In God's Country (Philippians 2:6-11)
Here is my manuscript for the sermon that I preached on Reign of Christ Sunday at The Bridge service. As always, this is not exactly what I said. In fact, the manuscript stops abruptly because I attempted to explain why I put my trust in Jesus in spite of not being 100% certain about everything. I don’t know if I could capture the gist of that.
It might be late November, but for the church calendar, this is the last Sunday of the year before everything starts brand new next week with Advent. Advent is a season in which we are thrown to and fro through time as we look back to the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, the birth of Jesus, and towards a future in which we pray that God will make all things right. Yet before we get there, we have this last Sunday which is known as Christ the King Sunday or Reign of Christ Sunday. I confess that this is one of those topics about which I immediately said, “I’m going to talk about that and I have no idea how I’m going to talk about that.”
Talking about royalty is difficult; especially in this country where we don’t have much of a frame of reference for kings. Not having a king is kind of our whole deal in the United States. That is where we started as a country and as such, I think we’re kind of resistant to the idea of any kind of authority.
Everything I know about kings comes from this strange mixture of Bible stories, U.S. History, the musical Hamilton, whatever the situation is with Great Britain and their royal family, Disney fairy tales, and the Super Mario video games where the king is apparently an absent father who perpetually permits his princess daughter to get kidnapped by a fire-breathing turtle dragon. In my mind, kings have either been silly or fictional or existed so long ago that it is a challenge to make heads or tails of them. How do you and I talk about Jesus reigning as king in our present context?
Take the common phrase found in the New Testament: “Jesus is Lord.” What does that mean? I am sure that for some of us it evokes authority. It means that Jesus is over us in some manner. For some, that may bring comfort but for others, the idea of Jesus “ruling” over us might cause some unease. Lord is also quite a church-y word that we’ve heard so many times in songs and prayers, but we don’t necessarily know what it means. So let’s walk things back to the time of Jesus. Because these titles and terms for Jesus were not just invented out of thin air. The context can give us to insight to what we mean when we say that Jesus reigns today.
Jesus was born into a land that was under the boot of the most powerful empire the world had seen up to that point. He was born into a country whose people had been conquered again and again. Sometimes they were carted off to another country as they were when Babylon invaded. Other times, foreign powers attempted to transform their Temple into a shrine for other gods. Jesus’ people were occupied, oppressed, and forced to live under a ruler who was not their own.
The Roman Empire was painfully clear that they were the ones in charge. They were the ones divinely appointed to be the hope of the world. One must join them or face the sword. And Rome communicated this message by using words words that we often use in the church to talk about Jesus.
Then here comes this group following a seemingly executed rabbi from a nowhere town and this is how they began Mark, believed to be the earliest written of the four gospels:
The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, “See, I am sending messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of the one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’”
On the surface, that passage seems to be a fairly straightforward introduction so I want to highlight four words/phrases in those opening three verses of Mark. The four that I want us to look at are good news, Christ, Son of God, and Lord. Because the Roman Empire had ideas about what those words meant and those ideas were very different from what Jesus and/or his followers thought. The break down between what Jesus and Empire meant by these words comes from the book Jesus for President by Shane Claiborne and Chris Hiaw, which is an excellent book if you want to be challenged in some really uncomfortable ways.
First up is good news or gospel from the Greek word euangelion. This is from where we get our present day words like evangelism and evangelists. According the Roman Empire, euangelion was an imperial pronouncement. Usually this imperial message was about a great victory in battle or that an heir had been born to the Emperor. They would march from town to town full of pomp and circumstance with flags waving. Good news everyone! The Empire is great! We are victorious over whoever comes against us! With the birth of a new heir our kingdom has no end!
Then there is Jesus with a counter message. His good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand. He presents this good news without the pomposity and extravagance. And the coming kingdom of God is not about the powerful dominating all foes in perpetuity. Instead, Jesus tells his followers, “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Next up is the term Christ. This was not Jesus’ last name, but a title. It is the Greek translation of the word messiah. Rome did not necessarily use the word Christ in their own propaganda, but they understood the word to be the name that the Jewish people used for their ruler. And in Rome’s mind, the question of who was the Christ was decided. It was Herod. Any other person who made the claim of being Christ would bring about unrest.
According to Jesus and many of his people, the messiah was a divinely anointed ruler. This individual would fulfill promises found throughout the prophets of rescuing Israel from oppressors like Rome and helping Israel find its footing in following God. This term has also been applied to David and other rulers. Messiah often gets conflated with the idea of someone being God incarnate, but in truth, it is a “divinely mandated royal man.”
Jesus was not the first person in the ancient world to be known as the Son of God. Alexander the Great actually took on that name as did Caesar Augustus, the very same individual who in the Gospel of Luke decrees the census that sends Mary and Joseph on a trip to Bethlehem. The message was clear. Augustus was not only the ruler of the most powerful force on the known planet, he was a god.
