Tag Archives: King

Stranger Danger?

Are you “religious”? Going to Church may make people ask. I struggle to answer – I’m happy to be a Christian, and freely choose that life daily, and I’m not shy of having been a Vicar. But “religious”? It sounds a bit odd, a bit out of reality and life as we know it.

Of course, Matthew is religious. His gospel is full of links to religious practice, and quotes from the Old Testament. Yet, strangely, only Matthew tells this story of the Wise Men, (Matthew 2:1-12) which drags Jesus into the real world. Does that sound odd? Perhaps. Let me try to justify:

Herod the Great has visitors. Perhaps he welcomed the exotic, or hoped for profitable trade, perhaps he was just bored. but their question immediately dispels boredom. “Where is the child born to be king of the Jews?” Alarm bells sound all through Herod’s brain. He was ruthless, and paranoid. He was King, and nothing would interfere with that – he killed one wife and three of his sons on suspicion of treachery.

“Where is the new King?” is not heard as a religious question (unlike where will he be born – for which you need to know the prophecy of Micah). Herod sees it as about Power, politics, control. In his world, competition is to be crushed, violence used as a tool, and winner takes all. Matthew sets his religious story right in the struggle for power, with the bullies and the treachery and the bloody violence of that time (and others).

So he tells the Wise Men he would like to “worship” the new King ( – do you fancy being “worshipped” like that? Perhaps not.) The Wise Men are wise enough to get out, find Bethlehem, a house, a child.

And they worship him. Not as Herod would have done, with a dagger. Not “Hello, how nice to meet you, I’m a very important person too.” They bow, worship, recognise someone on a different level altogether. They give expensive presents (you’ll have heard of the significance of gold for a king, incense for a God, myrrh looking to death – if not, look at the hymn “We three Kings of Orient are.”) And that’s it. Mission accomplished. Time for home – but being wise men (and warned in a dream), they go by a different route.

Have you ever wondered what happened to those presents? We don’t know. My guess is that the gold financed the journey to Egypt, to escape Herod’s massacre of baby boys up to two. (You know that story? It fits with Herod’s character, which knows only the importance of his own success). Maybe the frankincense was sold too, to some religious person. The myrrh may have soothed cuts and scrapes as the boy grew and learnt to use the sharp tools of a carpenter – it can be used as an antiseptic.

So, are you religious? I don’t really care, unless it annoys your friends, or keeps you in a fantasy. But in the real world, are you with Herod, or the Wise Men? Where do you think real power lies, and what is it for? You have to answer, but not on paper. In conversation, what you do, and what you don’t do, you will show your attitude to power, and the way you use power, and land on one side or the other . .

Worship: as the Wise Men recognised the child Jesus –

or as Herod intended to deal with a rival?

King !?

Pilate faces a poor man in court, and he just cannot understand (John 18:33-37). He has condemned many would-be revolutionaries, but Jesus doesn’t fit the type. He suspects those who have handed him over.

“Are you King of the Jews?” Well yes, he is, or rather King of Kings. What Pilate, the poor politician, cannot understand is what the gospel writers have been telling us all along. Jesus is Messiah, the promised King – but his Kingdom will come as he also takes the role of Suffering Servant.

Pilate would never understand the need for the cross. Jesus wins his Kingdom not by conquest and coercion, but by taking the place of guilty humanity, and dying for each of us. Only in that way can we be set free. Only by such extreme measures can we come to a Kingdom which is not only eternal and universal, but also:
a kingdom of life and truth, of grace and holiness,
a kingdom of righteousness and justice,
of love and peace.

If you find that hard to take, look again at all 4 gospels. Each, in a different style, makes Jesus death and resurrection the climax and centre. Each makes clear that there is no mistake, no accident. Jesus is King, and chooses the path to his throne.

It involves truth – not compromise, or uneasy coalition, but truth. Pilate’s next line is, “What is truth?” It sounds very post-modern. As if what is true for you might not be true for me – but we must live in Jesus’ Kingdom, and follow his standard of truth.

