A New Year, A New Kingdom

+ A sermon for Christ the King Sunday (Year B) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on November 21, 2021 +

Text: Revelation 1:4b-8, John 18:33-37


“Grace to you and peace from the One 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.”

If you ask my husband, Ryan, what his favorite holiday is, he will probably say New Year’s Eve.
He’ll say he likes the precision of it all, how everything stops for the final countdown before the celebration at midnight—though I’m sure the champagne doesn’t hurt.
There’s a certain beauty to New Year’s Eve.
The intentional opportunity to reflect on the year that was.
The singing of Auld Lang Sine…even as I rack my mind trying to remember what those words mean.
And while I’ve never been much of one for New Year’s resolutions, the opportunity of a fresh start, a new year full of possibility and promise waiting to unfold.

Now, you may be thinking that your pastor should look at a calendar and stop talking about New Year’s in November, but our church calendar, today is a sort of New Year’s Eve.
Next week we start a new liturgical year with the First Sunday of Advent.
And so here at the end of the Church year, as we reflect on all that has happened as we have again journeyed through another telling of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, on this day known as Christ the King Sunday.
Today we boldly repeat our annual assertion that this poor, lowly Jesus whose wandering path we have followed as he taught, preached, and healed is our true sovereign, our rightful king.
We sing regal hymns like “Crown Him with Many Crowns.”
We hear Christ proclaimed the “Ruler of the Kings of the Earth” whose eternal throne is surrounded by millions of attendants.
And what gospel text do we read to declare the kingship of our Lord Jesus?
Do we see him on that mountaintop in all his dazzling glory?
Do we witness his ascension to reign at God’s right hand?
Do we see him feed the multitudes or heal the sick or even walk on water?

On this Christ the King Sunday, we hear Jesus on trial.
We see Jesus on the lowest and final day of his life.
We see him in shackles, tired, harassed, hungry, and standing alone before Pontius Pilate, the notoriously cruel and vindictive Roman governor.
Jesus appears so not regal that Pilate further tries to further humiliate him by asking, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
‘Are you really a king?’

“You say that I am a king,” Jesus replies. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
Pilates’ reply isn’t included in today’s reading, but it echoes through the ages, “What is truth?”

I think Pilate assumes that he knows the truth already—the truth of the Empire.
He’s confident in his role as the representative of Rome, the most powerful empire in the history of the world.
He knows the truth that kingdoms are defined by who they are and who others aren’t, through boarders that keep them out and keep us safe.
The truth that you can keep the commoner in line by making them struggle and compete for a scarcity of resources even while the rich supporters of the empire bask in luxury.
The truth that systems of this world rooted in racism, oppression, and division can yield justice.
The truth that violence, military might, and severe retribution can inspire devotion, or at least fear, and quash all who threaten the Empire and its status quo.
Because make no mistake, while we may like to say that Jesus is falsely accused, unfairly convicted, and unjustly executed, the truth is, the system is working exactly as it was designed.
Jesus is guilty under the law because he is opposing the Empire and inciting revolution to inaugurate his new Kingdom.

I think Pilate assumes he knows the truth because his truth is yielding the intended results.
Rome is expanding and flourishing.
The Empire is enjoying the false peace of military might.
And just after the scene in today’s gospel reading, this so-called King Jesus will be mocked, beaten, and rejected by his own people.
He will be dressed in a purple robe and a crown of thorns.
He will be condemned to death, forced to carry his own cross, and will be crucified with the sign “King of the Jews” above his head—an open taunt foretelling what will happen to anyone who dares to undermine the rule of the Empire.
He will be killed and buried.
The Empire will win again.

Yes, this gospel may seem a strange way to proclaim the kingship of Christ, a kingship that ends in defeat, despair, and death.
But it’s only strange if the story ends there.
And we trust that the story continued when the truth Jesus spoke of was revealed in the empty tomb of Easter morning.
That the truth Pilate clings to is supplanted by the resurrection.
That what the power Pilate craves, including the power of putting Jesus to death, cannot withstand the power of Christ’s Kingdom.
That, as impotent as he may seem in that Roman trial, it is Jesus who triumphs as he transforms the cross of his execution into a glorious throne promising life and salvation to all people.

