Sermon Sunday 22.11.2015

By the Reverend Dr. David Sinclair

One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

 

Today is the last Sunday in the Christian year; it’s the Sunday when we think of Christ as king, as the ruler who brings justice and piety and enlightenment and refreshment.  The words of our text, of course, come from the context of King David, who was not always just, or pious, or enlightened, or refreshing; he was as likely as any other ruler to succumb to the temptations of his power, to do things because he could, because he felt like it, because he was king.

 

And yet, part of the claim of the early church, to advance the cause of Christ, was the claim that Jesus was the descendant of David: ‘Hosanna to the son of David; hosanna to the king of kings, glory in the highest heaven, for Jesus the Messiah reigns.’  David’s rule was seen as a golden age, a time when all went well, when justice was done – but, of course, as with any human rule, that was not true.  As we move next week into the season of Advent, we will begin to hear references to the root of Jesse, to the promise of restoration and peace – and we will need to keep in our heads the distinction between the rule of an imagined human past and the vision of the reign of Christ.

 

But for now, perhaps the question to which we can turn our attention is the immediate one, the contextual one, of the ideal to which thoughts of the reign of Christ point – and, sitting facing that ideal, the reality of a world in which guns and bombs seek to control or to terrify or to coerce.  How do we react to the events of Paris or Bamako or Beirut or Raqqa or Sharm el Sheikh or Damascus?  And what do we have to say about those events – or about life in general in the context of those events?

 

On Friday Radio Scotland was asking how people’s attitudes had been changed by the events in Paris.  I didn’t listen; it seemed to me to be the kind of lazy, journalistic response that operates in clichés.  Because even to ask the question is to presume the answer – and to offer no way out of that presumed answer.  We saw the same in the coverage in Paris in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of the 13th, where the commentary was about fear and tension and worry and dread – but the words of the people were often about a refusal to do any of those things, a refusal to give up on lives worth living, a determination not to give up on hope or confidence or love.

 

Politicians can be tempted into the language of fear – and, more worryingly, they are tempted into the language of security, tempted to suggest that with sufficient resources we can be made absolutely safe from all that wishes us harm.  They (and we) are tempted into the language of blame: if something bad has happened in Paris it’s because the security forces let ‘us’ down, or because Britain hasn’t been bombing Syria, or because President Obama came to an agreement with Iran over its nuclear power programme, or because Chancellor Merkel was generous and compassionate to refugees (and I heard all of those arguments made).  And, most notably with President Hollande, there was the temptation of the language of revenge – as he said, ‘without pity’.

 

So it seems to me that we need to develop another language: a way in which we can talk about such things seriously, compassionately, realistically – but in a way that does not presume either that we can live lives of perfect safety and security, and does not presume that just a few more bombs will do the trick.  And the idea of Christ as King can help us do that.  Our thoughts around kingship, of course, have changed a great deal since the phrase was first used.  Even if we live in a monarchy, by and large these days monarchs do what they are told – read speeches, open hospitals, meet visiting dignitaries, appear in front of their adoring public, smile, wave, build a dynasty, be a ‘figurehead’; but they don’t make decisions, and they do not, in any way worthy of the name, ‘rule’.  But we can get past that; we can think our way through to an idea of rule that does not depend on worldly analogy.

 

So the first element of our alternative language has to do with how we think of ‘rule’ itself.  We talk of the rule of law, but Paul spoke of law and reduced it to its essentials: anyone who loves their neighbour has fulfilled the law, because no one will do anything harmful to those they love.  But it is Christ the King we’re thinking about, not ‘Paul the King’, and Jesus went further (he almost always does): Jesus told us not only to love ourselves, and to love our neighbours, but to love our enemies.  So we can see immediately that this language might be a difficult one to learn to speak.

