(Scripture reading: 2 Sam 23:1–7; Ps 132:1–12; John 18:33–37; Rev 1:4b–8)
(The following is a sermon delivered on 22nd November 2015.)
What does “Christ the King” mean to Christians in Melbourne, Australia?
The theme in the lectionary this Sunday is “Christ the king.” I wonder what “Jesus the king” means to Christians today?
Some years ago a friend bought a house. She was really thankful to God that they found this wonderful house for her young family of six. You see, they had four children. It was important for them to have a family room, a dinning room, a deck; and that everyone has their own bedroom. My friend and her husband were active members of their church. For them, “Jesus the king” means faithful service in church, and trusting God for his blessings for themselves and their children.
But I kept thinking about other families in the world. How about the low-income families in Melbourne who can’t afford a mortgage and have to rent? How about followers of Jesus in my home country in Asia, like a relative of mine who, as a 21-year-old young lady, does not have her own bedroom, and the likelihood of having one is very slim? What would “Jesus being the king” mean to them?
In more general terms, if life itself is a constant struggle, what does “Christ the king” mean?
Let us keep this in mind as we look at the four Scripture readings today.
The ideal king who rules with justice (2 Sam 23:1–7)
Our first reading is from 2 Samuel 23. It speaks of the kingship of David, the king of Israel. Verses 3 and 4 say that he rules with justice in the fear of God.
To be honest, I find it hard to understand, for David does not appear to be a just and righteous king all the time. Back in 2 Sam 11, we find that David misused his power as a king. His sins against Bathsheba and Uriah were not simply a matter of sexual immorality and murder. They were acts of oppression and injustice, using his power to exploit others.
I tend to think that the Hebrew Bible portrays David as a complex character with good qualities as well as many flaws. Often he sought to be loyal to the LORD. But at times he appeared to be a shrewd politician, whose motives were somewhat dubious.
But 2 Sam 23 says that David rules justly in the fear of God, and that he has made an everlasting covenant for him. The picture here is not so much about the whole life of David. Rather, it speaks of an ideal king—that is, what it looks like to be a king who truly follows the LORD.
What we also see here, I think, is that God is faithful despite our human weakness. David did some wonderful things. But as a duty-bearer of the people of the LORD, he also failed terribly in many ways. Yet God is faithful to his people, and will honour his everlasting covenant.
I think we need to recognise how important it is that our politicians act justly. For instance, shifts in government policies can have a major impact on low-income families. The future of their children will be adversely affected if there is a cut in funding for their local school. GST (Goods and Services Tax) on basic food will be a major problem for them. My friend told me that funding for mental health services in Melbourne’s western suburbs was not as good as that in the east. Unjust governance can be a disaster for low-income earners.
For the followers of Jesus who struggle financially, I think the notion of “Jesus the king” takes on a new meaning. In the face of unjust treatment, they turn to their God for refuge. It is the faithfulness of God and their trust in his just and righteous rule that makes a difference.
The presence of God in hardship (Ps 132: 1–12)
On this note, let us turn to Psalm 132. Like 2 Samuel 23, this Scripture speaks of David’s kingship and the LORD’s covenant. But it starts with a reference to David’s hardship, and his determination to establish a dwelling place for his God, which is most likely to be the temple in Jerusalem. The Psalm then goes on to say that the LORD’s presence will be with his people, and that he will satisfy the poor with bread.
What is somewhat surprising in this Psalm is that the quality of the king is not so much his power and military might. Rather, it has something to do with his hardship and endurance, as well as his desire for God’s presence.
Interestingly, the covenant mentioned in this Psalm is conditional. It says in verse 12 that David’s descendants can sit on the throne only if they keep the decrees of the LORD. It is not an everlasting covenant, as in the case of 2 Samuel 23.
As you know, many of the descendants of David turned out to be unfaithful. And indeed, how often do we find leaders today who truly do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God, as Micah 6:8 says?
A non-violent king who is the embodiment of God’s faithfulness (John 18:33–37)
The good news is that despite human unfaithfulness, God is faithful. He sent his Son to the world. John’s Gospel tells us that the Word became flesh, and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). The presence of God is not only found in the temple. The Son of God himself was present with us, and walked among humans.
In our Scripture reading today we find that Jesus was arrested and put on trial in front of the governor Pilate, who was the official representative of the Roman Empire.
Apparently the Jews had said that Jesus claimed that he was the king of the Jews. This would be considered as treason (from the perspective of the Roman Empire).
Here, we have a clash of two kingdoms, the kingdom of Jesus, and the Roman Empire. And these two are set in sharp contrast.
The Roman Empire was well known for its military might and the glory of their magnificent buildings. Their political and economic powers were supreme, and no-one could resist them. Any resistance would be dealt with without mercy. The Roman cross was a good example of how the Romans treated those who dared to oppose them. The cross was a tool of punishment to humiliate and frighten Rome’s opponents. It was a symbol of shame and fear.
But Jesus said to Pilate,
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.
What Jesus is saying is that his kingdom does not use power to overcome power. In fact, Jesus’ stance here was one of non-violent resistance. In the face of the Roman cross, he boldly said to the Roman official that he indeed had a kingdom, implying that he was the King, and hence inviting Pilate to crucify him. He scorned the shame of the cross and said that his kingdom had nothing to do with the oppressive use of violence, like that of the Roman Empire.
I wonder what this means to us today?
I think we need to question any policy that uses military action to deal with evil. I think we have to resist any autocratic leadership in a Christian community, for all too often it ends up with undue manipulation of power. For those who are in leadership position—whether in church or in our vocation outside the church—I think we should be careful that we do not abuse the power entrusted to us. When we face opposition as a leader, let us not use power to overcome power, for that is not the way of Jesus. Whenever we find ourselves in a position of power—whether it is by virtue of our physical strength, intellectual ability, education, or profession—we need to follow the example of Jesus, and refrain from using power to dominate another person.