In addition to Pilate’s court, our other readings give us entry to two others. Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:9-14) sees not only the “Ancient One” take his heavenly throne, but with God the Father is “one like a human being” – in the older translations, one like a “Son of Man”. You may remember Jesus’ favourite term for himself, and see in God the Son the one given “dominion and glory and kingship” – an everlasting dominion, a Kingdom never to be destroyed. Prophecy from generations before Jesus birth.

Another vision of heaven comes from John the divine in Revelation 1:4-8. Here we see the heavenly Christ, “who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, . . “ Marvellous words, not only for the persecuted believers of the first century.

He is the Lord of 3 tenses: “who is, and who was, and who is to come”. Pilate has not only lost his grip on truth, but he has forgotten / ignored the higher court which will judge him. A drama of incomprehension is played out in Jerusalem, but a higher court will give a different verdict.

And where does that leave us?
I hope we can take warning from Pilate’s failure to understand. Jesus Kingdom will never make sense to those who value only earthly power, possessions and status. But it is truly the most wonderful Kingdom ever. It brings
life and truth, grace and holiness,
righteousness and justice, love and peace.

There is no coercion, no bullying, but entry for all who want to belong, to learn the new way of discipleship. It costs nothing, it costs everything. As Jesus stands on the opposite side to Pilate, who do you side with?

Is that a new commitment, or does is show clearly in your past life?

Either way, will it be clear next year to those who know you best?

Go on listening!

I like to be right, so I can Identify with Peter in Mark 8:27-38. And Peter is; Jesus is the Messiah, and it is a terrific discovery. A high mid-point of Mark’s gospel; you can feel the excitement. And in the middle of it, Peter stops listening. He doesn’t hear – doesn’t want to, can’t ? – Jesus talk about suffering. If he had gone on, what a disaster that would have been! But Jesus doesn’t let him.

It’s easy to stop listening. I might even have done it myself. But I notice other people doing it much more easily. Perhaps you have seen it too? Someone learns “God is love”. That’s great, true and important. But then they stop listening. If God is love (and it says so in 1John 4:8 (& 16)), then God must do whatever I think is loving? And they find out he doesn’t, and get hurt and confused, because they have stopped listening. God is love, but he defines what that means and how it works, and we need to go on listening and learning to find out.

Jesus is the Messiah – the great King long expected by Jews because of Old Testament prophecy. But if Peter thinks that means he will take over, throw out the Romans, and give him an honoured, easy and rewarding place in the new government – forget it! Peter will find it hard to learn that the Messiah is also the Servant Isaiah talked about – the Suffering Servant. I think I find that hard, too. I know what it means in theory, but theory isn’t enough.

It’s much easier to preach, or hear: “Jesus is King of the Universe; once you follow him as his disciple your life will sort out and work better”.  That’s true, and important too. But somehow it is easier to say and hear than the next bit:

“Jesus teaches his disciples what it means to serve; it is sometimes difficult, embarrassing, or even painful. You may not always understand what he is planning, or why you have to play a particular part.” That’s also true, and important – but it doesn’t have quite the Wow factor. It is still worthwhile, not only because it forwards God’s plan and the Kingdom on earth, but also because it helps you grow, develop in faith and love and holiness, and be what you are meant to be. It’s just not quite so – marketable.

So you might like to think about 2 things from this gospel:

  • Jesus is the Messiah –  the greatest King ever, Ruler of the Universe; but he sets about that in a new and strange way to serve us and free us.
  • Secondly, don’t stop listening to God. Especially when you think you know what’s coming next, or you make some new discovery. You know that Christians keep making mistakes? Remember that they get away with it by keeping listening and following instructions to put things right. It’s very simple.

Peter got it right. Jesus is the Messiah. But it wasn’t a theory test; he had to keep listening to work out properly what it meant. So do we.

Look again!

It’s the story we have all known for years, the feeding of the five thousand!  But before you get bored, look again at John 6:1-21.  It is strange how Jesus, who often refused to perform public miracles, here feeds a very large number.  True, they need the food, but there is much more to it than that!

