What Kind of King?
Revelation 1:4-8 John 18:33-38
(Walking through the sanctuary handing out hazelnuts.)
Today is Sunday, November 25, 2018, Christ the King Sunday. It is the end of the Christian year. Next Sunday—the first Sunday in Advent—will mark the beginning of the Christian New Year. Every end is also a beginning. But today we celebrate Christ’s reign for eternity at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. A few minutes ago, Kevin read the greeting from the book of Revelation:
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, . . . and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth.
And in another few minutes, we will stand together and make an audacious claim from the Nicene Creed:
On the third day [Jesus] rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.
That Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth and that his kingdom will have no end is a tall claim, especially when he first made it before Pontius Pilate at a time when he looked ridiculous and defeated:
“Are you the King of the Jews? . . . Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?”
Let’s consider this claim, hold it up to the evidence of the world, and test its truth. A good place to begin is with something much smaller and tangible and easier to see. . . .
This is a hazelnut. Hold it in the palm of your hand, look at it for a while, and tell me what you see. For example, I see that it is small and round. What do you see?
If we look more deeply at it with our imaginations we can see that this little hazelnut contains the whole universe. We can see the sunshine that the hazel leaves converted to energy, the rain that fell to earth and was drawn through the roots, the earth that nourished it, the earthworms that broke down organic matter into nutrients the tree could use, the birds and insects and other animals and the flowers and mushrooms and leaves that fell to earth to create the soil. We can see the air that carried the bees to its blossoms and the wind that stirred the branches to shake loose the hazelnut and drop it to the ground.
Looking more deeply, we can see the farmers who planted the hazel grove, their parents and grandparents and all of their ancestors leading back to Lucy some 3.2 million years ago in prehistoric Ethiopia and beyond. We can see the descendants of those same farmers whose living the hazelnut got. We can see the workers who tended the tree, the men and women who made the equipment the workers used, and the children whom they kissed goodbye as they set out for work. We can see the harvesters who raked the orchard and picked up the nuts that the wind shook to the ground, the packagers who bagged the nuts, the store clerks who stocked the shelves, the pastor who, for some mysterious reason unknown even to her, felt compelled to buy an entire bag of hazelnuts that was not on her grocery list, and the 14th-century mystic whose memory gave her the “ah-ha!” moment that inspired this sermon.
Close your hand over the hazelnut and feel it grow warm as the heat from your own body passes into it and transfers that same ancient fire that warmed the face of Lucy from you to the hazelnut. And now you, too, are in the hazelnut. Take it home, crack it open, eat it, and the hazelnut will be in you. Drop the shell to the ground, and it will decay into your grass or flowers or vegetable garden. And when you die, you and the hazelnut will return to the earth again to give life to a thousand more hazelnuts.
Every end is also a beginning.
This was never more true than in the Gospel and Epistle lessons for today. John’s Gospel shows us the end of Jesus’ life and ministry. And by all conventional, worldly standards, he is a failure. He came into the world to proclaim the truth that the kingdom of God is at hand and to embody the truth that if we love one another, God lives in us. But it was a proclamation and an embodiment that was too elusive for the world to grasp, like trying to catch and hold smoke. “10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” And yet, years after his death and resurrection, the book of Revelation is still making the claim that Jesus is the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. . . . “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.
What kind of king allows himself to be handed over to torture and death? It goes against everything we think we know about kingship and rule. We hear the word “king,” and we think “wealth,” “power,” “military might,” “strength,” maybe even “caprice,” “self-serving,” and “self-promoting.” It is, in fact, a word that seems more suited to Pilate than to Jesus.
Pilate was the prefector of Judea for the Roman government. His job consisted mainly of two things: to command a military unit of 3000 troops responsible for keeping the Jews in line, and for collecting taxes.
