Worship Message Texts

I concluded my final interim pastorate in March 2016, so I am no longer preaching on a regular basis. I am available for pulpit supply and these sermon scripts and videos give a picture of my approach. For pulpit supply, I am happy to write new sermons targeted at specific concerns or needs of congregations, otherwise I will rework previous sermons based on the texts of the Revised Common Lectionary for that Sunday.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Welcome to a New World

Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37
November 25, 2012
Christ the King
© 2012

Christ the Savior
Andrei Rublev, 1410

I.                John wrote his Revelation perhaps as much as 60-70 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, during one of the most brutal persecutions of the Church under the Roman Empire. An old man in exile on the small island of Patmos, he wrote to encourage the churches who were terrified that they and all Christians would be crushed. How could he write to them that Jesus Christ was the ruler of the kings of the earth, when the most politically and militarily powerful empire in human history was bent on exterminating them? We may not personally expect to be hauled off and crucified, but expecting today’s political and military powers openly acknowledge Jesus Christ as their ruler is not only unrealistic but would dilute and distort what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Perhaps we’re not too different from John’s first readers.

A.           The week after the election Dr. Joe Bessler, professor of theology at Phillips Theological Seminary, led a discussion for the Oklahoma Central Area Disciples clergy on American politics and American Christianity.

1.              He analyzed the candidates’ nominating acceptance speeches at their party conventions since 1952 with the coming of TV. He identified a sequence of 5 elements in all of those speeches regardless of party, whether by incumbent or challenger.

a)              They affirm the goodness of the American people and claim to embody that goodness.

b)             They identify a threat to that goodness.

c)              They present themselves and their policies as the solution to the threatening problem.

d)             They envision what a renewal of the American community will be like.

e)              They promise a bright American future.

2.              Dr. Bessler suggested that these elements arise out of a Christian theology that has shaped American culture, even at its most secular and pluralistic.

a)              The goodness of humans is that we are created in the image of God and of infinite worth.

b)             Our own rebellion and sin has distorted and broken that image, threatening our potential.

c)              In both his person and work – birth, ministry, death, resurrection – Jesus Christ redeems.

d)             By grace appropriated by faith, we are called to participate in the community of the Church.

e)              Through our daily struggles we look forward to the consummation of the Kingdom of God.

B.            The interplay between the powers of this world and Jesus’ kingdom that is not of this world has been with the Church from its beginning. A large Egyptian obelisk in St. Peter’s Square in Rome was first placed in the center of Nero’s circus as a symbol of Rome’s power; they had conquered even Egypt. Tradition has it that Nero crucified Peter upside down facing that obelisk as a taunt that Rome was defeating the followers of Jesus. Centuries later when Christians developed that site for worship, a cross was mounted on the obelisk and it was moved to its present central location as a kind of “last laugh” that now Christ had prevailed. Of course, history has shown that the so-called Holy Roman Empire was closer to pagan imperial Rome than to Jesus’ Kingdom of God.

C.            In Jesus’ conversation with Pilate at his trial in John 18:33-37 we see this interplay between the powers of this world and Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world. Each of the Gospels tells of Jesus and Pilate in rather distinct ways. The Temple leaders were trying to bring a political charge against Jesus, rather than the theological issues of their own trial. A mob had been stirred up to call for crucifixion. Pilate was clearly confused as he tried to sort out what he didn’t really understand.

Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”34Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”36Jesus answered, “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. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” 37Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this 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.”

II.            Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. What does it mean to belong to Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world while we still live in this world?

A.           Jesus told Pilate that if his kingdom was from this world his followers would fight. Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world does not use force or violence to establish or maintain its power. As the one responsible to maintain Roman power by force in Jerusalem and Judea, Pilate understood the contrast but could not grasp how it could possibly work.

