THE SUNDAY NEXT BEFORE ADVENT—CHRIST THE KING
Introit: (Rev. 5) Dignus est agnus. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honour: To him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Ps. (72) Give the King thy judgements, O God: and thy righteousness unto the King’s Son. Glory be … Worthy is the Lamb …
Collect: Almighty everlasting God, who willest to renew all things in thy well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: mercifully grant, that all the kindreds of the nations, now divided by the wounds of sin, may speedily be brought together under his most gentle rule: who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.
Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people: that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may of thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
OT Lesson: In those days: Jeremiah the Prophet spake, saying: Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgement and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, the Lord our Righteousness. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; but, The Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land. (Jeremiah 23.5-8)
Gradual: (Ps. 72) His dominion shall be from the one sea to the other: and from the flood unto the world’s end. V. All kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall do him service.
Epistle: Brethren: We do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of the will of God in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: in whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation: for by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: and he is before all things, and by him all things consist. And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. For it pleased the Father that in him should all fulness dwell; and, having made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself; by him, I say, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven, in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Colossians 1.9-20)
Alleluia. His dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away: and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed. Alleluia.
The Holy Gospel: At that time: Pilate entered into the judgement hall again, and called Jesus, and said unto him, Art thou the King of the Jews? Jesus answered him, Sayest thou this thing of thyself, or did others tell it thee of me? Pilate answered, Am I a Jew? Thine own nation and the chief priests have delivered thee unto me: what hast thou done? Jesus answered, My kingdom is not of this world: if my kingdom were of this world, then would my servants fight, that I should not be delivered to the Jews: but now is my kingdom not from hence. Pilate therefore said unto him, Art thou a king then? Jesus answered, Thou sayest that I am a king. To this end was I born, and for this cause came I into the world, that I should bear witness unto the truth. Every one that is of the truth heareth my voice. (St John 18.33-37)
“The days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper.”
When Jeremiah wrote the words of his prophecy, the world was grim for God’s people. For centuries they had repeatedly rejected Him as their God, paying Him lip service, going through the motions of religion, but in reality worshipping the false gods of their pagan neighbours, even setting up altars to them alongside God’s altar in the Temple. Through the prophets, God kept calling the people back to Himself, but apart from a small faithful remnant, the people continually refused. Already, some 130 years before, the ten northern tribes of Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, were exiled, and interbred with them (becoming the Samaritans). Soon Judah too would be conquered, Jerusalem laid waste and the temple totally destroyed, and the Jews carried into exile in Babylon. At the time of Jeremiah’s writing, the Babylonians were even now at the door. Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian emperor, had already looted the king’s treasury and stripped the temple bare, and had set up a puppet king in Jerusalem named Zedekiah. Yet in the midst of all this devastation, Jeremiah writes a message of hope: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as King and deal wisely, and shall execute judgement and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called: the Lord our Righteousness.”
At a time when the rightful heir to David’s throne was in thrall to a foreign land, the temple had been pillaged and the worship of God had ceased, Jeremiah prophesies that God will not leave His people desolate forever. A day was coming when a true heir of David would again rule over a reunited kingdom (Judah and Israel), and in His wise reign would bring justice and righteousness. Then to draw a complete contrast with the current state of affairs, he says that this coming King will be calledיְהוָֹה צִדְקֵנוּ —“IHVH-Zid’keynu—the Lord [is] our righteousness.” The significance of this will not appear to us immediately if we do not speak Hebrew. Remember that the king at that time was Zedekiah. The name “Zedekiah” means “the righteousness of the Lord,” or “the Lord is my righteousness.” Zedekiah had made a mockery of that name. He was weak and did nothing but evil, just as so many Hebrew kings before him, but, says Jeremiah, that will change one day. The people had no righteousness of their own, they stood under the Lord’s just condemnation, but the Lord would one day send them a king who would be the righteousness which the people did not and could not have on their own. This Branch—this King of the line of David—would come and save them, and He would be their righteousness.
