Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14
Long live the King! Long live the King! It’s Christ the King Sunday, King of Kings Lutheran Church’s 54th Anniversary. As much as I’ve lamented the name of this church, so patriarchal, so unrelatable (This country was founded on people who wanted to rid themselves of a king’s rule), as much as I’ve tried to rename this church, Servant of Servants or Queen of Queens, on days like this I am grateful. This is a church whose very name places at the center the reign of Christ.
From the time the Israelites first asked God for a King and God gave in, God still reigned supreme. Whoever the kings were, they had to answer to God, God’s priorities, God’s power, God’s love. A few ruled well, and were faithful to God and to God’s priorities, the widows, the orphans, the hungry. Most misused their powers, second-guessed God’s priorities, and tried to gather more power for themselves. They were unfaithful, untrustworthy to God and God’s priorities. The same is true of our earthly rulers today. A few are faithful and many are corrupt.
For the Hebrew people in the book of Daniel, they were in captivity in Babylon. When they tried to explain to themselves why this terrible thing had happened that they were defeated and dragged off to another country, they reasoned that their kings had not been faithful to God, so God allowed them to be kidnapped to another country. They felt afraid. They felt far from God since they were far from the Temple where God was believed to reside. They felt regret. Now they were under the rule of the King of Babylon, and yet another when Babylon was captured by yet another king. These other kings were all about amassing power for themselves and worshipping other gods with other priorities.
In the midst of this, Daniel has visions. He envisions all these thrones. He is sorting out who is in charge. He finds, God, the Ancient One on his throne, powerful with blinding light and fiery flames. Daniel pictures fire, like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the wilderness, God’s presence with them, making a faithful community out of them. Daniel pictures the power of God, flowing out so that it touched the lives and people all around. This was a shared power. It was moving power, available. God’s power and authority are affirmed by the numbers of those who served him and attended him, ten thousand times ten thousand, more than can be counted.
David’s vision, his dream, his prophecy goes on. One like a human being comes before the Ancient One. Is he the anointed, the Christ, the Messiah? He seems like an intermediary between heaven and earth, standing in the presence of the Ancient one, but having a human form, and coming on the clouds of heaven. He is given kingship and glory and all peoples would serve him.
Not only were the kings of Babylon not in charge, but neither were the kings of Israel. It must have been a really difficult vision for Daniel to take in, the difference between the reality they were living and the view, the promise of this dream, which was the actual truth, the reality, that God is nearby, God is accessible, God has heard the cries of the people, and that God is the one with authority and power.
In Revelation, the people were in desperate need of some good news. Nero was emperor of Rome. The Christians were persecuted, hauled off to be killed, rumors spread about them that made their own family members disown them. The Temple had been destroyed, a Jewish insurrection had been quashed, and Christians were wondering if Jesus would come back before all the Christians were wiped out.
Into this chaos and gross misuse of power, when kings and rulers were more corrupt every day, John the Revelator had a vision. His vision of what true leadership is, stood in great contrast to the hellish worldly reality that the people were living under. He wrote his vision to give hope to the Christian Churches that were just hanging on. His was a vision of a different kind of king, a different use of power. He names God as eternal, the one who exists now, has always existed, and always will exist. God is named the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end, and everything in between. God created everything that exists and is part of every interrelationship. And God is called “Almighty,” referring to God’s power.
Jesus is also named. There was a tradition of piling on names of important people or gods. So Jesus is called in Revelation, faithful witness (another word for witness is martyr), the firstborn of the dead (since he rose in the resurrection), and ruler of the kings of the earth (King of Kings). Each week in Advent we’ll sing “O Come O Come Emmanuel” and a different name for Jesus will be lifted up, first Emmanuel or “God with us.” “Key of David,” meaning King David’s descendant, “Dayspring” meaning dawn or new day, referring to new life. Each name lifts up an aspect of Jesus’ character, where he comes from and what his life is about.