Jesus deliberately involves other people – the boy with loaves and fish, the disciples.  It is God’s power, but they are being taught to be participants.  Then John notes it was Passover time.  He’s not just giving a date – he is remembering the significance of the first Passover, as God’s people escaped cruel slavery, shared a meal, marked their homes with blood, and began to learn new ways.  There will be another Passover meal to be shared in Jerusalem before the betrayal and death.  The timing is significant.

Even the gathering of leftovers has a point.  God can, and did, provide – and generously!  But if God’s Kingdom meets needs, let us not get lazy.  Jesus will not be made King.  (How ironic for the Messiah, yet this is not the time, or the way). He will again show his power on the lake, and go on teaching about how he chooses to use it, and what sort of a King he will be.

We shall continue reading this chapter for a couple of weeks yet – it has much more to say.  But start by seeing how much more than a free picnic is remembered here.

Judged – for what?

Sometimes it really helps to understand Jesus words when we know what he is referring to.  This week we read Matthew 25:31-46, but it may be easier to first read the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 34:11-24, which is also a reading for this Sunday which we call Christ the King.

When Ezekiel, prophet of the exile in the 6C BC, spoke of God shepherding his people, it was a direct and forthright criticism of the leaders of the nation. Read the rest of chapter 34, and you will find no excuses for the abuse of power by the powerful.  But the prophet has more to say than to denounce the leaders of the time. First, he makes clear that God is concerned – concerned not just with punishing the abuse and removing the abusers, but with stepping in to care for his victimised people.

But there is more. In verse 17 he says “I myself will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”.  And in verse 23,“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:”

Jesus clearly finds several points of contact with Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, like it or not, Jesus is talking about judgement, and about a judgement which divides people into just 2 groups. In the context of his day, the criticism of the leaders of the people is very clear. They have opposed him, refused to hear his message or to recognise his God given status.

The basis of the judgement is not “Have you been nice to people?”, despite what so many seem to think. It is not even “have you been religious?”. Jesus says “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Earlier in the gospel (chapter 12:48f) he has made it clear that his “family” are not the blood relations, but those who followed him. It seems that here he is saying that our support of, and identifying with, poor Christians is critical.

You will understand why we read this today, on the the feast of Christ the King, last Sunday before Advent. The promised King Messiah, descendant of King David, has arrived. He will assume the role of shepherding leadership of the people, and will be judge of all.

But what are we supposed to learn, and – perhaps more important – do? We know that we are not saved by being good enough – because we are never up to God’s standard. Our hope is that faith in Jesus, and the forgiveness he offers, brings us to new life now and after this life.

The punch line is that it has to be real. Christian faith is not about mental acrobatics, or sophisticated pretending. Our faith is a trust which has to work through and show in every part of our life. There is an old joke which says, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Would you, perhaps, be able to pass it off – I didn’t really mean it, just went along with some friends, it didn’t change the way I worked, or spent money, or who I socialised with. . . .

We won’t frighten people into heaven with talk of judgement, but as Christians we dare not be unprepared to face our Judge. Is my faith more than words and vague good intentions? Am I prepared to support and stand with Christians, even poor, vulnerable and needy Christians against their sophisticated and rich critics? Both sheep and goats seem surprised at the judgement – but neither argue the truth of it.

Reality

This Sunday we leave the sequence of readings from Matthew to read a strange story for 6th August (Luke 9:28-36) – 3 disciples seeing Jesus all lit up, and talking to 2 Old Testament characters from long before. What is it all about? Does it matter?

It starts before this of course with Peter recognising Jesus: “You are the Messiah!” (Luke 9:20). Messiah? – The promised King, the one who would put everything right, who would bring all God’s promises true!!!

It’s true. Jesus is that person – but it’s not going to work the way the disciples expect. The Great King will win his place by dying on a cross.  It’ll be a shock and a disappointment to the disciples, but they really need to know this is the best way – this is God’s plan. So a week later they see Jesus in heavenly glory, discussing his “departure” (the Greek is “Exodus”) with Moses and Elijah, representing all the Old Testament hopes and promises Jesus will fulfill. And to underline it, a heavenly voice says  “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him” v35

They are not allowed to stay and enjoy the experience for long – they have to get back to the journey to Jerusalem, and the cross. Later, they will remember, and understand. [There is a point there about Christian experience. The nice ones are not for prolonging and repeating, but for preparing us for better service.]