B.            When Pilate asked Jesus to confirm that he was indeed a king, even if an unconventional king, Jesus said that his mission was to testify to the truth and that all who belonged to the truth listened to him. Pilate responded by asking, “What is truth?” In the Roman Empire, as in the world through history, those who are in power by force define truth, which has no objective reality. Even a superficial survey of our courts, political campaigns and commercial advertising exposes that our society treats truth as what is useful not what is accurate.

C.            Revelation 1:5 points to another central quality of Jesus’ Kingdom. As our King, Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood. The world understands retribution, punishment and deterrence, but not grace. That is how criminal justice works. That is how international relations work, but not Jesus’ Kingdom.

III.       Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. The power brokers of this world continually challenge us by asking, who is king over God’s people? To whom do you give your loyalty?

A.           Pilate is acutely aware of this struggle for authority and loyalty. Like any occupied people, the Jews were reluctant to turn over even criminals to the Romans. So when the Temple authorities handed Jesus over to Pilate, he is shocked and asked Jesus, “What have you done?”

B.            Even though Pilate can find no case against Jesus, who said his kingdom was not from this world, when Pilate asked, “So you are a king?” he was aware that a king with followers who do not fight is a greater threat to the power of Rome than an upstart insurrection or army. The followers of such a king cannot be controlled or intimidated with threats of force or violence.

C.            In Revelation 1:6 John tells us that we are not a kingdom of soldiers but of priests. 1 Peter 2:5, 9 celebrates that we are a holy and royal priesthood, a chosen race, a holy nation, God’s own people to proclaim the mighty acts of the One who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light. Neither John nor Peter were making this up, they were claiming and celebrating that in Exodus 19:6 God called Israel a priestly kingdom.

IV.      Jesus welcomes us to a new world in which truth and grace release power, and force is useless. In his Revelation, John reminded the beleaguered churches of Asia, that as Christ’s Kingdom of priests, they had a power that the violent force of Rome could not crush. Rather than lament, he called them to celebratory worship! So today we celebrate Christ the King!

A.           Christ the King is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. Next Sunday we start a new year with Advent. All of those prophecies we associate with anticipating the birth of the Messiah reach their culmination in the celebration of Christ the King. But we are reminded that we are still waiting for the fullness of that Kingdom.

B.            Jesus told Pilate that everyone who belongs to the truth listens to his voice. To listen for the voice of Jesus you need to be where you can expect he’ll be speaking. You’ve heard me say it before: read your Bible, pray, be with the church. But it also requires paying attention. With all the commercial noise of the holiday shopping season, I suggest a daily discipline: as the evening quiets ask yourself, “What did I hear from Jesus today?” Writing that in one sentence can be a wonderful Advent journal.

C.            Though our situation is not nearly as dire as the churches of Asia to whom John sent his Revelation, we are easily disheartened by our short-sightedness. Just as John wrote to encourage the churches of Asia, this Sunday of Christ the King encourages our long-range vision. That long-range vision of Jesus’ Kingdom that is not from this world nourishes and guides our journey through the confusion and catastrophes of this world. As those who belong to Jesus and live by truth and grace, we exercise a power greater than any threat this world could bring against us. The 3rd verse of Lead On, O King Eternal says, “Not with swords loud clashing, nor roll of stirring drums; with deeds of love and mercy, the heavenly kingdom comes.”

Personal Disclaimer:
If you have gotten this far and are concerned or irritated that my use of king and kingdom is hierarchy or gender insensitive or that I am ignorant of the variety of contemporary ways of speaking about this, I ask a bit of tolerance. First, I am an “old guy” (66) and changing deeply engrained habits is difficult and awkward. Second, while I appreciate the nuances of current alternatives, I do think they miss some of what the New Testament was getting at when speaking about kings and kingdoms (recognizing we are dealing with different languages and cultures in translation). I appeal to you to try to understand first century thinking without undue contamination by European monarchies, etc. I think it will enrich our understanding of what the New Testament was getting at and the power of Christ the King in the liturgical year.

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