Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Ps 93; Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37
Today, is the last Sunday of the Church’s year and as next Sunday we will start the reflective season of Advent, it is appropriate that today we celebrate Christ the King.
I don’t know about you, but I was quite surprised by the readings set for today. At first they appear to have little in common, but when studied together, they reveal the understanding – or the misunderstanding – of the Kingship of Christ as it has been revealed over a long period of history.
The Book of Daniel would probably not have been my first choice for an Old Testament lesson as it is difficult for us to understand, as our with minds are more used to dealing with life in the 21st century. If we wish to understand it, we should first consider when and why it was written.
It was written, probably after many decades of it being passed on by word of mouth, to remind the Jewish people of God’s greatness, and to encourage them while they were in exile in Babylon. Earlier in the book Daniel interprets the king’s dream which vividly portrayed a time when nations will be judged and destroyed. At that time God would set up His kingdom and reign forever.
9 As I watched, thrones were set in place, and an Ancient One took his throne; his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued and flowed out from his presence. A thousand thousand served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him. The court sat in judgement, and the books were opened.
13 As I watched in the night visions, I saw one like a human being coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him.
14 To him was given dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.
This passage is part of a later dream or vision that Daniel had that adds the fact that God will “sit” for a solemn day of judgment before He sets up His “everlasting dominion.” An elaborate court room is described and the Ancient One who took his throne is God the Father, and the white garments and white hair stress that he is eternal.
His throne was a fiery flame: This was a brilliant manifestation of God’s splendour and the fierce heat of His judgment. There seems to be something lava-like in the stream of fire pouring from the throne; it was like a river of vast destructive and cleansing power. There is then a description of the innumerable company of angels surrounding the throne of God, and the mass of humanity standing before God for judgment.
The books referred to contain the records of good and evil since the beginning of time. His verdict will be both just and merciful, because He commits the judgment to His Son, who gave His life for us. It continues: – in my dreams (night visions) I saw the Son of Man – or the Messiah (one like a human being) coming with the clouds of heaven – this refers to Jesus ascending to heaven after his resurrection, “to receive the kingdom.”
After His resurrection, Jesus said he must return to His Father. In this passage, on his return to the heavenly courts, His Father invests him with, dominion and glory and kingship that all peoples nations and languages should serve him – and says that his kingship should never be destroyed.
It is a call to the Jewish faithful to stand firm with the assurance that even though, humanly speaking, the situation seems hopeless, God is in control and things will come right.
These verses are for the comfort and support of the people of God, in reference to the persecutions that would come upon them, and many of the New Testament predictions of the judgment to come, reflect this vision.
Our next reading was from the book of Revelation. The word can be interpreted as the sudden unveiling of a previously hidden truth. As such it could be titled the book of Revelation of Jesus Christ!
This is another of the visions and ‘revelations’ seen by holy, prayerful people who were wrestling with the question of the divine purpose. This book was also written to bolster the Christians, living in seven towns in Asia Minor which is now in modern Turkey and in our passage, these seven towns are referred to as the seven spirits. There may have been several groups of Christians in ancient Turkey, where John seems to have been based. They would have been mostly poor, meeting in one another’s homes.
By contrast, at that time, people were building grand and expensive temples for Caesar and his family in various cities, all eager to show Rome how loyal they were. What would Jesus himself say about this? Did it mean that, after all, that the Christians were wasting their time, following a crucified Jew rather than Caesar who was rather obviously the present ‘lord of the world’?
Revelation is written to say ‘no’ to that question – and to say much more besides. At its centre is a fresh revelation of Jesus the ‘Messiah’. John, with his head and his heart full of Israel’s scriptures, discovered on one particular occasion, as he was praying, that the curtain was pulled back.
He found himself face to face with Jesus himself.
The early Christians believed that Jesus of Nazareth had become, in person, the place where heaven and earth met. Meditating on Jesus, and contemplating his death and resurrection in particular, they believed they could see right into God’s own world. They could then understand things about his purpose which nobody had imagined before.
