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Sunday, November 22, 2015

Christ the King - a Sermon for November 22, 2015

The Sunday before the beginning of the Advent season is marked, in the Christian liturgical calendar, as “the feast of Christ the King,” or, more fully, the “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” This festal day is a relatively recent addition to the Christian calendar, instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925.  Pope Pius XI established the Christ the King festival in response to the troubling growth in violent nationalism that led to World War One, the splintering of Europe, and increased polarization and divisiveness along arbitrarily drawn boundary lines and between differing cultural groups as a way to draw Christians together in unity under Christ the King.

I stood at one of our Salvation Army red kettles for several hours Friday and Saturday, not ringing a bell (You know that I hate the bells…) but playing my guitar and singing Christmas songs. (Yes. I know this goes against my long standing personal policy of trying to avoid Christmas music until after Thanksgiving, at least. I also sang folk songs, spirituals, hymns, and other bits of musical doggerel to assuage my private misgivings.) And because my mind was already turned toward thinking about this Christ the King Sunday, as I played my guitar and sang, I began to notice how very often Jesus is referred to as King in these songs.

“Come and worship, come and worship, worship Christ the new born king” – Angels from the Realms of Glory

“…all our costliest treasures bring, Christ, to thee, our heavenly King” – As With Gladness Men of Old

“Born thy people to deliver, born a child and yet a king” – Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus

“Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn King,” – Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

“Peace on the earth, goodwill to me, from heaven’s all gracious king.” – It Came upon a Midnight Clear

“Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king” – Joy to the World

“Noel, noel, noel, noel, born is the king of Israel”- The First Noel

-and this list could go on and on quite a bit longer…

The world is dark and troubling. We feel it. We know it. Even if every generation before us has felt like they were living in chaotic times of unparalleled danger, we feel it now because we are experiencing it now. News reports of bombs and gunfights, of terrorists, of explosions and wars and conflicts in nation after nation… it crashes over us and we are afraid. We fear the terrorist. We fear the outbreak of another war. We fear the refugees fleeing from terrorism and warfare in their own countries. The waves of horror and despair crash over us again and again.

And if we pull back from global and international conflicts, our own personal lives are filled with conflicts. We struggle with debts, and sickness, with difficult family members and irritating neighbors. We worry about the kids. We wonder if we will still have a job next week.  The waves of anxiety beat, ceaselessly, ruthlessly upon our souls.

Maybe we would share Prince Hamlet’s words, from his famous soliloquy:

To be, or not to be--that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them.
(Hamlet III.i)

But most of us aren’t like Prince Hamlet, able to take up arms and put an end our troubles. This sea of trouble with wave after wave of distressing calamity feels unopposable. There’s little to nothing most of us can do about disasters on the global and international scene. And, often times, our own personal struggles seem overwhelming. We are unable to deal with them, unable to grasp their complexities, unable to halt their continual crashing against the shoreline of our hearts.

We are not Prince Hamlet, able take up arms to put an end our sea of troubles. We are more like the legendary Anglo-Saxon King of England, King Canute standing at the shoreline demonstrating his inability to control the elements, trying in vain to stop the tide. When King Canute’s courtiers tried to flatter him, he went to the shore to demonstrate his limitations. He stood at the water’s edge and commanded the waves to stop. Yet "continuing to rise as usual [the tide] dashed over his feet and legs without respect to his royal person. Then the king leapt backwards, saying: 'Let all men know how empty and worthless is the power of kings, for there is none worthy of the name, but He whom heaven, earth, and sea obey by eternal laws.'" He then hung his gold crown on a crucifix, and never wore it again "to the honour of God the almighty King". 

Ocean currents raised, Yahweh,
Ocean currents raised their thunderous roar.
Ocean currents raised their pounding waves.
(Psalm 93: 3 Anchor Bible)

The floods have lifted up, O LORD,
the floods have lifted up their voice,
the floods have lifted up their roaring.
(Psalm 93: 3 NRSV)

The ocean sounds, O Lord,
the ocean sounds its thunder,
the ocean sounds its pounding.
(Psalm 93: 3 JPS)

Read it over and over again to emphasize the repetition, the continual influx of the pounding, crashing waves, the relentless roar of the surf. Even the rocks are eventually worn down by the crash of the waves. We are overwhelmed by trouble–political and private, global and personal. The world feels like it is shaking itself apart. Our own lives feel like they are collapsing into piles of smoking rubble around our ears.

Yet Yahweh has become King, Christ is King, crowned and robed in glory and grandeur, robed in strength. The world stands firm, it cannot be shaken (Psalm 93:1). There is comfort here in the face of conflict. There is security in the face of uncertainty. There is joy in the face of grief and despair.

Psalm 93 is the first of a group of eight “enthronement” psalms – psalms which celebrate the fact that “Yahweh is king” or “Yahweh has become king.”   (93 – 100)

Though we don’t know with any degree of certitude when this psalm was written, it has its roots in the creation myths of the ancient near east. The psalmist sees Yahweh ascending to the throne of the universe after defeating the primeval monsters of chaos. He conquered the ancient serpent, the sea-monster, the dragon in creation and established the ordered world and his chosen people. We find fragmentary glimpses of this ancient mythology scattered throughout the scriptures:

You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
(Psalm 74: 13 – 14 NRSV)

You crushed Rahab like a carcass;
 you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.
(Psalm 89: 10 NRSV)

Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord!
Awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced the dragon?
(Isaiah 51:9 NRSV)

The people of Israel celebrated the kingship of their God along with his victory over the primordial forces of chaos, his consolidation of power over the world, and his rule and reign from heaven. (Anchor Bible). Over the chaotic waters, over the whole earth, and above the heavens…

And so we are followers of our God and King-King Jesus – who is not just God and king in one small nation, but king over the universe. We are brothers and sisters with people around the world, part of global community. We will choose love over fear when we hear news of conflicts around the world.

"As a member of an international Movement, the Salvationist will not be a narrow nationalist. Because he belongs to God, he is primarily a citizen of the world." (Chosen to be a Soldier - Order and regulations for Salvation Army Soldiers)

We will choose love over hate because this is the eternal and holy decree of our God and King. We will reject fear and chose hope. We will trust because God is King and the earth stands firm forever under his rule.

“The faithful, moreover, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage, enabling them to form their lives after the true Christian ideal. If Christ is given all power in heaven and on earth; if all men, purchased by his precious blood, are by a new light subjected to his dominion, if this power embraces all me, it must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds, which should assent with perfect submission and firm belief to revealed truth and to doctrines of Christ. He must reign in our wills, which should obey the laws and precepts of God. He must reign in our hearts, which should spurn natural desires and love God above all things, and cleave to him alone. He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments of the interior sanctification of our souls, or to use the words of the Apostle Paul, as instruments of justice unto God.” – Pope Pius XI

The LORD is King
He is robed in grandeur
the LORD is robed with strength.
The world stands firm
it cannot be shaken.

Your throne stands frim from of old,
from eternity you have existed.

The ocean sounds, Oh LORD,
the ocean sounds its thunder,
the ocean sounds its pounding.

Above the thunder of the mighty waters,
more majestic than the breakers of the sea
is the LORD, majestic on high.

Your decrees are indeed enduring,
holiness befits your house,
O LORD, for all times.

(Psalm 93 JPS)

Under the shadow of thy throne
still may we dwell secure;
sufficient is thine arm alone
and our defense is sure.

Isaac Watts – “O God, Our Help in Ages Past”

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