Let us get back to John’s Gospel. I think what is remarkable is that Pilate seemed to be the powerless one, despite the fact that he had the power to crucify Jesus.
Jesus said to him,
You say that I am a king. For this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice. (18:37)
The Greek word for “truth” (ἀλήθεια)—in the context of John’s Gospel—does not mean some kind of true perspective behind reality or an accurate factual representation of events (as the Greeks and Romans might say). Nor does it refer to some kind of propositional truth.
Instead, it refers to God’s truthfulness, trustworthiness, and faithfulness.
And in John’s Gospel, Jesus—the Son of God who had become a human being—was the embodiment of the truth. That is, he was the “enfleshed presence of God.” While David wanted to build a temple to bring the presence of God to Jerusalem, Jesus himself was God’s presence among humans. While the covenant with David represented God’s faithfulness, Jesus himself was the embodiment of that faithfulness.
When Pilate put Jesus the King on trial, he did not recognise that. Jesus’ non-violent resistance to the might of the Empire and his boldness to face the Roman cross caught Pilate off guard.
What happened afterwards was a divine act that was full of irony. Pilate was the one who had the authority to either crucify or release Jesus. But although he wanted to release Jesus (since he believed that he was innocent), he ended up crucifying him because of the crowd. The one who had the power in the political system at the time actually did not have the power to do what he wanted. Nothing can hinder God’s agenda, so that Jesus might be crucified for the world.
I think this is what I need to learn. For too many times I felt miserable because I saw the oppressor go unpunished. I lost sleep when an autocratic leader became even more powerful. I got depressed when the shareholders of big corporations got richer, while the poor got poorer. I felt upset when a misogynist politician got into power. I forgot that God’s ways are higher than ours, and that the Almighty God is working behind the scene to put things right. Those in positions of power do not have the last word. Our job is to remain faithful to God, and pattern our lives after that of Jesus.
Follow the faithful (Rev 1:4–8)
This brings us to our last Scripture reading in Revelation. John wrote to the seven churches when they were persecuted in the Roman Empire. The imperial cult was a big problem for them. Christians were expected to bow down to the images and statues of the emperor and the gods. Those who refused to do so would be persecuted.
We have to understand that religion was not a private matter. The worship of idols and the image of the emperor was a public declaration of a person’s allegiance and loyalty to Rome and their gods. Followers of Jesus knew that, and they were not willing to bow down to idols because of their allegiance to Jesus their King.
But Revelation says that Jesus is the Faithful Witness. And glory and dominion belong to him forever and ever.
But most importantly, we need to note that he is the King because he was pierced to death—he was the Lamb that was slaughtered. He did not become king because of his power and might. Rather, he became the ruler of all because of his faithful self-giving suffering and death on the Roman cross.
The Book of Revelation calls Christians to follow this Faithful Witness, whose death has set them free.
Some time ago I studied Revelation at a theological college with some students from Burma. One of them said to me, “We understood this when we were persecuted in Burma. But what does it mean to us in Australia today?”
I think the answer lies in identifying the idols in our culture. Consider materialism and consumerism. Material possession is, of course, not in and of itself evil. But do we realise that our desire to buy things that we don’t need is unrelenting. The Advent season starts next Sunday. But instead of counting down to Christmas, many of us are counting down to the next episode of Star Wars. As the “force awakens,” we flock to the Star Wars merchandise and buy more and more—for Christmas, of course.
In the meantime, we forget about the meaning of Christmas, which is about the Word became flesh, that the Son of God became a human, to embody the truthfulness of God in a world of deceitfulness and injustice.
I can go on to talk about the ideological belief in a highly market-driven global economy, resulting in a widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the exploitation of low-wage workers overseas. Or I can talk about individualism, the worship of self and a self-centred life, which is of course the direct opposite of the self-giving love of Christ. Or I can talk about the god of nationalism, a them-and-us mentality that goes against the Christian call to welcome strangers, and that our God is God of all peoples, not just one nation.
I hope you get the picture. These things are calling us to worship them—privately and in public. But we are to resist them and follow the way of the Lamb that was slaughtered.
Let me conclude. I read that in Hong Kong there are tens of thousands of elderly people who live in poverty. But they are people of resilience. Many of them worked long hours to collect recyclable rubbish from the streets and from rubbish bins, and sell it for a small amount of money to pay for a meal for the day.
Some of them have to walk up seven stories to get to their makeshift housing on the roof of an apartment block, which is a taxing task even for young people on a hot and humid day. Yet these elderly people persevere, in defiance of the highly market-driven economy that has forsaken them, despite their lifelong contribution to the welfare of the city.
Then some Jesus-followers decided to do something about this. They gather Christians from churches all over the city to work with these elderly people. Instead of giving them money as an easy solution, these Christians spend a day with them gathering recyclable rubbish from the streets. The idea is to walk with them, hear their stories, and learn from them.
I think it is a wonderful picture of Christians trying to resist evil and follow the way of Jesus the King, the One who embodied the faithfulness of God in this unjust world. It is a public declaration that we do not bow down to the idol of self and the endless pursuit of wealth and upward mobility. It is a demonstration that we worship the Lamb that was slaughtered.
In a few weeks’ time I am going to watch Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I like good sci-fi movies. But you know what? I think it is time for Christians to awaken. Let us worship Jesus the King, and not succumb to the dark forces of the empires in this world.
Let us worship Christ with these words from Revelation.
To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.