 

The second element might be to do with commitment.  I remember how John Miller, as Moderator of the General Assembly, preached in Glasgow Cathedral on the occasion of our monarch’s golden jubilee, he spoke about ‘life lived as vocation’.  And it is that idea writ large that you find in the idea of Christ as king: there is no turning back, there is no abdication, there is no time off for good (or indeed bad) behaviour.  Jesus himself spoke about the kingdom of heaven not being reached by someone looking back – and, when he hit the road, he followed it wherever it led, even to the cross.

 

So what happens if we put these first two elements together?  What happens is that we find ourselves speaking a language of love that cannot be switched off when it runs into difficulty, or when it finds that others aren’t listening, or understanding, or replying.  There is no sideroad, no off-ramp, no lay-by.  The language of Christ the King is spoken whatever the circumstances – as Paul puts it, ‘in season and out of season’.  And it may be that it is when people are feeling vulnerable and hurt and angry that the season is most difficult for this language – and yet that is also the time when it is perhaps most necessary.

 

The husband of a woman killed on the 13th did his best to speak this language, however haltingly, when he posted a video online, addressing those who had killed her.  Among other things he said this:

Of course I’m devastated with grief, I concede you that little victory, but the victory will be short. I know that she is with us every day, and that we will find each other again in that paradise of free souls …

 

I have no more time for you; I have to go to be with Melvil, who is waking up from his nap. He’s barely 17 months old, he is going eat his snack just like every day, then we are going to play just like every day, and all his life, this little boy will insult you with his happiness and freedom.

 

So the first element is about love rather than law, and the second is about commitment and vocation.  And the third element is about how we understand power.  Constitutional monarchs, as we noted earlier, have little or no power – because it was realised how little they could be trusted with it.  We do not believe that of Christ the King.  But what we do believe about the power of Christ is not about a power of coercion or force.  We do not believe that the rule or the law of God can be imposed by an outside force, or by the threat or the use of violence.  We do not believe that God is praised or followed or glorified by the browbeating or the degradation or the shaming of others.  But we as a faith, we as a church, did believe that once upon a time.

 

Once upon a time we thought that we could advance the reign of Christ the King by going to war, by burning our opponents, by shaming them in the street or in the church, by outlawing their views, by enforcing our own.  ‘Onward Christian soldiers marching as to war,’ we sang; and in our minds we missed out the word ‘as’, and moved fatally from the metaphorical to the literal.  And still there are those who think that they can take their misapprehensions, their ignorance, or their fury, and remake the world in their own image through inflicting death.

 

So we need a new language of power – a language to account for and to talk about the power to change, to convert, to support, to encourage, to uphold, to strengthen, to liberate, to inspire; to speak of the presence we have felt, the word we have heard, the visions we have seen, the freedom we have tasted.  We need a language that has the words for a sorrow that does not defeat us, for a compassion that uplifts us, for a love that refuses to let us go – no matter what.  ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.’

 

Have the events of Paris on the 13th changed the way we see the world?  Actually, I hope not.  I hope we already knew that life is fragile and temporary and precious and irreplaceable and immeasurable.  I hope we already knew that; because of all that life is to be lived as well and as lovingly as we can manage.  I hope we already knew that hatred will not defeat hatred, but can only gnaw away at the inner reality of the hater – until there is nothing left but a hollow shell.  I hope we already knew that the truth does not come to us in propositions or articles of faith, but only in human form, in life lived and love offered.

 

Pilate, John tells us, asked what truth was – and implied that the question had no answer worth listening to.  But the king who stood before him spoke a language he had not yet learned, a language that empires throughout the world have never really been able to speak, a language that words of fear or hatred or revenge can never convey.  It is at such a time as this that that language has its time to be spoken.  At such a time as this the language of love and commitment, the language of the king’s power, has the words to speak into the void of lives devastated and nations trembling.  But those of us who profess to be native speakers can only be sure that we speak it fluently if we speak it all the time.

 

One who rules over people justly,
ruling in the fear of God,
is like the light of morning,
like the sun rising on a cloudless morning,
gleaming from the rain on the grassy land.

 

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