Evensong, Christ the King
Evensong, Christ the King, 26th November 2023
A sermon preached by Canon Edward Probert, Chancellor
(2 Samuel 23.1-7; Matthew 28.16-end)
During these last few weeks our daily and Sunday services have come with lavish helpings of apocalyptic readings – mainly from the books Daniel and Revelation. These puzzling texts, full of symbolism and numerology, and with their narratives of beasts, wars in heaven and oppressions on earth, can get a bit wearing as the nights draw in ever earlier, and the darkness around us is real as well as symbolic.
Dark though it is, we are now on the cusp of a new Church year, and this last Sunday of the old year brings us the celebration of Christ the King. We haven’t entirely put aside symbolism, but this single conceptual focus is both much simpler than what fills the apocalyptic writings, and much easier to root in our own observation and experience.
We live under a monarchy; the King is the Church of England’s Supreme Governor; and, though most of the nations of the world are not ostensibly ruled by kings or queens, dynastic rule thrives in North Korea; it can be detected in Kenya, in Syria, and even in the United States, which has been led cross-generationally by Adams and Bushes; it was even tried during England’s only flirtation with republicanism, when Oliver Cromwell was briefly followed by his reluctant son, Richard. And, even where there is no hint of direct power passing down the family line, it’s very easy to see examples of national leaders concentrating power in their own hands – look no further than the current quasi-monarchical rulers of Turkey, China, or Russia.
Monarchs, and the pursuit of untrammelled power, have been features of societies throughout human history, and don’t show much sign of melting away from our future. Therefore, when we encounter the phrase ‘Christ the King’, it won’t be an empty space for any of us – we will automatically be filling it with content of our own: associations, traditions, prejudices, hopes and fears. Jesus teased his contemporaries by connecting with the symbolism of the historic monarchy of Israel – provoking ecstatic responses from the crowds by entering Jerusalem on a donkey, being acclaimed as ‘the son of David’. Those crowds would have had in mind several contrasting images of rulers: the long-lost but sacred monarchy descended from David; the current puppet rulers in the dynasty of Herod; the de facto rule of the Roman Emperors, remote, matchlessly powerful, and making themselves into living gods.
I find it hard to love this century-old celebration of Christ the King, because I am sceptical of all human authority. We humans are dangerous, and among the most dangerous are those who are drawn to power. Take even such a heroic and legendary figure as David, whose praises drip from our biblical texts: underneath all that glory, we can find nastier things. He rebelled against his predecessor, and connived at the death of Saul and his offspring; he brought a curse on Israel by ordering a census of its people; he built his own palace and didn’t bother building a temple for God; he exercised droit de seigneur over the wife of a faithful officer, and then had the man killed. And, given how badly behaved were his offspring, I’m not sure it’s a compliment to be called ‘son of David’.
If Christ is the King, he is the antithesis of these are all-too-recognisable examples of the corrupting power of ambition and rule. He is the king on the donkey; the servant washing his friends’ feet; the one who doesn’t argue his case when put before a kangaroo court. Where human rulers are inclined either to cling to power, or try to funnel it down to their heirs, Jesus died to it all. And because he died, he lives – and we live.
John’s gospel records Jesus saying to the Roman governor: ‘You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.’ The authority figure, the governor, famously could only reply with a lame question: ‘What is truth?’. With Advent a week away, this is our chance to find out.