How is Christ the King in Today’s World?

November 26, 2017
Reverend Timothy Hart-Andersen

Isaiah 19:19-25; Matthew 21:1-11

It’s a bit strange hearing the springtime Palm Sunday story on this late fall day. We could have thrown tradition completely to the wind and opened with palm branches and loud Hosannas:

All glory, laud, and honor,

To Thee, Redeemer King.

Some in the church office thought maybe we had made a mistake in selecting the text this morning. The story of Jesus entering Jerusalem – typically heard at another point in the year – is meant to remind us of the mantle that shadowed Jesus wherever he went. “This took place,” Matthew says of that first Palm Sunday,

“To fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet, saying, ‘Tell the daughter of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey.’” (Matthew 21:4-5)

Your king is coming to you. That’s the prophet Zechariah some 500 years before the time of Jesus, right after the Israelites’ return from exile in Babylon.  With the Jews back home the prophet foresaw a time when a king would come and finally restore Jerusalem to its rightful place among the nations.

That never happened. And half a millennium later, when the gospel of Matthew is written, Jerusalem is occupied by another hostile foreign power – Rome, this time – and its Temple has been destroyed once more. So, in Matthew’s view it’s time to reach back to the word of the prophet and listen again.

The king would come, Zechariah predicted: humble and mounted on a donkey. That’s what happens on Palm Sunday alright, but by the end of the week that long-awaited king dies on a cross, dashing the hopes of many for a restoration of Israel.

We don’t typically dwell on the politics of the opening scene of Holy Week, but with the prophet’s words, that’s exactly what Matthew wants us to do. He wants to cast Jesus in a political role in that context, in the role of king, even if not the monarch they expected. He was, as the old Sunday school book put it, the king nobody wanted.

In the generations after Jesus, Christians remembered that political word about a coming king, added it to the resurrection story, and mixed in the account of the ascension of Jesus into heaven. Eventually it converged into a yearlong calendar of worship commencing with Advent and Christmas and culminating with what we call Christ the King Sunday. Today we complete the ancient cycle of Christian worship; the rhythm starts anew next week.

Our liturgical language has always been suffused with the image of a royal Jesus. Our religion has a lot of political imagery in it.

We put it into our oldest creeds, declaring that Jesus ascends into heaven and is “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, from where he shall come to judge the living and the dead.”

We blended the language into our prayers: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

We wrote it into our hymns as we heard this morning:

“Crown him with many crowns,

The Lamb upon His throne.
Hark! How the heav’nly anthem drowns
All music but its own.
Awake, my soul, and sing
Of Him who died for thee,
And hail Him as thy matchless king
Through all eternity.”

All this royal language about Jesus begs the question: How is Christ the king in today’s world? How do we as Christians reconcile our ultimate allegiance to Jesus with the earthly and often unsavory realities of politics in our time?

Presbyterians, in particular, are known for our insistence that Jesus Christ is sovereign over all. That’s the heart of our theology; but what does it really mean to declare our loyalty to Jesus as king?

To state the obvious, we don’t live under a monarchy, but, rather, in a land governed by a political system we call democracy. We Presbyterians had a good deal to do with that. King George famously called the American Revolution “that Presbyterian rebellion.” The representative democracy of our church governance served as the model for the American political experiment.

With our insistence on democratic principles as the basis for civil government, must we reject biblical language about kings as irrelevant to our time? In a word, no.

The texts of our faith point toward the political contours of God’s hope for humankind. What matters are the fundamental aims of earthly rule, what we might call the biblical principles of politics.

What did a king provide that those ancient Israelites wanted so badly that day as Jesus entered Jerusalem? What political hopes were in the air that first Palm Sunday?

The Hebrew Scriptures point to at least three basic functions of a political system for people of faith in that time and in ours.

First, security. The monarch’s primary function was to protect their subjects. That’s no different in our time, in our democracy. The king’s protection parallels that of the Almighty: “God is our refuge and strength,” the psalmist says, “A very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear.” (Psalm 46:1-2a)

The basic point of reference for testing the security provided by the king in ancient Israel was how well widows, orphans, and immigrants were faring. The measure of a king’s success hinged on the protection of those three groups, the protection of the most vulnerable. That’s true for us, too.

In the midst of a turbulent world the state’s first responsibility is to provide protection and security for those in the land. That may be why a political platform advocating “law and order” has resonated with so many over the years in America, where violence and chaos always seem to lurk not far beneath the surface. But law and order can easily be distorted into programs against those outside the systems of power and become a political prop for privilege.

