A sermon preached by Graham Low on 21 November 2021.
When I say the word king to you, I’m sure several images and concepts will immediately come to mind, among them: throne, white robes, kingship, servants, serving, judgement, glory, dominion. These are all found in our first reading from the book of Daniel. This book of stories and visions is about the fundamental question: who or what rules the universe? As people of faith our lives are inevitably linked to this matter.
The language of Daniel 7 is prophetic rather than historical, and its origins are partly mythical. It concerns the powers of Babylon, Persia and Greece that ruled over Israel. Its first readers probably lived under Antiochus IV, who was particularly brutal. Jews, like Daniel, had to navigate life very carefully, in order to avoid great danger. Now prophecy follows deep reflection. It is challenging, subversive, and disturbing, but it can be encouraging, as are these words to Daniel’s fellow Jews. He intends them to triumph as faithful Jews over their enemies by divine aid, and thus move towards a final consummation.
We hear that the ancient one, God, remains on his throne, justice is still done, and a person in human form stands before God. Inevitably, this figure will remind Christians of Christ, especially today when we celebrate the one who called himself the Son of Man. The text implies that all human kingdoms will come to an end. And so Daniel can also encourage those who hope that one day God will rule with a representative of humanity, when the tyranny of evil will finally be overthrown.
If we were to ask to see Jesus Christ’s CV as a king we would find that he was the child of a peasant woman, he worked as a carpenter, and then as an itinerant preacher: he never wrote a book, never held an office, never went to college, never had a family, never owned a home, never did anything that we would see as signs of kingly greatness. And yet two millennia later we can say that nobody has affected the lives of humanity as much as that one solitary person. Jesus’ ministry began with the vision of God’s kingdom as a sheer gift: “the kingdom of God has come near: repent and believe the good news”. His engagement with people in need, his compassion for the suffering and confused, and his challenge to the authorities wherever he saw corruption in religion or in society, were far from what people then or today would see as kingly.
We have now come to the end of the church’s liturgical year of readings from the gospel of Mark, who has often been challenging about who Jesus is. While the disciples often seem unable to grasp who he is, it is a Roman centurion who recognises Jesus in the midst of his terrible death as the Son of God. Meanwhile, John’s picture of Jesus is clearer about his identity. He remarks that Jesus avoided people who forcefully tried to make him an earthly king. Later John tells us that Pilate spoke of Jesus kingship as being kingship to the Jews. Clearly Pilate became deeply unsettled about Jesus’ identity and saw him as an innocent person making challenging claims about his form of kingship.
The New Testament presents the kingship of Jesus as one of service, even as one of slavery. We pray daily that “Your kingdom come, on earth as it is heaven” indicating that through the incarnation God’s kingdom is in this world as well as in the next. By following him we seek to serve as he did, and thus to be part of building up his kingdom.
Canon Henry Scott-Holland, a priest who was very familiar with London’s slums once said that “the more you believed in the incarnation the more you believed in drains”. In other words, the kingship of Christ has a claim on every aspect of the way we live: how we spend our money, how we spend our time, how we relate to each other, how we vote, how we offer our time for voluntary work, how we decide on our career, and how we worship.
On this day we gather here to give deep thanks for all that we have been given as people who share in the life of God’s kingdom. We come also to be prompted into looking urgently at how we live our lives, and in particular how we care for our world. We do this knowing that overwhelming evidence shows that we must take immediate steps to live in ways that are much simpler, less consuming, less selfish, and more community-minded than hitherto. This call towards Christs’ understanding of kingship is very well put in the collect from Common Worship Daily Prayer at the end of Psalm 21:
Crown us, O God, but with humility, and robe us with compassion, that, as you call us into the kingdom of your Son, we may strive to overcome all evil by the power of good and so walk gently on the earth with you, our God, for ever. Amen.