Do you think this has anything for you?  Jesus is the Messiah / the Great King / the one bringing all God’s promises true!  We like that bit, and prefer to forget: Jesus wins by sacrifice. Only by allowing himself to be killed, and rising to life again, can he win. And he invites us to be his friends and followers, saying that some of the same things will happen to us. We may not always enjoy being Christian.  Doing the things we are told to do may be difficult, unpopular, and hard. But it is the way to get things right, the way we find God’s promises come true.

[I’m sure Peter could have imagined things turning out another way – and took time to understand it was not going to happen like that, and for good reason. We also need to understand that God has to be in charge].  I like to think I know better. It isn’t really like that, I don’t really need to . . . And I need to read this story again and listen to that heavenly voice: “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!”

Unrecognised

It is surprising how often Jesus is not recognised.  Today’s story of a walk with a “stranger” (Luke 24:13-35) is an example.  The resurrected Jesus is the same, but not immediately known.  There is time for talk on the road, and Jesus listens.  It is a good school of evangelism.  As he listens, he discovers what these two travellers had hoped for, expected, and felt about events as they had unfolded.  He gets an insight into their disappointment and confusion.

Then – only then – “he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures” (v27).  I wonder how long a list you could write of the Old Testament passages which tell us something about Jesus?  We may not see them as “proofs”, for there is always discussion about how they were originally understood, but there is plenty to guide and encourage us.

I suppose the biggest references would be to the “Suffering Servant” in Isaiah, especially Isaiah 53.  A pointer to how suffering might set people free!  With the Servant, and joined totally, is the King, the Messiah expected to succeed to King David’s legacy.  For that we might look to the Jeremiah 33:17f, as well as to the gospels.  The idea of the Servant King, whose glory is at the cross, will explain a great deal to us of who Jesus was, and what he did.

Is that it?  I think there were many more references Jesus could have picked up.  His favourite title, “Son of Man” has a meaningful background in Daniel 7, as a figure empowered by God.  Then there is the expectation of a “prophet like Moses” in Deuteronomy 18.  Earlier in Isaiah are the passages we typically read at Christmastime – the descendant of Jesse (King David’s father) bringing peace (Isaiah 11), but also Emmanuel – “God with us” (Isaiah 7.14).  The one who brings light to Galilee, and is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9).  Perhaps Jesus talked of the donkey-riding King of Zechariah 9, or the prophesied birth in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  There are more you could look for.

These are useful references in Eastertime.  They may not “prove” anything, but they make us think more deeply, and help us understand how much history came to a climax and fulfillment at Jesus death.  He was so many things, fulfilled such varied hopes and expectations.  Faith can wear thin if we only explain in one way, endlessly repeated.  Jesus then remains unrecognised as the one for us.  That is a disaster!  God has provided many dimensions to wonder at, and a Lord with a heritage worth deeper exploration and greater appreciation.

Fitting it all together

The gospel reading this Sunday is long – either the full account of Jesus’ Passion from Matthew, or a shorter version.  That leaves us to try and make sense of all that is going on.  It is rather like a detective story.  Different events, perhaps connected, but is there a pattern?  It all comes together at the Cross, as Jesus dies, with the last strands tied up at the Resurrection.

Let me try and bring two major strands together. One picture of Jesus comes from the prophet Isaiah, who spoke of a “Suffering Servant”.  It doesn’t make easy reading:

Isa 53:6 All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the LORD made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.

His suffering is, somehow, for us. By his death, he sets us free. It’s not obvious – partly because it is not flattering. It means I need someone else to die in my place. Coming to terms with that is part of the offence of the gospel – like the reminder that Christian life begins with repentance, and trusting God to do for me what I am incapable of.