Furthermore, this righteous King would completely transform the identity of His people: “The days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, ‘As the Lord liveth, who brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but, ‘As the Lord liveth, who brought up and led the offspring of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither he had driven them.’ Then they shall dwell in their own land.” The national identity of the Jews was tied to the Exodus—when God had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and led them into the Promised Land. That is what they looked back to when they thought of themselves as the people of God. This new King will completely change that perspective. His subjects will draw their identity from how they had been brought back into His righteous kingdom from all the nations whither they had been exiled. The hope Jeremiah sets before the people is not one of escape from the world to a life after death in a disembodied heaven, but rather a hope very much for this world in which we live. He tells them that God will raise up a righteous Branch. This is the language of resurrection and renewal. It is a hope for a kingdom with a just and righteous King who will come speaking peace to his saints, and righteousness shall go before him. And as Jeremiah foresees, He will bring all God’s children into that eternal and universal Kingdom.
We all were captive to sin, living as exiles from God, subject to nothing but death and destruction. Yet God sent His own Son to be born of the line of David and to become one of us, to live a life of perfect obedience to God’s Law, to die the death that each of us should die, so that, as we submit to His kingship, He will be our righteousness—righteousness that we can never have on our own. In fact, He has established us as His temple. No matter how difficult our lives become, God is faithful. He delivers those who have faith in Him, and has opened the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers, giving us the faith to pray the Church’s greatest prayer, “thy Kingdom come, thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.” He sends His Holy Spirit into our hearts to strengthen and keep us in the Faith, so that as the world points to its false christs, we can look to the true Christ, as citizens of His eternal and righteous Kingdom.
The title “Christ the King” seems to some modern-day Christians to be a bit offensive and off-putting – so much so that, in the BAS and many other liturgical books and calendars, the feast has been officially rebranded as “the Reign of Christ,” as if that somehow makes a difference. But consider this: the word “christ” (Greek, χριστός; Hebrew, מָשִׁיחַ “messiah”) literally means “anointed one,” and is the equivalent, at least to the ears of the ancient Israelites (and thus, to first-century Christians), of “king.” In a sense, then, we have the Feast of “The King, the King”! Try democratizing that! A good deal of the modern difficulty with this Feast (or at least its title) lies in the fact that we compartmentalize our lives into two separate realities: there is the world of our daily practical living, of politics and school and work; and then there is our religious life, which is about such things as doing good, going to church, saying prayers, and such like. Because of this, we might understand, even welcome, a Feast of Christ the Guru, but not Christ the Universal Sovereign to whom every knee shall bow.
For the most part, royalty has had a violent, murderous history throughout the centuries. But with Christ the King, all that changes. Jesus was not and is not a king who rules through raw power, greed and manipulation, at the expense of others. He did not conscript an army to dominate people by force. He lived a life among His people. His kingship is revealed in humility, self-emptying, and service to others. According to the world’s standards, Christ is a very strange king indeed—one who serves, heals, and uplifts His followers. In Him kingship is redeemed, transformed, just as all humanity is redeemed and made new through Him. Most kings and queens throughout history have sent their subjects out to die for them. Christ is a king who chose to die for His people. And He bears the scars to prove it:
Crown Him the Lord of Love! Behold His hands and side,
Rich wounds yet visible above in beauty glorified.
