(Revelation 1:4b-8; John 18:33-37)
I can’t recall who it was or when it was, but I clearly remember somebody once saying to me - in a somewhat aggrieved tone of voice - “The world is going to hell in a handcart.” I can’t even remember what sequence of world events it was that prompted his outburst. But I’m pretty sure that they didn’t match the horrors that have hit the headlines over the past few months.
Of course, in one sense people of my generation and later have had it easy. Anyone who can remember the World Wars of the 20th century has lived through horrors on a larger scale than anything that has beset Europe in the 70 years since the fall of Nazi Germany. Four years ago I had the painful privilege of visiting Auschwitz, and that brief exposure to the pitch darkness at the heart of modern European history has left a permanent mark on me.
Even so, compared with anything experienced since then, and beginning with the horror of the World Trade Centre, events in the news have been so dreadful as to shake some people’s confidence in world order as we know it. How can world peace be maintained, people are asking. In the global village that we all inhabit nowadays? How can the peaceful nations of the world avoid getting sucked into the orbit of regions where there seemingly no hope of peace? How can governments - not least our own government - be expected to steer a wise course between the interests of their own citizens and the harsh realities of the international situation?
There is hope, however. There was a glimpse of hope just in the eruption of sympathy and resolve that followed the recent atrocity in Paris. But above all, there is hope in the interwoven patterns of divine promise and the human history that we find in Scripture. Indeed, much of the Bible was written in response to times in which it seemed even then the world was going to hell in that proverbial handcart. And as always in Scripture, that offer of hope comes bundled with a challenge to each one of to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Our two readings from Scripture this morning encapsulate both the promise and the challenge extremely well.
Our first reading came from the book of Revelation, the series of dramatic visions that constitutes the Bible’s grand finale. It’s a difficult book to decode, full of complex symbolism and cataclysmic pictures of the world’s end that there isn’t the time to unravel here. But the author himself was a political prisoner, a victim of persecution. He was writing to giving his readers assurance in a world that seemed to be going to hell in a handcart. And the statements and promises in this passage bear directly on our fears about the present time:
Firstly, in wishing his readers the grace and peace of God, the author refers to Jesus Christ as the ruler of the kings of the earth. And in the context of the times, the message is clear: However crushingly powerful earthly rulers may appear - and however indecisive, corrupt, even downright evil - they (like us) have a king whose name is Jesus. They will ultimately be accountable to him. And in an age when it’s so unfashionable to believe in a God who intervenes in human affairs, the passage gives us a much needed boost. Indeed, the coming season of Advent isn’t just about remembering the first Christmas; it’s just as much about the Second Coming of Jesus - the time when he will establish his kingdom fully here on earth.
Every eye will see him, the author promises. All peoples on earth, even those who have been in denial of his authority, will submit to him. For as the passage reminds us, God is the Alpha and Omega of the universe. Or as we would say, the A to Z. The beginning and the end and everything in the middle. There is nothing that escapes him, and it’s through the ups and downs, the trials and tribulations of human history, that God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.
The message of Christ’s kingship was driven home further in our Gospel reading, where we hear the words of Jesus himself. He is on trial for his life before Pontius Pilate. “Are you the King of the Jews?” asks his inquisitor. And what a rich question it is - it’s a double edged question. On the one hand, Pilate is asking if the Jews owe Jesus their loyalty - and if so, why are they so keen to bring about his death. And on the other hand the question deals with Jesus’ relationship with the Roman authorities whom Pilate himself represents - is this man an enemy of Rome, to be dealt with as a threat to law and order?
Jesus’ reply speaks volumes about what is happening in the world, both then and today. And it can be summed up in just seven brief words: “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says (repeat). And in case we miss the depth and richness of Jesus’ responses to Pilate’s interrogation, let me paraphrase them: “You have to see things in their proper perspective, Mr. Pilate. No, I cannot rely on the loyalty and submission I deserve, even from my own people. And neither am I trying to whip up a rebellion against the Empire. Because I am working on a completely different level. Ultimately, you will see that all power and sovereignty is vested in me. But for now, caught as I am in the power vacuum between your people and mine, I am a powerless thing in your hands.” So much depth of meaning in such a simple statement. And that explains a lot. It explains why earthly powers manifest at the best weakness and self-interest, and at worst monstrous barbarity. It explains why all that is allowed to go unchecked. Because we are in a transitional period. Like the people of Middle Earth in the classic Lord of the Rings saga, which was firmly based on a Christian understanding of history, we are living in a time of weak, untrustworthy stewards. We are still waiting for the Return of the King. For a while human weakness and even outright evil have free reign. But the King is coming back. He will appear without warning. And all mankind will see him, in the words of Revelation, even those who pierced him.
All that is embedded in today’s place in the church calendar - the feast of Christ the King. In another week we’ll reach Advent, a season of repentance and hope when we remember the Lord’s first coming as a powerless servant and look forward with fear and excitement to his return as conquering king. But for now, in this, the last Sunday before Advent - which is also the last Sunday of the church year - we think of Christ as the king who has not yet been fully unveiled in the sight of all the world. But let there be no mistake on the part of his faithful people or on the part of those who deny his lordship. The kingship of Christ will be revealed and established in the sight of all the world. To those of us who are appalled at the ways of the world, it is a comfort but also a challenge. Are we going to be part of the problem, or will we be part of the solution?
As Pope Pius XI declared at the establishment of this feast around 90 years ago (abbreviated):
The faithful, by meditating upon these truths, will gain much strength and courage… If to Christ our Lord is given all power in heaven and on earth…and if this power embraces all men, (then) it’s clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire. He must reign in our minds…He must reign in our wills… He must reign in our hearts… He must reign in our bodies and in our members, which should serve as instruments…of justice unto God.”Let us pray….