Friday, December 14, 2012

JESUS IS KING OF KINGS - a reflection for Advent

Did you know that the world is secretly ruled by aliens disguised as the British royal family? That’s one popular internet conspiracy theory. Another claims that the world is governed by a shadowy group known as the Illuminati.

Crazy, of course, but just heavily distorted reflections of an important truth. Because the Bible also claims that the world has a hidden ruler, someone with extraordinary powers who demands the allegiance of everyone on the planet. Matthew’s Gospel tells a beautiful story to illustrate this truth:

In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem.

Who would these men have been?
Not three kings, but astrologer-priests from Persia – highly informed politicians who knew something was happening in royal circles that would turn the world upside down.

Where would they have expected to find royalty?
They went to King Herod's palace in Jerusalem asking,
Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.

How would you expect Herod to react?
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.

Why should Herod fear?
Herod was one of the most and feared tyrants in history, but he was only a puppet. He had been put on the throne by the Romans overlords and could have been removed just as quickly. Thus he was deeply insecure, and when he sent his minions to find out more, they found an ancient prophecy:
“And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.”

What does this prophecy tell us about the kind of ruler King Jesus will be?
He will rule in the way a shepherd rules his flock, i.e. firmly but gently, defending, feeding, healing, searching out the lost, even laying down his life for them.

What's the relevance of this for today?
It's rare if ever that we see a national government living up to this ideal. So often we see our governments pursuing policies that are alien to the teaching of Jesus, and it can be hard to know how to react as Christians.

So how do we decide whom to obey?
It can be particularly difficult for Evangelicals and members of established churches like the Church of England. 
    The traditional Catholic teaching was that one's first obedience is to the Church. But the Protestant Reformers relied on the German states to protect them from the wrath of the Vatican, and, drawing on St. Paul's writings about civil obedience, they rejected the right of the Church to exercise authority over civil governments. 
    In northern Europe in particular, obedience to the government came to seen as a religious duty. In fact without this tradition Hitler could never have convinced most German people that he was doing God's work.

So how can we find a balance? 
There is an illuminating scene in "The Hiding Place", the autobiography of Corrie ten Boom (set in Nazi-occupied Holland) where she and her family have an argument with the local pastor. He washes his hands of them because they are sheltering Jewish refugees, and tells them that their Christian duty is to obey the Government even if they disagree with its laws. Corrie's father disagrees. His counter-argument is that we must obey the government, but only as long as it does not go against the higher law of God.

If we follow this approach, we will (a) accept that governments are put in place by God, (b) reserve the right to resist a law that fundamentally goes against our Christian conscience, and (c) if we break the law, be willing to accept the penalty. To quote the words attributed to one of the early church fathers, "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church." 

A final thought...
Bad government is a global epidemic right now, but there’s reason for hope. The Bible makes clear that Jesus rules not just as king, but as king of kings, as ruler over all other rulers. His gentle rule as a shepherd is the standard by which they will be judged, and in Advent we look forward to a time when every knee will bow at his name.

Heavenly Father, we ask you to make Jesus very real to the people in our community this Christmas. In the face of the oppression we  see around the world, keep our eyes fixed on Christ, the King of Kings who rules like a shepherd gently tending his flock. Helps us to be good citizens, but give us the courage to stand up against injustice in Jesus' name even when it is costly to do so…  Amen. 

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