The Liturgical Year is a journey through the mysteries of salvation, beginning with the Birth of Christ, through His Passion and Resurrection, His Ascension, and the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Then as the Church moves through the long green Season of Trinity-tide, we are called to reflect upon the teachings of Christ and the growth of His Kingdom in our everyday lives. But all of this is moving toward a conclusion. The close of the Year, which we mark today, brings us to the end of our journey, with the victorious Christ enthroned in glory. This feast, with its apocalyptic themes, reminds us that the battle has already been won; Christ is triumphant. By faith we believe that He has indeed conquered the forces of sin and death, and is already enthroned with God, and we look forward to His final glorious appearing. And yet in our end is our beginning. The Kingdom is not a full reality yet, so next Sunday we will begin anew the journey of preparing for the coming of our Lord and of His Kingdom. In the words of the Apocalypse of St John, Christ is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” Yet there is a clear distinction in today’s Gospel between the reign of earthly leaders and Christ’s reign. “My kingdom is not of this world,” He said to Pilate, but make no mistake, Christ did come to earth to establish a kingdom. It is just not the kind of kingdom they—or we—were expecting. But note that, when He says that His Kingdom is not “of this world,” He did not mean that it was not “in this world.” His Kingdom is based on the beatitudes and victory through self-giving, where authority springs from truth. He constantly called people to live lives of justice and compassion, faithfulness and generosity. Whenever we follow the example set for us by Christ, we participate in this world in His Kingdom, which is not of this world. Christ further redefines His kingship as bearing witness to the truth. He speaks the truth about God and humanity. Contrary to the philosophy of our day, there is such a thing as absolute and objective truth, and Christ embodies that truth—God’s truth. When faced with the truth of Jesus, we must choose to believe or reject Him.
The Jews were expecting a Messiah who would lead a victorious army against their oppressors, and usher in a rebirth of the Davidic kingdom. Thus they could not understand nor accept Christ’s statements about a spiritual kingdom. But as Christians, we do understand that His Kingdom is not of this world, that while we continue to live in this world, our real citizenship is in heaven—that we live, as it were, with one foot in each kingdom. The problem for us is that we too often forget about the present reality of God’s Kingdom. We get so caught up in the things of this world, our immediate cares and worries, that we hardly give a thought to the next. All our time, not to mention our physical and spiritual resources, are spent on temporal and material things. We lose our eternal perspective, living as if there is nothing more to life than the here and now. The Church’s calendar is meant to remind us that, while God’s Kingdom may be spiritual, it is no less a present reality, and that reality should make a difference in how we live our lives each and every day. Yes, we are in the world, but we are not of the world; we are citizens of God’s Kingdom.
So what does this mean for us today? Should we focus our hope on the present age, building a kingdom on earth? Or should we just accept the evil in the world, and hope for the age to come? If our hope is focussed solely on building the Kingdom in this world, expending all our efforts to make it better for generations to come, the danger is that we change the Church into an international development organisation based on the spread of human rights and action against climate change, and such like, rather than the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will become a political pressure group willing to use any means at our disposal to reach our desired goals. However well-intentioned, it is focussed solely on a material end, forgetting that the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world. If we focus mainly on the age to come, there is a danger that we will become lethargic and complacent. Our faith becomes a security blanket to comfort ourselves as we look forward to escaping this troublous world to what we call heaven, and so it does not inspire us to good works or holy living in this present life. Neither view will do. The true Gospel of the Kingdom is focussed on the Person of Jesus Christ. We cannot replace Him with any material end, however noble. The Church is not just a holy club devoted to changing society, feeding the hungry, and fighting injustice (although Christians should do these things); the Church exists to tell and show the world the truth: that it belongs, not to us, not to nation states, but really and ultimately to God; that it has an anointed Monarch, Jesus Christ Our Lord, who loves them enough to die for them. But at the same time, ours is not a hope disconnected from this world, it is a hope for this world. Through Christ God is reconciling all things to Himself, whether on earth or in heaven. In short, it is a hope that ought to inspire us to build for the coming Kingdom.
The very first Christian creed was simply, “Jesus is Lord.” There you have it: “Christ the King.” Confine Him to the role of a religious leader, someone who went about saying nice things and doing good deeds, and He becomes just one among so many others. Buddha and Lao Tzu, Plato and Aristotle, were great teachers, and imparted much wisdom. Moses and Elijah were great prophets, and performed wondrous feats. The early Christians were not persecuted because they believed that Jesus was their spiritual leader and in the light of His teaching did charitable work. As long as one acknowledged that Caesar was Lord, the Romans were remarkably tolerant of religious diversity. Precisely what could not be tolerated was that simple credo: Jesus is Lord. It said bluntly that as Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not. The Church taught that Christians should respect the powers that be, obey the law, and even pay taxes. But they were subversive because they believed that earthly power was passing, and ultimately judged by a higher power; that there are not two compartmentalized realities, worldly and spiritual, but one reality, the Kingdom of God. Earthly kings are passing, but His Kingdom is eternal. The acknowledgement that “the earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is” empowers and enables us to engage in the work of God in our communities, in caring for people in their need, in announcing God’s forgiveness and mercy, because we know just who really is in charge. Christianity is essentially meaningless unless its entire ethos is our acknowledging the Kingship of Christ, in whose Sacrifice on the Cross an alienated world is restored to its Creator and Father. We are drawn, through our worship, into the ultimate reality of God, as we bow the knee to Jesus and anticipate that time, when we will join with all the host of heaven in hailing the sovereignty of God. This is the climax toward which the whole Christian story has been moving.
