very clear. This is not a Sunday celebrating the Jesus is the King of our hearts or our souls or our spirits. This is a Sunday celebrating that the Crucified and Risen Christ is the King of the Cosmos. The early followers of Jesus greeted one another by saying Jesus is Lord. Which sounds super spiritual to us, but in their day that greeting was radical and dangerous. Citizens of the Roman empire said “Caesar is Lord,” the way citizens of the Third Reich said, “Heil Hitler.” But Christians insisted, that “Jesus is Lord. Hail Jesus.” Friends, THIS is what got them burned at the stake and fed to lions. They were martyred because they refused to bow down to political system.
So when we say that Jesus is Lord or that Christ is King or that Jesus Christ reigns or we talk about the Kingdom of God, we are talking about something real, tangible, everyday, actual. Jesus is Lord and money is not. Jesus is Lord and political parties are not. Jesus is Lord and fame is not. Jesus is Lord and America is not. Jesus is Lord and violence is not. Jesus is Lord and religion is not. Jesus is Lord and as followers of Jesus we give our allegiance to him, place our trust and faith in him, and draw our sense of security from him. Christ Jesus reigns as lord and king over all.
When we say that though, we need to clear about what we are not saying. Because we know that the mixture of religion and politics is responsible for much of the horrific things we have done to each other, including what Americans are doing to each other now. In the United States we have a bedrock tradition of the separation of church and state, which I think is vital. So when we say Jesus is Lord or Christ is King we are not saying that America is a Christian nation or that we should adopt the 10 Commandments as the legal rule of our land. We are not saying that religion should be used to legitimate government systems.
Although we have this tradition of the separation of the church and state as institutions, we Christians, as individuals and as congregations, do not have that same separation in ourselves. We are whole people, our convictions are woven together in ways that we can’t just put in neat buckets. And part of the message of Reign of Christ Sunday is that we shouldn’t separate our trust in Jesus from how we live in the world.
When Christianity first started to take off, it wasn’t called Christianity. You know what it was called? It was just called The Way. This is not a belief system. This is a way of life. As I said last week when we talked about justice and righteousness rolling like a river, Christianity is not just about our relationship with Jesus. It’s just as much about our relationships with others and how we live in the world. But you don’t have to take my word for it. Jesus himself said that the essence of right living is to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves. They are inseparable.
This faith, this trust, this relationship with the divine, is not theory. Theory is interesting. You can have some good conversations about theory. You can play with hypothetical situations and paradoxical statements, and some people find that fun. But true Christianity is not theory. It is practice. Thanks be to God. Because friends, the world does not need any more good theory. But it sure as certain does need some real good practice. Do you know what we say the are the results of doing justice, loving mercy and walking humbly with God? We say that those things will help us find lasting joy and heal the world. Living in that way will create in us as individuals a deep and lasting joy and it will make us active participants in God’s plan to heal the world.
One of our core convictions is that God does have a plan to heal the world. The last century plus have demolished the idea that humans are well on our way to some utopia of our own making. We may be making progress in some areas, but other areas are getting dangerously worse all the time. And regardless of our individual intentions, as a human race we don’t seem to be capable of fixing these things. Friends, wherever the promised land might be, we aren’t going to get there by ourselves.
But we trust, deeply trust and hope, that God is going to take us there. And not just some of us. God is going to take all of us there. Because ultimately God is not just going to let the good people escape to the good place. Ultimately, the best we can tell from the Bible, God is going to restore this place to be the good place that God always intended it to be before our lack of trust screwed it up. And when God restores all of creation, all people and animals and plants will flourish together. People who try to resist that restoration by grasping at the way things used to be will not be happy. Not because God is punishing them, but because they are trying to hold on to the greed and violence and hypocrisy that benefits them the way the world is now. As soon as they let go of that, they too will experience the same flourishing that is already happening for everyone and everything else around them.
That’s what I think will happen. That’s how I imagine it. I can’t give you a specific verse that describes things that way, but I think it’s a faithful possibility based on all of scripture. In my opinion, anyone who tells you that they know exactly what the Reign of Christ will look like or how it will happen, those people are inappropriately confident in their own interpretation of the Bible. Because, friends, much of what we anticipate about the Reign of Christ is described using poetry. Which, finally, brings us to our verses for this morning. You thought I forgot, didn’t you?! I didn’t. On this Reign of Christ the King Sunday we are going to read some very famous poetry from the book of Isaiah that I think anticipates the way the world will be when God restores creation and Christ is joyfully recognized as the ruler of all things. If you’re a fan of Handel’s Messiah, feel free to sing along in your head.
This is from the book of Isaiah chapter 9 verses 2 through 7.
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
For every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.Isaiah 9:2-7
These are the words of God for all people. Thanks be to God.
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. When we turn on the light, nothing is actually different. As we try to teach our children, there are no monsters under the bed or in the closet. The light simply proves what has been true the whole time. If we could only turn on the light, we would be able to see what God is already doing. But for now we walk in darkness. But for now we walk in darkness, in trust.
God has increased our joy; we rejoice the way we do at harvest time. After we have worked hard and waited in uncertainty for a whole season, knowing that things could go either way. But thanks be to God it has turned out well and we rejoice.
And why do we rejoice? For the burden of oppression has been lifted. The tools used to keep people down have been utterly and finally broken.
For all the garments we wear when we do violence have been rolled up and burned. We aren’t going to need those anymore, so let’s utterly destroy them.
And finally we rejoice for unto us a child is born. All the possibility in the world is wrapped up in this fragile bundle. Every potential exists in this one tiny new person. Our hopes will be realized when he grows to be a counselor and not a dominator, one who uses all the power at his disposal to do justice and righteousness, one who is a nurturer and protector, one who is fully focused on promoting the flourishing of all creation. Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually and there shall be endless peace. Once this is done, it’s done for all time. Right now we ride around the circle of seasons, experience the highs and lows of human life, witness and participate in the progress and failures of the world as we know it. But one day, some day, in God’s time, in the fullness of time, at just the right time, Christ the King will say “Peace, be still” to the storms of greed and violence and hypocrisy and will once and for all establish justice and righteousness on the earth. To which we say, “Even so, come Lord Jesus.”
This poetry doesn’t just exist in a vacuum and doesn’t just have meaning for Christians. We read this as a prophecy about Jesus. For the original audience it may have been a song celebrating the coronation of the good King Hezekiah of the southern kingdom of Judah. Progressive Jews today read this as an anticipation of an age when this kind of peace is possible. Followers of Jesus hear in this passage a message not only about the birth of baby Jesus, but about the eventual return of Christ the King.
Next week Advent begins. I hope you’ll be here. During Advent we spend four weeks in anticipation. Obviously we are anticipating the birth (again) of the baby Jesus. But the season of Advent is also time set us aside for us to anticipate the return of Christ the King, when all the promise and potential and hopes that are swaddled in a manger will finally be realized for all of creation. We anticipate the day when justice and righteousness and true peace, shalom, total flourishing for all of creation will be established. This is the Kingdom of God. This is the Reign of Christ, already begun but not yet fully finished. And the zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.