This same title was given to Jesus and we can already see how the ways these words were used set up an ideological showdown. What is interesting about Jesus is that he most commonly referred to himself as the Son of Man or “the human one,” which was a term commonly found in the Book of Daniel. Throughout the gospels, Jesus is shown to have this incredible power from God, but most often refers to himself in more humble terms.
Finally there is the term Lord. For Rome, this was the name for a ruler and the supreme ruler in particular. If you asked a Roman, “Who is Lord?” they would likely respond that Caesar is Lord. Thus calling anyone else Lord would be a direct challenge to Caesar himself. For if Jesus is Lord then Caesar is not.
The first verses of Mark are is not a simple introduction to the life of Jesus. This is a gauntlet thrown down. It is subversive. It is protest. It is rebellion. These words in Mark or the words we here from the angel in birth narrative in Luke declaring the birth of a savior “Christ the Lord” are the language of an uprising. It makes me wonder if we need to throw a little punk rock in alongside our beautiful Christmas music every December.
The followers of Jesus are speaking of a new country. In God’s country, good news is preached to the poor, the prisoners are released, the blind see, the oppressed are liberated. The good news of the Lord Jesus Christ turns the world upside down; or perhaps more appropriately turns the world right-side up.
The language of Jesus as king is rooted in this picture of God overthrowing a tyrannical and cruel system. It challenges all other things that demand our allegiance. And there are still all kinds of things that demand our allegiance today. Caesar may not be Lord, but for some Money is Lord. Or America is Lord. Or Comfort is Lord. Or Religion is Lord. Something will be the supreme ruler of our lives. As Bob Dylan sang many years ago, you gotta serve somebody. And when anyone or anything else is king in our lives, that king builds walls that divide us.
The Roman Empire divided the world into those who were Roman citizens and those we who were not. You were either among the powerful or you were among those who were going to be flattened and conquered. Money divides us into haves and have nots; the rich and the poor. Those who would put national interests before all else see the world in terms of those who are with us and those who are foreigners. Those who follow a certain strain of religion will divide the world into the holy and the so-called wicked. On and on it goes.
Yet when Jesus is king, something else happens entirely. We are not divided, but united. In Galatians 3:28, Paul writes “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” There are no borders in God’s country. Those who declare Christ to be Lord are to live in such a way that they see all as equally valuable no matter what.
Now you might say, “What about those who don’t follow Jesus?” After all, if Christ is Lord then does that not create an us versus them mentality with those who are outside these community walls? I don’t think it does. Because when you look at the teachings of Jesus, he is constantly asking us to love our neighbor and love our enemies. Several times in the gospels, he dips outside of his religious context to show love and hospitality. Those who claim Christ as Lord should have no problem loving and working alongside those who may not claim the same.
The other notion of a king that is difficult for us is that a king often stands over everyone else. Anyone who has studied the American Revolution is familiar with the idea that royalty can be seen as a form of tyranny. That was certainly the case with Caesar. Kings demand absolute loyalty and they often live extravagantly off the backs of those whom serve the royalty. To just use money as an example, Jesus warns of money being our master. We will work and break ourselves to gain more at the expense of ourselves and those we love.
If Jesus is King then does he rule over us? Yes, but not in a way that kings typically rule over subjects. We have already noted how Jesus referred to himself frequently as the Son of Man. At Christmas, we talk about how he is Immanuel or “God with us” instead of God over us. His entire life demonstrated servanthood, humility, and love for others. The Philippians verse that was read earlier in this service is a stretch of verses that is believed to be one of the earliest recorded hymns of the Christian church:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
In Jesus, we see someone who had every reason to make people bow down and worship him at every stop. He was the ultimate human being, full of love and compassion, capable of great wisdom and incredible works unlike any that had been seen. He was God with us. And yet he took the nature of the servant.
Jesus is Lord. Yet even as we kneel before him, he asks us to take a knee to serve those around us. The Greatest Commandment—that I’ll probably say everyday until I can write them on my heart—is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second is like it: to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.
The great lie of the Roman Empire that it was the great hope of the world. By the sword, it would bring peace on earth and goodwill toward men. That is the great lie of every would-be king. Money tells us that we will know peace if we have enough in our bank account. America or whatever country tells us that they are the world’s great hope. Even things that are seemingly good and beautiful can be warped when they become our king. Religion can become legalism.
I realize here that I’m walking a tightrope. I am talking about how dangerous it is for everything else to be king. How is Jesus different? I cannot promise you with 100% certainty that he is. God knows that there are scores of people who follow Jesus who have warped him into a king that divides and rules with an iron scepter and does harm to many people. God knows that I am one of them on some days. But I am here to say that I am going to stake my life on Jesus. I believe he is different from all the other kings.