He was the worst kind of leader. He was disconnected from and uninterested in the people he governed. He had no idea how they lived and no interest in their faith. He held the crowds in contempt, yet he allowed himself, his words, and his decisions to be controlled by them. He was preoccupied with the trappings of wealth and military command, and was unable to see much beyond them and how they stoked his ego. He encouraged the worst in people, gave in to the worst they could demand, and then washed his hands of all responsibility for his own actions. He had no regard for truth, and answered Jesus’ claims about his identity and his purpose with a dismissive huff: “What is truth?”
But Jesus was so closely connected to and interested in the people that when he saw them suffer, he felt compassion deep in the pit of his stomach: think of how he managed to feed crowds of 4000 and 5000 hungry people and cure their diseases. He attracted crowds of people everywhere he went, yet he never allowed the crowds to control him: think of how he eluded the crowd that wanted to throw him from the precipice. He never tried to enrich himself or fight those who opposed him: think of how he sent his disciples out without a purse and commanded them to put away their swords when he was arrested. He encouraged the best in people and took upon himself the sins of the world. He said “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here. . . . For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
If Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of earth . . . the Almighty,” then what kind of king is he?
“Almighty” is not one of my favorite words to describe God. I think it sets us up for fruitless speculation about God’s power that blinds us to the depth and the mystery of who God is and what the nature of God’s power is. There are two words in Hebrew and Greek that are most often translated Almighty: The Hebrew word is “Shadday” as in El-Shaddai and it comes from the Hebrew verb that means to deal violently with, to despoil, devastate, ruin, destroy, or spoil. El-Shaddai is God the destroyer, the violent, the despoiler. Of the 48 occurrences of Shadday in the OT, 31 are in the book of Job. Given Job’s story, it is no wonder.
The Greek word that is translated “Almighty” in the reading from Revelation is “pantokrator.” It is a compound word that comes from “panto” meaning “all, everything, the whole” and the verb “krateo” meaning to hold in the hand, to hold fast, i.e. not discard or let go, to keep carefully and faithfully. Pantokrator is God who holds all things in God’s hand, who never lets go of us or of anything in God’s grasp, who keeps all things carefully and faithfully.
Jesus is the kind of king who holds all things in his hands carefully and faithfully, as a parent cradles a baby, as a farm-wife gathers eggs, as we hold a small hazelnut. Jesus is the kind of king who bears witness to the truth. It is a truth that Pilate cannot grasp: that through the love and sacrifice of Jesus, we who hear his voice “may be one, as [God and Christ] are one, 23 [Christ] in [us] and [God] in [Christ], that [we] may become completely one, so that the world may know that [God has] sent [him] and [has] loved [us] even as [God has] loved [him].”
The Gospel as John proclaims it can be complex and convoluted, so I’ll paraphrase it again: through the love and sacrifice of Jesus, we become one, as God and Christ are one: Christ in us and God in Christ, so that we may be completely one and know that God loves us just as God loves Christ.
Look again at the hazelnut in your hand, now very warm from the transfer of a part of yourself into it. Think of all the things that are a part of this hazelnut.
Over 600 years ago, in 1373, a young woman in Norwich, England suffered a serious illness in which she nearly died and during which she experienced a series of sixteen visions, which she called “showings.” Here is the one of them:
And in this vision, he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and to my mind’s eye it was as round as any ball. I looked at it and thought, ‘What can this be?’ And the answer came to me, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, for it was so small I thought it might suddenly disappear. And the answer in my mind was, ‘It lasts and will last forever because God loves it; and in the same everything exists through the love of God.’
In this little thing I saw three attributes: the first is that God made it, the second is that he loves it, the third is that God cares for it. But what does this mean to me? Truly, the maker, the lover, the carer; for until I become one substance with him, I can never have love, rest or true bliss; that is to say, until I am so bound to him that there may be no created thing between my God and me.
In this little hazelnut, Julian saw that the basis of God’s power and God’s kingship is love: God’s love for every created thing. And we who love one another are united to each other by this love and united to God by Christ, who holds everything in his hand as we hold this little hazelnut. That is what it means for God to be Almighty. That’s the kind of king Jesus is. Amen.