So John starts by offering them the grace and peace of God the Almighty, and from Jesus to whom he gives various titles.
Grace and peace to you from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father – to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen.
Jesus is the one who, through his death and resurrection, has accomplished God’s purpose. His love for his people, his liberation of them by his self-sacrifice, his purpose for them (not just to rescue them, but to put them to important work in his service) – all these are stated here briefly in this verse. And, not least, Jesus is the one who will soon return to complete the task, to set up his rule on earth as in heaven. But by far and away the most important: everything that is to come flows from the central figure, Jesus himself, and ultimately from God the father, ‘He Who Is and Who Was and Who Is to Come’.
And so we come to the Gospel.
This too is an example of misunderstanding, and it is set in a place where Jesus is on trial. We have heard the reading many times, especially at Easter, so we have some understanding of what Jesus is saying. But not Pilate.
Are you the king of the Jews?
The Kings he knew about ruled people according to their own wishes and whims. They were all-powerful. And people knew how kings became kings.
Often, the crown would pass from father to son but from time to time there would be a revolution. The way to the crown, for anyone not in the direct family line, was through violence.
Herod the Great, thirty years before Jesus was born, had defeated the Parthians, the great empire to the east, and Rome in gratitude had allowed him to become ‘King of the Jews’, although he, too, had no appropriate background or pedigree. So Pilate comes to investigate whether Jesus is a political threat to Rome: are you the King of the Jews?
Rather than answer Pilate, Jesus becomes the interrogator and judge in this trial. Pilate is not as in control as he pretends to be and Jesus knows it. This ironic blurring of legal and political roles is a favourite technique of John’s.
But it is clear who the real judge is. In response to Jesus’ question, Pilate declares, “I’m not a Jew, am I?” Of course he’s not; quite the opposite: he’s a Roman representing the arm of the Empire that is oppressing Jesus’ own people, the Jews. As Pilate remains opposed to Jesus and entirely uninterested in truth for truth’s sake, he does in fact become indistinguishable from those who rejected Jesus by handing him over to Pilate.
Jesus responds, in a way, to Pilate’s king question. But Jesus does not crow about being a king; rather, he immediately speaks not about himself but his community, calling it a kingdom (some prefer the word “kindom”). Here he contrasts himself with Pilate.
Pilate uses power and authority for selfish ends with no concern for the building of community, and certainly not a community guided by love and truth. Pilate hoards power and lords it over people even to the point of destroying them, on a cross if necessary. Jesus empowers others and uses his authority to wash the feet of those he leads. He spends his life on them, every last ounce of it; he gives his life to bring life.
Pilate’s rule brings terror, even in the midst of calm; Jesus’ rule brings peace, even in the midst of terror
Pilate’s followers imitate him by using violence to conquer and divide people by race, ethnicity, and nations. Jesus’ followers put away the sword in order to invite and unify people.
Pilate’s authority originates from the will of Caesar and is always tenuous.
Jesus’ authority originates from doing the will of God, and is eternal. Jesus places all of this choice conversation material before Pilate, but he hears only Jesus’ possible threat to Pilate’s own authority: “So you ARE a king?”
Jesus again pushes deeper to the heart of the matter: this is the trial of the ages. Truth itself is on trial and Jesus is the star witness. Will Pilate side with Truth or Cynicism?
What about us?
It is interesting to note that, in the end, Pilate attempts to crucify the Truth. He places a placard mockingly announcing Jesus as The King of the Jews. The irony is that Pilate in trying to mock, has unwittingly announced the truth. There on the cross the King is crowned, not with diamonds or a laurel wreath but with thorns. And from that lofty height, his Church, his ally in announcing the truth is born. Loving truth will always win.
As Christians we believe that Christ the King lives and will come again to reign in glory for ever. Until that time we have to follow His calling, and with His help follow in His way, spreading love and His Gospel truth to all we meet.