Preached on 20 November 2016, the feast of Christ the King, at St Mary’s, East Barnet.
Once upon a time, there was a nation. It used to be the greatest nation in the world, but it had fallen on hard times. The world had moved on. Economic factors meant that it was weaker than it had been. People struggled for jobs. The world had changed and people struggled to understand it. They turned to a strong leader. They turned to someone who promised to restore past greatness. They turned to someone whose strong personality and uncompromising nature meant he could take on this new world.
The nation was called Italy. The year was 1925. The ruler was Benito Mussolini.
And in response, Pope Pius XI instituted the feast of Christ the King. Today’s feast was created as a response to the growth of authoritarian nationalism. It was created to proclaim that Christ was king of the whole world – the whole universe, in fact. Christ was king and supreme over all the rulers of the nations.
Never in my lifetime has this feast day seemed so apt.
In recent times, the West has once again entered a world where authoritarian nationalism is successful. It has been successful for years in Russia, but now we are seeing it in America, France, Poland, Germany and Britain.
Politicians gain success by touting their country’s unique place and their own unique ability to defend or restore its greatness.
I find this terribly disturbing. Perhaps this is because I am of a generation that has known nothing but liberal democracy. When the Berlin Wall came down, I had not spoken my first word. So this kind of challenge is new to me.
But more than that, it seems to be an affront to my faith. I am a Christian, and my Christian faith demands allegiance to God above any human ruler. It feels like secularism taken to a perverted extreme, with the false god of “the nation” placed above the true God who created and redeemed the world.
With all that in mind, reading the Spectator yesterday felt very appropriate. I enjoy the Spectator for its well informed and useful articles on subjects such as “What Thucydides would have thought of Donald Trump”. There is a regular competition for readers, and this one was an invitation to write a resignation letter from God. Here’s the winning entry:
Over the years, the human race has been taking part in a momentous democratic process. It is right that we trust the people with these big decisions. As you know, I have always been absolutely clear about my belief that humanity is stronger, safer and better off inside the Kingdom of Heaven. However, the human race has made a very clear decision to take a different path. Faced with the choice of God or Mammon, it has chosen the latter. This choice must be respected. I will do everything I can, as creator and sustainer of the universe, to steady the ship over the coming weeks, but it would not be right for me to be the captain steering humanity to its next destination. I love this universe, I feel honoured to have served it, and I wish it luck under its new leadership. Thank you for your time. (The Spectator, 19 November 2016)
Fortunately, this is only a good joke. God does not give up on us. God is still on his throne. He does not resign. Christ is still the king.
Our Gospel today is all about the kind of kingship God shows. The rulers of the peoples may lord it over them, as Jesus himself says, but God does not. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10.42–45)
Kingship in the Bible is not a happy subject. If you read the books of Samuel, you will find that God did not originally intend for Israel to have a king. (1 Samuel 8) Kings were for the other nations, the nations that did not know their God so well. But the Hebrews insisted, and he gave them their king. Pretty quickly it all went wrong. First, there was Saul, who soon turned away from God and towards his own self-gratification. Then there was David, greatest of the kings. After David came his son Solomon, and Solomon was the first in a long line of failures. He turned away from God and the kingdom was divided. For hundreds of years, king after king failed to follow the precepts of God. They sought their own glory instead, and they led their nation into the ruin of separation and exile. Our first reading, from the prophecy of Jeremiah, is a rebuke to these wicked kings: “You have scattered my flock and have driven them away and have not attended to them.” (Jeremiah 23.2) They sought their own glory, rather than following the way of God.
God’s kind of kingship involves deep, painful cost. It meant abandoning all that was his. He did not cling to his power and authority and pride, but emptied himself of all of them. (Philippians 2.6–8) He became human. Five weeks from today, we will celebrate God entering the world in the most humble, weak and powerless form of all, a little baby. When in the course of his life the people wanted to make him king, he fled. And he gave himself up completely, totally, to death on the Cross.
Before his Crucifixion, Jesus was mocked by the soldiers with a purple robe of royalty, a sceptre of reeds and a crown of thorns. He was then stripped of these and enthroned in all his splendour on the Cross. (Luke 23.33–43)
But Christ’s glory and majesty and splendour do not come from robes or power or military might. The glory and splendour that Christ our King wears are forgiveness and mercy. “Father, forgive them.” “Today you will be with me in paradise.”
No earthly king, queen, potentate or president has ever had such glory as came from those words. They are an expression of the purest, most selfless love our world has ever seen.
That is the kind of God we have. The God who does not resign or abandon his world. The God who does not walk away when the going gets tough. The God who gives himself up utterly, at outrageous cost, to save the world. The God who, in the moment of death and despair, offers words of forgiveness and hope.
The God who rules the world not from a throne above the clouds but from a Cross. It is the kind of ruler Christianity proclaims. It is the kind of ruler we should seek on earth as well. And, in the meantime, while those things are yet to be, it is the kind of person each of us must be.
NB that this is certainly one of my less polished sermons. It was mostly written in bed through the fog of a migraine.