Visions of a Royal Reign

November 25, 2018
Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37

The Lord be with you. (and also with you.)

I am grateful to be back among you after missing two Sundays, one for travel after the Women Doing Theology Conference and then last week because I was sick. Gathering for worship with you anchors me and reminds me who I am and what I am about.

This Sunday is that kind of anchor.  Today is designated, in the liturgical year, as “Christ the King” Sunday. This anchors us as participants in the grand imagination of the reign of Christ. For many years I have resisted this Sunday because of the maleness of kings. Sometimes I call it Christa the Queen Sunday to remind myself of the expansive, inclusive nature of Christ.

There are other reasons “Christ the King” doesn’t quite resonate. We know kings in stories. We have not lived under a king in this country for more than 240 years. Perhaps if we thought of it as “Christ the President” Sunday, or “Christ the Prime Minister” Sunday it would make more sense. Whatever we call this last Sunday of the liturgical year, it is a reminder that no matter who is in power in the world, followers of Jesus claim a bigger vision, a bigger reign than the one we currently live in. We may live under this president/prime minister/monarch now, but our true ruler leads us into a future quite different from the current one.

It is also good to remember the difference between Jesus and Christ. Contrary to popular belief, Christ is not Jesus’ last name. Jesus is the name of a remarkable man who lived in Galilee, at the beginning of the Common Era. Jesus lived in a particular place, in a real time in history. Christ is a title we give Jesus. Christ is the mystical, resurrected, manifestation of Jesus that appears in all times and all places. “Christ the king.”

We don’t need to limit ourselves to one day a year though. As followers of Jesus, we remember and claim every day that our king, our “President,” is Christ. It is a revolutionary ideal to live into, and it can be a dangerous allegiance, depending on the human president/premier/prime minister in power.

The scriptures today feature kingliness – though the descriptions are unlike the kingly power we read about in the news today, whether that news leans right or left.  Listen to this vision from the book of Daniel.

Daniel 7: 9-10, 13-14

As I watched, thrones were set up and the one who sat there
was the Ancient of Days,
whose clothing was snow white,
with a head of hair as white as wool;
whose throne was flames of fire
with wheels of burning fire.
A stream of fire surged forth,
flowing from the Ancient Ones presence,
with tens of thousands ministering,
and hundreds of thousands standing in attendance.
The court was convened and the books were opened.

I gazed into the visions of the night once again,
and I saw, coming on the clouds of heaven,
one who looked human
but somehow more than human.
This One came to the Ancient One
and was led into the divine Presence.
Thus was conferred sovereignty, glory and dominion,
and all peoples, nations and languages
became this Ones subjects.
This sovereignty is an eternal Sovereignty
which will never pass away,
nor will this dominion ever be destroyed.

Daniel is an apocalyptic book with stories of those who resist the kings. (We remember the punishments: Daniel in the lions den, Shadrach, Meshak, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.) Daniel’s vision of a king contains no violent, power-hungry ruler. This mystical vision describes the presence of thousands upon thousands of people who are part of the royal court. They “serve” in this royal court but it doesn’t sound like slavery. It sounds like a peaceful, multicultural, multilingual gathering.

Daniel offers this imaginative, comforting vision to hold onto when we get overwhelmed by the current reality. When the declared ruler believes all members of the court should speak the same language and be the same ethnicity and unquestioningly serve his every whim, Daniel reminds us that we must dream bigger. This vision reminds us that rulers may wear white and have white hair but when that white hair is “pure wool” we are probably looking at a ruler on the throne that does not have white skin.

Daniel’s vision reminds us that this multicultural, multilingual reality is an eternal aspiration. Any vision that teaches us to settle for monochrome, monoculture, boring one language society is just a passing kingship. The eternal sovereignty that we look to and serve creates room for and welcomes all cultures and all languages and all peoples. This vision, this reign, will never be destroyed. Christ the King Sunday is a good day to remember our faith heritage and reclaim this vision of “all peoples, nations and languages” gathering together near the throne of fire upon whom sits the ruler – who is not white.

This is of course not the only image of “king” contained in scripture. Revelation gives us another image of royalty, describing a ruler who does not depend on others to kill for him or defend him. Instead this royal one is willing to bleed for the beloved ones. This greeting at the beginning of Revelation may feel a bit disjointed but we can gather some clues about what “kingship” means for this writer.

Revelation 1: 4b- 8

Grace and Peace to you, from the One who is, who was, and who is to come, from the seven spirits before the throne and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the Firstborn from the dead, sovereign of the rulers of the earth.

To Christ – who loves us and who has freed us from our sins by the shedding of blood and who has made us to be a kindom of priests to serve our God and Creator – to Jesus Christ be glory and power forever and ever! Amen. 

Look! Christ is coming on the clouds
for every eye to see,
even those who pierced Jesus,
and all the people of the earth
will mourn over Christ.
So be it! Amen.
I am the Alpha and Omega ,says our God,
who is ,who was, and who is to come, the Almighty.

Here is Christ, creating a kingdom of priests. It sounds more like a “kindom” where the hierarchy is gone and all minister to each other. And in this royal reign, even those who have been violent will realize the wrong they have done. Like in Daniel’s vision, John – the writer of Revelation – sees that all people, all tribes, will come to the power of the wounded Christ. A wounded ruler to whom all will bow down? Preposterous! Impossible! And yet this is the big vision, the grand imagination of scripture.

These visions from Daniel and Revelation seem fantastical, near impossible. Maybe on a generous day we can see them as something utopian to strive for. But too often, when I am not aware of the unearned power which I live with every day, these kinds of grand imaginings seem ridiculous. Some days I find these texts practically useless. I am ready to set them aside. They make no sense.