In that exchange between Pilate and Jesus, we see the kingdoms of this world in stark contrast to the promised Reign of Christ, which is not from this world.
Because while the Roman Empire, and all empires throughout history, seek to divide us through boarders and nationalities, through languages and races, through parties and ideologies; while the kingdoms of this world rely on hoarding resources and maintaining dominance through military might, the kingdom that Jesus proclaims is fundamentally opposed to all those worldly ways of power.
The reign of Christ invites us all into a community of abundance where we all stand as equals, where boarders and languages and divisions are banished, where love is the watchword, and where peace—true peace—triumphs over violence.
Pilate thinks he knows the truth, but Jesus knows the truth that will set us all free, the truth of mercy, peace, and love which are the very nature of God embodied in our true king.
A king completely unlike all earthly rulers with a kingdom beyond our comprehension.
And every empire and kingdom, every nation and country, every government and ruler pales in comparison the Reign of God which Christ is, and has, and is continuing to reveal among us, moving this world toward love.
We claim Christ as our King not out of fear of retribution, but in the freedom we have been given to seek the life and love of God’s kingdom and do all we can to help install it in this world.

Today we stand on the precipice of a new year, a new liturgical cycle that will begin next week with the hope and anticipation of Advent as we await the fulfillment of all God’s promises.
Soon we will count down to that night when God incarnate will be born in a lowly stall to redefine kingship, to show us how to love, and to finally inaugurate Christ’s reign on earth as it is in heaven.
Because we need only look around to see that the empires, kingdoms, and nations of this world are still standing in direct contrast to the kingdom Jesus proclaims.
That a nation founded through violence and displacement of peoples still relies on military might to maintain its position in the world.
That a system supposedly designed to enact impartial justice continues to hand down different judgments depending on one’s race, mental wellbeing, and finances.
That a country whose purported dream pretends that all people can prosper if they work hard enough intentionally keeps some people down, struggling for resources even as others horde unimaginable wealth.
That a society supposedly rooted in freedom and equality clearly and consistently exalts one race above all others.
And while most of us in this room are doing much better in the status quo than many of our neighbors, we know that this is not the kingdom that Jesus would have designed.

And yet, we hear in Revelation—a book written to those suffering under the empires of this world and inviting them to claim their citizenship in the Kingdom of God even as they continue the struggle to transform the kingdoms of this world—an assurance that Christ is reigning now.
That the kingdom is here.
That all the rulers of this world will fail, and Christ is king forever.
And while many read Revelation as a way of escape, of getting to heaven while the world burns, I think we should hear it as a message of hope and promise, that Christ has triumphed and stands with us as we work to better align our earthly home with its heavenly ideal.
We stand in this paradoxical time, fully aware and fully a part of the world as it is and yet proclaiming that Christ is our King and that his kingdom will supplant the kingdoms of this world.

Here on this sort-of New Year’s Eve, we know that we cannot count down with a giant ball in Times Square for this Kingdom’s final realization, that we won’t pop champagne and toast to the dawn of a new world, but we still catch glimpses of its glory each time we gather together to remember the truth of who we are and who God is.
We still taste its sweetness as we eat this bread and drink this wine, celebrating the foretaste of Christ’s abundant bounty for all.
We still rejoice each time we welcome new citizens of God’s reign in those baptismal waters as Christ drowns the ways of this world and raises us up into the promise of resurrection life.
We still hold on to the promise of our true King as we encourage each other and work for a world that reflects Christ’s reign of love and justice and peace.

So, as we enter into this new year, dear Church, what are our resolutions?
What is the future we imagine for ourselves, for our congregation, for our world?
Which kingdom will we follow and which set of assumptions will shape our lives?
Even as we stand in both of these realms, unsatisfied with one and not fully realizing the other, I hope we greet this new year as a challenge to better follow King Jesus.
To stand together and testify with our whole lives to the one whose love casts out fear, whose power unites rather than divides, whose reign brings life and abundance for all, and whose kingdom is at hand.

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