To follow Christ is to profess Him as Lord of our whole life. This is the basic Christian conviction and creed. He is Lord of all, above all else, and above all other rulers and authorities—including ourselves! He came to establish an alternative to the kingdoms of this world—the Herods and Caesars, emperors, presidents and prime ministers. He taught not of the love of power but the power of love. And so on Christ the King Sunday we are called not only to magnify our Lord, but to be a vital part of establishing His Kingdom upon earth through loving and faithful service. From the opening words of the Traditional Collect for this day, the Sunday next before Advent has long been commonly known as“Stir-up Sunday.” Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people. Stir up. Excite. Provoke. Stimulate. Urge.Rouse.We are asking God to fire into action our wills, our desires, so that we may bring forth the fruit of good works. We all need to be stirred up to do the work of God, so that we may become a part of Christ’s Kingdom here and hereafter. But the Kingdom always comes in ways that startle and surprise us. To celebrate Christ as King is to enter into the deepest mysteries of our Faith. Jesus, bound and seemingly powerless before Pilate, the symbol of a powerful empire that holds the scales of life and death, is the true King who holds the keys to death and hell, and possesses the power to grant a life that never ends. All who belong to the truth will be followers of this King and will hear His voice.His power is not centred in our endless cycle of violence and retaliation. He is not a vindicator, a strategist, a warrior; He is a Saviour, who knows that more violence will never save us from our addiction to violence. We don’t need any more kings of vengeance or worldly power. We need a King who met the darkness within us, capable of betrayal and torture, and blasphemy and even murder, and responded not, “I’m going to get you back,” but, “You are forgiven!” No, His kingdom is not of this world, with its power struggles and misplaced values. Our human cycle of self-gratification, competition and violence, the need to be right and for everyone else to be wrong, is seen by Christ for what it is—sin. This is why we are in need not of a king who conquers by force but of a Saviour who draws all people to Himself in love—His crown of thorns and His throne a cross.
The Righteous Branch has come into the world. He has become our righteousness—righteousness we can never have of ourselves. But the First Advent always points us to the Second. The prophets foretold the coming of the King to establish His kingdom, bringing righteousness, gathering His elect from all nations, and making them a temple for Himself. But the King Himself promised that He would come again. The kingdom life we now live is but a foreshadowing of the life that will be when His Kingdom is fully consummated at His return. In the meantime, we have work to do for the advancement of His Kingdom. As we come to the end of yet another year and draw ever closer to His Second Advent, let us consider again our mission. The Collect reminds us that our King calls us to “bring forth plenteously the fruit of good works,” and that those who seek first His Kingdom and His righteousness, abounding in those good works His gifts make possible, to them He will give abundant rewards. Because of our sinful human nature, we have a natural inertia. We need God’s grace to “stir up our wills,” and we need the power of His Spirit to get us moving in the right direction, as St Paul prays: “that ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God … who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son.”
To Him be all glory for ever and ever. Amen.
Collect: Purify our hearts, we beseech thee, O Lord, by thy gracious visitation; that thy Son our Lord Jesus Christ, when he cometh with all his Saints, may find in us a mansion prepared for himself; who liveth and reigneth, world without end. Amen.
And may the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord: and the blessing of God Almighty, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be amongst you and remain with you always. Amen.