This is when I know it is time to shift my perspective. These big visions are not superfluous, they are meant to nurture. Those of us who live comfortably may have a hard time making any sense of them at all – because they are not written for those who live comfortably. These grand imaginings are for those who live in discomfort, fear, pain and dread. These visions invite us to expand our own vision so we will live into a time when The Most High will wipe away every tear from their eyes. And death, mourning, crying and pain will be no more, for the old order has fallen.” (Revelation 21)

Though we live comfortably, we are part of a faith heritage that tells a story of struggle. It was written by those who struggle, for those who struggle. If we want to truly understand our faith heritage, we have to find a way to connect with those who struggle. We have to expand our imagination. Then we may begin to see the very real need for a ruler who gives up life rather than asks others to conquer or die violently to maintain power.

When we connect with those who struggle, we can begin to understand this grand and glorious vision of hope that has sustained generations of people in suffering.

When we connect with those who struggle, we can begin to understand the significance of a ruler who affirms Godself as The Alpha and Omega, the A to Z, the beginning and the end, the present, the past and the future.

When we begin to understand the struggle, we can begin to grasp that suffering does not have the last word. In fact, John’s wild vision is that even those who inflict suffering will come to be part of the multicultural, worshipping crowd around the throne.

Biblical depictions of royalty are not limited to apocalyptic visions. This passage from John gives us a whole new set of challenges around “kingship.”

John 18: 33-37

So Pilate entered the Praetorium and summoned Jesus. Are you the King of the Jews?asked Pilate.

Jesus answered, Do you say this of your own accord, or have others told you about me?

Pilate replied, Am I Jewish? It is your own people and the chief priests who hand you over to me. What have you done?

Jesus answered, My realm is not of this world; if it belonged to this world, my people would have fought to keep me out of the hands of the Temple authorities. No, my realm is not of this world.

Pilate said, So, you are a king?

Jesus replied, You say Im a King. I was born and came into the world for one purpose – to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who seeks the truth hears my voice.

Pilate is toying with Jesus, saying “it is not the Romans’ fault that you are at trial; it is the Jews’ fault for bringing you to court.” Jesus plays along not claiming the title of king, at least not in this life, in this realm. If Jesus is king, his only entree to the halls of power is through being arrested. And he reminds Pilate that there are other kinds of power.

Jesus bears witness to truth, not corruption.

Jesus bears witness to truth, not twisted lies.

Jesus bears witness to truth – and invites others to seek the truth.

This passage from John is not without its problems for us today. Jesus is questioned by Pilate about being “King of the Jews” in each of the gospels, but only in John do we get this extended conversation that fuels the claim that the Christian scriptures are antisemitic.

If we want to stand in solidarity with our Jewish siblings, we must remember that Jesus was Jewish. John’s gospel was written decades after the other gospels, and it tells the story of the intense turmoil between Jews who were loyal to the temple and Jews who were Jesus followers. As the followers of Jesus become more and more marginalized they begin to blame the Jews as a group for Jesus’ death. And as we, who are Jesus’ followers, get farther and farther from our Jewish roots, we easily miss hearing what is going on between these Jewish factions.

By the time the story gets written down by John’s struggling community (more than 70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection) they have no qualms about making the bad guys their own Jewish siblings. The internal battle is one they are more ready to fight than the one that endangers them with the Romans. Two thousand years later, we who are Jesus followers have lost touch with the context and our Jewish ancestors. We are left with this legacy that is too easily antisemitic.

Just like we need to learn to read apocalyptic texts as they are read by those who struggle, we need to find ways to read the text from a Jewish perspective so we do not use it to inflict more harm.

On this day, when we claim Christ is King, we remember that we are talking about a very different vision of king than what we see in presidents/premiers/prime ministers of this world. The preeminent politicians of the day are threatened when thousands upon thousands join together. The multitudes are not welcomed at the throne; they are blockaded at the border. The preeminent presidents invest in armies and weapons that will keep resources and power in the hands of those who already have the most wealth. The preeminent premiers hope that the truth will disappear in translation. Instead, we who follow Christ the King/Christa the Queen/Christus the Monarch, hold onto and follow the grand, imaginative, visions of scripture, of Daniel and John.

I wonder what the next grand, imaginative dream might be for us together here at Hyattsville Mennonite. As a congregation we have dreamed of and lived into a church where people can bring their whole selves to worship and community. And yet, I wonder if any of us imagined ten years ago that Michelle would be our pastor – on the way to ordination, that Allegheny Conference would have four congregations that are formally affirming of LGBTQ people and another three that are having conversations. Clearly, our big dream is not ours alone and it not yet fully realized. We still dream of the day that across the church, in this country and around the world, all are welcome to bring their whole selves to worship and leadership in community life.

And, I wonder what the next grand, imaginative dream might be for us as a congregation. Surely it will be a dream that nurtures the world while also nurturing our souls, a dream that helps us catch a glimpse of the reign of God right here as we live into the visions the bible gives us.

Will it be working deliberately to undo racism in ourselves and our church and denomination and society? Will it be reaching out to returning citizens – people being released from prison. Will it be helping Central American asylum seekers find a home here?

What are our dreams that are a step toward the big dreams of Daniel and Revelation where all languages and cultures and peoples join together at the throne of a ruler who wears white – but is not white?

The biblical text gives us these glimpses of the reign of God, of a different kind of ruler, a different kind of world. Let’s catch that dream and dedicate ourselves to follow Christ the King/Christa the Queen/Christus the Monarch into that beautiful, impossible vision.