(Modified 2021-11-21: Added audio recording)
Let us pray. Lord, have mercy upon us. I wanted to begin by asking for mercy from our king, because this Jesus we are talking about today in our readings is hard to wrap our minds around.
This is the last Sunday of the year. Did you know that? Next week, November 28th, is the first Sunday of Advent. It is the start of a new liturgical season. We will change all our colours to purple. We will hang our Advent wreath, and start singing Advent hymns. Even the canticles in Morning Prayer change. But beyond moving into a new liturgical season, we also begin the new liturgical year. Our cycle of Scripture, and prayer, and worship of our Lord Jesus Christ begins anew.
This day, the final Sunday of the old year, is known as Reign of Christ Sunday, or Christ the King in Catholic and Lutheran churches. We have these gorgeous Scripture readings full of the majesty and glory of Jesus. In Daniel’s vision, we see the Ancient of Days, too bright to look at, like the sun, sitting in His throne room, surrounded by multitudes, and preparing to sit in judgement on the whole universe. And one like a son of man approaches the Ancient of Days and is welcomed into His presence, and he is “given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His domain is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
That is so huge, so awe-inspiring. This is the same Jesus who was born in a stable, spent his life as an itinerant preacher, walking from town to town (when was the last time that was your only transport option?), the same Jesus who had that dissonant conversation with Pilate in which he stood before him, arrested and bound, having already been insulted, beaten and abused, and claiming his kingship over the whole universe, claiming sole sovereignty over everything that is true! This should jar us, this essential dissonance between Jesus Christ who is God, second person of the Trinity, and Jesus Christ who is man, subject to the petty jealousies of the Pharisees and chief priests and the whims of a minor Roman governor. Both of these things are true at once. Jesus holds these in tension in his Person, and we hold them in tension in our theology, our worship, our creeds. Jesus is both “born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate,” and “ascended into Heaven, and sitting on the right hand of God the Father Almighty,” from which rightful place he is coming “to judge the quick and the dead.” As John says in Revelation chapter 1, “Look, he is coming with the clouds, and every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and all the peoples of the earth will mourn because of him.”
This is the Jesus we worship. This is the Jesus who is coming again. His second coming is what we contemplate in Advent. We remember his coming to us as a man, and anticipate his coming to us again as our King.
I don’t know about you, but the concept of kingship, and applying it to our God, seems a bit fraught to me. We in North America have a tense relationship with the idea of kingship, and your cultural and historical background will definitely colour how you think about this idea, which means that the Reign of Christ or Christ the King lands differently on different ears depending on where you live in the world.
Our dear neighbours to the south fought a long and bloody battle to remove themselves from the tyranny of kingship, and a great deal of their national pride as a republic and their insistence on the concept of freedom stems from the fact that their country was birthed out of rejecting of a king. Canadians don’t share that political history. We still belong to the British Commonwealth of nations, and Queen Elizabeth II is our queen, our head of state. Canada also historically valued economic and political independence from Britain, just like the United States, but we went about getting it in a different way. Our way took a lot longer, but a lot fewer people died to get us to where we are.
The concept of monarchy as a system of government is still alive and well all over the world. Lots of Christians live in countries today that are governed by monarchs. There are 44 sovereign countries in the world today that have a monarch as their Head of State. Christians in those places will hear the lections of Christ the King Sunday with different ears than we do.
So why is this idea complicated when we apply it in our imaginations to Jesus Christ? In part, it is because every earthly king or queen currently reigning or who has every reigned throughout history has failed to do for their people what Jesus has promised to do. In fact, no system of government, of any kind, has ever accomplished the goal of making a perfect home for all their people. Every nation has citizens who are living in poverty. No nation has ever managed to give all their people adequate food and clothing and shelter, or to balance their desire for personal bodily autonomy with the needs of the group, or to create an equitable society for all. Some moments have been better than others, certainly, and some societies and governments do better than others at this. But equity for all peoples is not something that humans can accomplish for themselves. And all of this is assuming that equity for its citizens is even the goal of a government! The reality is that humans don’t have a great track record with power. It tends to make us selfish.
All of this colours our imaginations when we hear the words of Daniel’s prophetic dream, describing a throne room that seats tens of thousands, in which the throne is on fire, with a river of lava flowing from it, and the King seated on that throne is too bright to look at, and he is about to open the books containing everything we’ve ever done, and judge us! Does that image incline to you expect mercy from that King? If I imagine myself into that room, standing before that court, I’m thinking, “Oh crap.”
Then “I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him.”
Yes! This, this is the same Jesus who stood before Pilate with bruises on his face from his interview with the chief priests and Pharisees, over whom Pilate had the power of life and death, who said “My kingdom is not of this world … my kingdom is from another place … for this I was born, and for this I came into the world.” This is the nature of Jesus’ kingship. He is, as John says in his apocalyptic revelation, the one “who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father — to him be glory and power for ever and ever!”
This King poured out his life’s blood for you and for me. This King loves us fully and completely. This King freed us from our sins.
In the court room in Daniel’s vision, we belong not in the seat of the accused, but seated with the tens of thousands, because we are members of the Kingdom. Jesus has made us so.
How then can we connect this cosmic vision of who Jesus is and who we are in him with the reality of our daily lived experience? After all, we will go from this place and do all the ordinary things we had planned for this afternoon – cooking Sunday dinner, looking after kids, maybe someone’s got a sports event or birthday party to go to. Or a medical appointment or a deathbed vigil. How is all of that connected to that throne room with the river of fire and the son of man coming on the clouds?
Well, that’s a good question. And I don’t know if I have a great answer, but it occurs to me that we can go forth from here and do all of those normal, everyday things, but we can hold our cosmic place in Jesus’ Kingdom in our minds and hearts while we do so. The promise of this Kingdom, the promise that we have a place in it because of Jesus, is what gives our lives meaning beyond the ordinary fact of our existence. This thing we’ve been promised is huge. And what we are doing with our lives day by day feeds into that cosmic promise. So yes, cook meals and make beds and take care of kids and take care of one another. Work and play, and study and pray. Let your whole life be worship to God. In this way you are already participating in the Kingdom of Jesus Christ. “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” Amen.