A sermon preached by Dr Robert Titley, Canon Treasurer.
A sermon for the Feast of Christ the King, 25 November 2018
“God is not male or female,” said the Archbishop of Canterbury last week. He explained: “God is not definable…All human language about God is inadequate and to some degree metaphorical.” For this he was teased in the Guardian and monstered by Rod Liddle in the Sun – which, if I were Archbishop Justin, I’d take as signs that I was probably doing something right.
And he is right. How can you talk about God? Or Jesus, in whom the infinity of God is made flesh? Only by borrowing words from our shared experience that give a glimpse of what he is like – and one of those words is ‘king’: Jesus is not literally a king, but ‘king’ is an image that helps us see him. But does it? Does monarch language help us see who Jesus really is?
From my seat in another cathedral I used to have something to do with, I had a view of two different types of monarchy. To my left was a statue of St Olaf, king of Norway in the early 1000s and all-round strongman, whose ships (it was said) pulled down London Bridge, toppling the Danish troops who were on it, and so helped restore the throne of his ally Ethelred of England. In front of me were the royal arms of Queen Anne, who had to work with an assertive Parliament in the 1700s. To my left here is a reminder of our present Queen, a constitutional monarch who reigns rather than rules. These days the strongman is back in fashion, the ruler without restrictions who Gets Things Done, whereas our monarchy is a story of progressive restraint (not least by our own Magna Carta) because our rulers have often misused power. Belshazzar, the king in the first reading, would have shredded Magna Carta, but he abused power and God took it away.
So, why call Jesus our king? Full-strength kings – whether good like Olaf or bad like Belshazzar – do get things done, so to call Jesus king is to say that he, and the God he makes known to us, can do that too, can change things.
But do you really believe that? Do you expect that God might ever actually do anything? If you are concerned about the state of our nation, do you pray for Theresa May, for our MPs? What do you pray for? If I have some besetting sin, do I actually ask God to set me free from it? And what about when we do pray and nothing seems to happen? Does that mean Jesus is one of those monarchs who reign rather than rule?
Jesus himself seems uneasy about the royal title. In our second reading he feeds thousands in the wilderness, then vanishes into the hills. Why? Because ‘he knew that they were about to make him king’. So if we ‘make him king’ in the obvious sense, we shall get him wrong, and misunderstand God.
What, though, would have been the problem with Jesus being a king in the obvious sense, getting things done and sorting the world out? What would be the problem now if God stopped moving in a mysterious way for a bit and – to use a term the UK is grappling with just now – took back control? One answer lies with us, and what God is trying to achieve in us.
We do not do power well. We misuse it – not just rulers, all of us – and we find it hard to imagine how great power can be used well, so we do not love those who wield it. If you are powerful, then – even if you’re an Olaf not a Belshazzar – you will be resented, because people will feel like pawns in your game.
Now God has not created us to be pawns. God wants us to be free, capable of responsibility and grown-up love. And God knows that naked power alone will not breed love. So in coming among us in Jesus, God lays aside the majesty. Jesus is remembered for getting things done – like feeding the hungry in our reading –
but his life ends and begins in being done to, in the naked neediness of a new-born baby, and in the naked suffering of a convict nailed to a cross.
Today, the feast of Christ the King, is the final Sunday in the church’s year. Other things have needed to come first. We can worship our king in truth only when we have first looked into the cattle trough at Christmas, then knelt before the cross on Good Friday. There we discover that ours is an unlikely king, whose throne room is a hovel and whose crown of state is made not of gold but of thorns. Yet he lives, beyond all deaths, and wins victories that naked power never will. And as we do homage to our king, he will teach us to use better the power that is in our hands.
We are slow learners, though. We forget easily, and old habits die hard. So next week a new Christian year begins, and Jesus will start to teach us afresh.