The king’s protection extends to all in the realm; so, too, in a democracy. When the power of law enforcement tilts in the direction of some over others, we have neighbors who lack the basic security and protection a political system should offer. Michelle Alexander reports in her book The New Jim Crow,

“Today there are more African-Americans under correctional control—in prison or jail, on probation or parole—than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began.” (Quoted in Westminster’s policy paper Calling for Systemic Change: Reducing Mass Incarceration in Responsible Ways; 2017, p. 2)

The mass incarceration of black men grew out of a politically expedient and racially-charged decision to protect those in power. Our democracy failed some of its citizens, and that needs to change.

At its last meeting Westminster’s governing body, the Session of elders, adopted a policy calling for “reducing mass incarceration in responsible ways.” Because of their reading of scripture – these very texts – and the values of their Christian faith, Westminster’s elders will advocate for change in our nation’s criminal justice system.

For people of faith, the first job of a political system, whether a king in biblical times or democracy in ours, is to provide security and protection for all.

The second responsibility of political systems is ensuring justice. The kings of Israel were judged by whether or not they were just to all in their realm. “Give the king your justice, O God,” the psalmist prays.

“May the king judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice…May the king defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Psalm 72:1-4)

In the view of the prophets and the psalmists, when a king forgot the poor he had left the way of God and trouble would soon follow. So it is with a democracy. When the most defenseless among us are not at the heart of our politics we miss the mark and our democracy goes awry. It veers from its original intent when those with power are at the center.

Elected leaders are public servants, not celebrities. Their vocation is a high calling, not an opportunity for personal gain or license to exercise power in unseemly ways.

What motivates our elected leaders? Equity and fairness should drive decisions about education and medical care. Unfettered access to the benefits of democracy, including the right to vote, should inspire election reform and animate campaigns for office. Equal opportunity for all and support of those left behind by economic gain should drive changes in taxation and economic policy.

“If you remove the yoke from among you,” God says through the prophet,

“The pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil…and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness.”

(Isaiah 58: 9-10)

Democracy, like biblical kingship, will be judged by how well its policies treat the least and the lost. For people of faith, any political system must provide justice.

Third, it must work for peace among the nations.

Isaiah the prophet lays out a vision for the people of God among the nations. Israel had historically been set upon by the Egyptians from the west and Assyrians from the east, also long-time enemies of each other, with Israel caught in the middle. The prophet sees a savior coming who will lead Israel to heal ancient enmity and bring peace by serving as a “highway” between warring peoples. Isaiah says the Almighty will even claim Israel’s enemies to be God’s people.

“On that day,” Isaiah says,

“Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, ‘Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my heritage.’” (Isaiah 19:24-25)

The nation as a blessing in the midst of the earth. The people in all lands having equal value.

The ideal biblical king is not isolationist or nationalist, but, rather, sees worth and shared purpose in other nations, and seeks to live in harmony with them. So it is with a democracy, particularly in our global age. A nationalist approach to foreign relations artificially isolates us from other peoples. It doesn’t allow the nation, in the words of Isaiah, to be a blessing among its neighbors. To focus exclusively on our own nation, as if we existed apart from others, projects a dangerous superiority, as if we had no need for our neighbors

The rise of white nationalism in America today is troubling for many reasons, one of which is its rejection of the very notion of democracy itself, preferring totalitarianism over representative government. A recent poll reports that 9% of Americans find neo-Nazi or white supremacist views acceptable. That would equate to 22 million Americans. That such perspectives are gaining credence among us is cause for alarm. Differing political positions should be expected, should be welcomed in a democracy for they give fuel to the democratic process of decision-making, but a flat-out rejection of democracy itself has no place in our land and must be resisted, especially if we are to be “a blessing to others.” (http://apps.washingtonpost.com/g/page/politics/washington-post-abc-news-poll-aug-16-20-2017/2235/)

For people of faith a primary responsibility of governance, whether a biblical kingship or a political democracy, is to engage respectfully with other nations in the search for peace among the peoples of the earth.

If the question on this late fall Sunday is How is Christ the king in today’s world? the answer lies in an examination of our ultimate loyalties in life. The Palm Sunday story, where the Jesus we follow is hailed a political figure, hailed as a king, pushes us to test whether our politics relfect the desires of God.

As Christians our faith rests on the sovereignty of Jesus. His life, his ministry, his witness, all offer a political framework for the human family based on biblical values: security and equal protection for all, justice for those living in poverty and on the margins, and peace among the nations and peoples of the earth.

Naming Christ as king in this time, especially in this time, may be more important than ever. It may be our best hope for the future.

Thanks be to God.

Amen.

Latest Sermons