Readings, 1 Samuel 8:4-18 and Luke 19:28-40
Image, Justin O’Brien (Australian, 1917–1996), Palm Sunday, 1962. Oil on canvas.
Over the last four weeks, we have explored the way Jesus embodies various roles in the life of his people: prophet, priest, judge, and now king. Jesus the king, a fitting topic for Christ the King Sunday, but perhaps, a less fitting theme for the beginning of the UN’s 16 Days Against Gender Based Violence, which began yesterday.
I say less fitting for as we know gender-based violence is rooted in gender inequality, rooted – so often – in the desire of men to rule over their homes and those in them as a king. So much violence is rooted in a misdirected response to perceived powerlessness or loss of control. And if this is the case, then is the image of Christ as king tarnished? Does it lack sufficient pastoral compassion to assert that the greatest good, the greatest hope, the culminative crescendo of our year of worship is found in a King?
The problems of a king, of one man placed atop a system of government to rule absolutely is not a new phenomenon. The Bible contains accounts of the virtue and blessing of a good king, who can lead the people in holiness. However, there is also present across scripture a deep ambivalence and suspicion toward the monarchy. Today’s reading shows that the provision of a king for Israel is a concession. God deems it a testament to the people’s lack of trust and lack of understanding of their commission as a nation set apart. Indeed, so that the point not be missed, God tells Samuel to warn Israel of all the awful things a king will mean for them (he will take your sons to keep his fields and make his implements of war. He will take your daughters to be his perfumers and cooks. He will take the best of your vineyards for himself, and a tenth of your grain for his courtiers. He will take and take and take… such will be your lot with a king).
And yet, while the critique of monarchy present in the scriptures is based in part on the old adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely, the fundamental opposition to a worldly king is based in preserving the unique and unparalleled supremacy of God. When God speaks to Samuel, God likens the request of the people for a king to the earlier decisions of the people to run after other gods. The real heart of God’s opposition to a worldly king is idolatry. God should be the people’s only king. For only God has both the wisdom to judge in equity and righteousness, only God has the love and mercy to bear the people’s missteps with grace and patience. Only a holy and eternal God (who is entirely sufficient and infinitely perfect) is able to wear the crown of glory and thorns without it becoming heavy.
And yet we still might protest. Despite this distinction between corruptible earthly kings and a perfect heavenly king, isn’t there still a problem? Isn’t the very reason we proclaim Christ the King (and preserve God’s kingship) because there were earthly kings? Said differently, isn’t Christ the king an act of projection based in a bygone age where kings were normative? We all know what a king is and so we call Christ the king because Christ is just a more powerful version of that? Isn’t this just trying to place another triangle atop a pyramid, which admits that there is something above our earthly king, but does nothing to subvert the hierarchical system of God-King-People (which is not unlike some church’s teaching God-Husband-Wife). Can we hold onto kingship without this baggage, or should we who live in a democratic world, well-versed in institutional suspicion lay down this way of speaking of God, lay aside language of King and kingdom, and find a new way of speaking about the unique otherness of God and the authority and power of Christ?
In some ways, yes. It is vital to delve into Scripture and allow our language for God to be nourished and expanded. For God is described as king but also mountain, nursing mother, wellspring of life, fire of Sinai, womb of creation, and the rock who birthed us. And so too, we explore the way Christ – heralded as king – is also a prophet of God, our great High Priest, and judge hidden amongst the least. Christ likens himself to a mother hen and is likened by others to the figure of Woman Wisdom from the book of Proverbs. Christ may be king but he is also brother, elevating us to a radical equality through the spirit of adoption. There are many ways in which we understand Christ and there are many ways in which we speak of our allegiance to God. And it is good to seek those out to complement the limitations of kingly language.
And yet I wonder, is it all limitation? Could there still be potential for a full-throated proclamation of the unrivalled sovereign kingship of Christ that does not contribute to the inequality producing gender-based violence, but serves as a bulwark against it?
Because while we know longer live in the age of kings, those feelings of insecurity and entitlement that lead man to forge their personal kingdoms have not disappeared. There may be democracy in the nation, but monarchies abound in the suburbs. And while we do not lack for means to critique the way men enthrone themselves in the home through intimidation, control, and violence, Christ the King provides us a distinctly Christian grounding on which to confront such sin. For to make oneself a king in the home is an act of idolatry. To establish oneself as a king in any pocket of one’s life in order to be made great by the service of others, is not only abhorrent for worldly reasons, but is an affront on heaven. It is an attempt to claim the throne of the one to whom all authority on heaven and earth has been given. No king but Christ goes all the way down. No king but Christ exposes gender-based violence as not only a sin against humanity, but a sin against God. Christ the King is most properly claimed not as any endorsement of human kingdoms or hierarchies but as the judgment upon and upending of all human attempts to rule over another. For God shall suffer no rival, and Christ shall share no authority, and we are made radically equal beneath such a confession, driven to stridently oppose the all-too-common attempts to dominate others that occur in the large and small of human history.
For this is why we have Christ the King Sunday. The celebration began in 1925 (making it a recent addition to our church calendar), as a means of countering the nationalism and worldly political allegiances which had contributed so direly to the catastrophe of World War I. It was further established in the hopes of checking the ascendent rise of nationalism and fascism in the interwar period. The church staked its claim to say, no King but Christ, our own true sovereign, the Prince of Peace. It is Christ alone we ally ourselves as king, because no human bound by mortality and sin could ever hope to create a kingdom (much less reign over it) in the way that Love incarnate could. It is Christ and his kingdom in which we place our hope, for it is this kingdom alone in which all violence shall cease, all swords be beaten into ploughshares, all tears be wiped away, and all things made new. Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace! Hail the Sun of righteousness!
Please enjoy a collection of sermons preached in recent months at the Kirk. If you have questions about the sermons, or attending a service reach out using the Contact Page.