But I talked about a detective story. Alongside this theme of Suffering for us in the way Isaiah described, there are others. Perhaps the easiest is Jesus the Messiah King:

Mat 21:5 “Tell the city of Zion, Look, your king is coming to you! He is humble and rides on a donkey and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”

On Palm Sunday, Jesus rides into Jerusalem, cheered by excited crowds.  All through his ministry, he had spoken of the Kingdom of God (Matthew calls it the Kingdom of Heaven), and slowly his friends came to understand that it didn’t mean a revolution against the Romans. It meant a community of people, for whom “God rules” – God in charge, directing lives, activity, priorities.

It seems that Jesus was the first to put together these 2 great ideas – the King, and the Servant. 2 ideas which nobody else had imagined could combine in one person!  But don’t think that is all there is. We could talk about why it was important that his identification with us included suffering, so that all who suffer and have suffered know he understands. We could talk about Sacrifice, and how Jesus is both priest and sacrifice. Or we could see that through the language of the “Lamb of God”.  That’s not a complete list! There are so many things brought together, resolved and explained at the cross. But if that is difficult to focus on, or to remember for more than a minute, just take the two.

Jesus is the Suffering Servant. Isa 53:5,6  But because of our sins he was wounded, beaten because of the evil we did. We are healed by the punishment he suffered, made whole by the blows he received.  All of us were like sheep that were lost, each of us going his own way. But the LORD made the punishment fall on him, the punishment all of us deserved.

Jesus is the promised King  Psa 89:3,4  You said, “I have made a covenant with the man I chose; I have promised my servant David, ‘A descendant of yours will always be king; I will preserve your dynasty forever.’ “

and if nobody expected those to come together, that is why it was unexpected!

Christ the King (Kingdom 4c)

This week we celebrate Christ the King.  Most of us have some idea what a King (a ruling King, rather than a constitutional monarch) might look like.  Words like power, glory, majesty, and rule come to mind.  Power and authority are hotly contested in our world.  We expect a strong man, with more than words behind him.  Glory is less obvious; I might think of magnificence, but I suspect the re-discovery of the word “awesome” may be closer the mark.  Majesty might imply the right person for the right job, someone with the necessary qualities, like wisdom, intelligence, experience, understanding . .  We have an idea what a King might look like – but is it the right idea?

The reading is Luke 23:33-43, the story of Jesus crucifixion.  It is no mistake.  This is the enthronement of Christ the King, but we may need to take time to come to terms with it.  Jesus as King has power.  Here, on the cross, he does what only he can do, and offers his own life as a sacrifice to win our freedom and to win the victory over evil.  While it may not be the sort of power demonstration we expect, this is the final showdown.  There is no greater power than this.

The glory of Jesus is the glory of service.  As king, he does not subjugate, but frees.  If he has coercive power (remember the cursing of the fig tree?) he much prefers to heal, reconcile and liberate.  This is real glory.  In the same sort of way, his majesty is not expensive clothing, a luxurious setting and careful stage management.  This scene is awe inspiring for what it is, not for how it is made to look.

This may be a surprise, or just a reminder that we all have to remind and re-educate ourselves, so different is the Christian understanding to what we are used to in our cultures.  Yet all scripture points this way:

  • the gospels all build up to a climax at the cross, recorded in detail.  There is no “alternative ending”
  • the gospels also record Jesus trying to warn the disciples, explaining what will – what must – happen, and his refusal to escape to personal safety.
  • the early Christians preach Jesus death and resurrection as central to their story and their hope
  • in that Christian story, the figure of the coming King (Messiah) is also the Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah

And it is not only scripture (or my interpretation of scripture!).  Christians still, in different traditions, celebrate by remembering Jesus words of sacrifice at his last meal with the disciples – this is my body, given for you . . this is my blood of the new covenant.  They still hold to the creeds, with their recital of Jesus death and resurrection as of central importance.  Hymns and worship songs again and again return to the cross, Jesus death and sacrifice – for these are the source of Christian commitment and motivation.

Let’s celebrate Christ the King!