At Jesus’ crucifixion, we have Jesus arrested being interrogated by Pilate. These two representatives of power, one of the power of this earth and the other Divine powerPilate has the authority and power given by this world. He can make judgments or set people free. He can take away life or he can let someone keep his life. But right away, we see how tenuous his power is, how flimsy. First of all, he is only in Jerusalem because of the Passover. Not because he is devout, but because of other people’s expectations of him. He doesn’t live in Jerusalem, even though that’s where his headquarters are, because Jerusalem is a tinderbox, a place of high emotion, where revolt and insurrection are imminent. The chaos of Jerusalem is threatening to Pilate, so he lives in a more peaceful place when he can. However, he doesn’t really control his comings and goings. He’s not that powerful, because here he is compelled to, first, come to Jerusalem, and second, to hear this trial of a nobody, Jesus. Secondly, Pilate is walking in and out of his headquarters. You’d think if he was powerful, he’d make people come to him. However, the religious authorities need to remain clean. If they enter his chambers they won’t be able to participate in the Passover celebrations. So the religious authorities are standing outside and making him walk back and forth and do their bidding against Jesus. Pilate isn’t in control at all.
This reading also highlights the hypocrisy of the religious authorities. They are trying to stay ritually clean, however in their hearts they plot and plan to take the life of the Divine one. What use is it to pay lip service to religion and not live by its tenants, when our actions don’t match what we profess in our faith, when we don’t live by God’s values.
Instead Jesus is revealed to be King. He pokes holes in Pilate’s power. Any leader of this world comes in contact with limits of that power, things they can’t make happen, no matter how they try. So here is Pilate. He’d rather be resting, but his power is limited and he has people he has to please, so here he is. Jesus points out the faith that Pilate and many leaders put in violence and fighting. But this kind of power also has limits, because all it takes is a bigger or smarter army, and that power is over.
We may not have a king, but we have many kings, many priorities of this world that are different from God’s priorities. We have as king our nation’s military, however we meet our limit when we rack up debt that we can never repay. We have as king our entertainment, our sports and movie stars. We track their movements, celebrate their weddings, cry at their divorces, and are shocked or not at their flaws. We worship as king our comforts, our house, our clothes, our vacations. We worship as King our money, our capitalist system, we can’t picture any other way. We worship as King our church, the way we’re used to worshipping, our building, our position, the respect people give us, our pew, our relationship with the pastor, how important we feel when we find justification for continuing to live our lives just as we do. We worship violence as we view it in movies and on TV and as our country’s military budget soars above all others. We put our faith in democracy and borders to keep us safe and help us keep what is “ours.” We worship ourselves.
But sooner or later all these kings fail. They are not forever. They are not free of corruption. They cannot give us the satisfaction and hope that God can. They can’t give us the love and forgiveness and new life that God can. God reigns and Jesus is our king of kings. We are subject to his judgment. We are subject to his laws. We are subject to his love and new life. Put aside your other kings and focus on the one who gives us life. There is no border to his Kingdom. We are all brothers and sisters. There is no violence, no greed, no consumers. There is only loving relationship, inclusion, welcome, forgiveness, hope. There is new life in this new kingdom which is coming into the world.
Joy to the world! Let earth receive our King! This king is not dressed in jewels and fine fabrics. This king comes in rags and sandals. This king is not found in a castle, but in the slums. This king stoops to wash our feet. This king feeds us with his body and blood. This king goes out searching for every last one of us when we are lost. This king rejoices when he finds us. This king is not full of self-importance, but love and compassion and mercy.
Let not only the name of our church be King of Kings, but may the King of Kings rule in our hearts and help us set our priorities. May we follow the King of Kings in works of charity and justice, seeing the world’s power for what it is, weak and temporary and an illusion, and looking to God’s kind of power, in vulnerability, in poverty, the truth of the love that lasts and unites this world under the reign of the only one who is trustworthy and genuinely concerned for all life, Jesus Christ, our King of Kings.