Sunday, November 22, 2009

A Different Kind of King

Sheepscott Community Church November 22, 2009

Daniel 7: 9-14

Mark 11: 1-11

A Different Kind of King

Today is the feast of Christ the King. In order to understand the notion of king or queen, we can look to one of our earliest exposures to those royal, colorful, powerful personages in nursery rhymes, “Old King Cole was a merry old soul/And a merry old soul was he./ He called for his pipe/and he called for his bowl/ and he called for his fiddlers three.” The King calls for––he doesn’t ask–– and he gets what he calls for. There are always those around the king waiting to fulfill his wishes, and the most successful of those around the king anticipate those wishes and please the king by serving up what he wants before he has even found the words.

I think of the twelfth-century disagreement between King Henry II of England, and his once best friend Thomas a Becket. He had appointed Becket chancellor, and later named him Archbishop of Canterbury, in order to foster and further his own secular power. To Henry’s dismay, his friend took seriously the ecclesiastical appointment and resisted the king when it came to principle. Enraged by this resistance, the King said in the hearing of several of his loyal barons, the fateful words that would be a death sentence for his one-time friend. “What a set of idle cowards I keep in my kingdom who allow me to be mocked so shamefully by a lowborn clerk.” The four knights immediately discerned the King’s meaning, and without a word were off to Canterbury where they dispatched the Archbishop, Thomas a Becket, spattering his brains on the cathedral floor. Kings have power for good and ill.

A recent example of the royal charisma was Michelle Obama’s friendly gesture of putting her arm over the shoulder of Queen Elizabeth. Royal watchers gasped in horror at the presumption shown in touching the Queen’s person. Not the Queen, however, who seemed rather charmed by the First Lady and asked her to stay in touch.

To bring this message into a context closer to today’s gospel, I remind us about the very powerful King David, from whose line Jesus himself was descended. David was the conquering hero who was a brilliant military strategist and who united the northern and southern kingdoms of Judah and Israel, establishing the capital of the united kingdom in Jerusalem. If King Henry II wanted his one-time friend Becket out of the way of his ambition; if Herod’s wife Herodias wanted the head of John the Baptist on a platter because he publicly deplored the marriage of Herod and his brother Philip’s wife as incest; and if David in a conniving lustful act had the husband of Bathsheba, Uriah the Hittite, killed, in order to clear the way for himself with Bathsheba, we begin to get a sense of the power of royalty. Life and death are in their hands––at least on this side of the veil.

We have no king or queen in our country, because we are a democracy, although there have been a few presidents who would seem to have liked the idea of being crowned king. And so we have to depend on our observations of those countries where there is royalty, whether they are constitutional monarchs, as with Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom, or King Harald V of Norway, among many others, or whether they are absolute rulers, such as King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, or King Mswati of Sawziland, also among others. It is our observations, our reading, our paying attention to the news that can inform us of the power of the role of king.

Does Jesus, as we celebrate this feast of his kingship today, does Jesus look like the traditional powerful king? Jesus was and is the most powerful of kings, but, exemplar of irony that he is, the power rises out of powerlessness, not claiming power for himself. He was a person completely surrendered to God, and in that surrendering of his own personal power, his life even, he became the medium and minister of God’s power. It passed through him. Again and again, the faith of the people he encountered was what drew power from him. As he said to the disciples when the woman with the issue of blood touched the hem of his garment, “I felt power go forth from me.” It was her faith that drew forth that power of God to heal.

We might even appropriate the words of Henry II, “mocked so shamefully by a lowborn clerk.” I could imagine that the pharisees and the scribes were beside themselves with jealousy and anger, not to mention fear of a Roman backlash because of the activities of that lowborn Jew from Nazareth. Recall from the first chapter of John what Nathaniel replied when Philip said, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote––Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nathaniel said, “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Jesus’ humble beginnings were undeniable.

Consider that in a little more than a month, we will once again be celebrating the birth of this lowborn king. Irony strikes again. That he should have been born in a stable, in a manger on a bed of grass, or something very like it. That’s about as lowborn as you get. I think of Jesus saying in his later life, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” It was ever so for him. But as we see in today’s gospel, notwithstanding his humble beginnings, the people were getting really stirred up about whether Jesus might be the Messiah for whom they had been hoping and waiting. Their great King David had also had humble beginnings as a shepherd boy before his ascendancy through the court of King Saul. Would this Jesus lead in the same way? Could they hail him as the Messiah, the next great king who would free them from Roman oppression? What this larger crowd who laid their cloaks on the ground before him and hailed with palm branches were looking for was the same thing that the apostles were still looking for and wouldn’t fully understand until Jesus had died and was raised up, and the Spirit sent upon them.

Let’s consider the setting of today’s gospel. Jesus has sent two of his disciples to go to a nearby village and get a colt. They should bring it back, and if anyone questions them, they should just say that the Master has need of it and will send it back shortly. Whether Jesus has foreknowledge or whether he has made arrangements on a previous visit to Jerusalem is not clear and not particularly germane to the reading. What is germane is his mounting on an ass or donkey that has never been ridden, That was fitting because for an animal to be used for a sacred purpose, it should never have been used for any other purpose before.

That Jesus chose a donkey or ass rather than a horse has great significance. Notably, in Jesus’ time, the ass was as much an animal of kings as the horse was. The difference was that when the king went to war, he went astride a horse. But when he came in peace, he rode on an ass. We must note the kind of king that Jesus was claiming to be: He came meek and lowly, in peace and for peace. His was a prophetic and highly dramatic action. When people weren’t getting the message in words, sometimes the prophets of Israel would resort to these kinds of dramatic actions. In this dramatic action of Jesus, the entry into Jerusalem, he embodied the words of the prophet Zechariah 9: 9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion. Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem. Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, and riding upon an ass, a colt, the foal of an ass.”

The point? This king was coming in peace. Not what the people were looking for. The people were looking for the conquering hero, the successor king to David, and it was in that mode that they exclaimed, “Hosanna,” in both verses 9 and 10. That word is quoted and used as if it meant “Praise!” which it did come to later mean, but which in this context, transliterated from the Hebrew was, “Save now!” The people wanted the Savior, the Messianic King. “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” “Blessed is the coming kingdom of our father David!” Exclamation points all over the text here. The people are excited.

The gospel of John, unlike the three synoptics, Matthew, Mark and Luke, has the triumphant entry into Jerusalem following by a day the raising of Lazarus in nearby Bethany. He is suggesting that this is why the residents of the city, some of whom had been at the dramatic events of the day before, this is why they are at a fever pitch. The news about Lazarus had traveled like wildfire. Even without John’s spin on the event, it is dramatic enough in its own right. One issue that needs to be raised is whether the people were seeing him as a prophet or as the awaited Messiah.

In Matthew the people were asking, “Who is this?” Verse 11 has the crowd answering, “This is the prophet Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee,” a prophet of the messianic kingdom. But it is also true that Matthew introduces the quotation from the prophet Zechariah, cited earlier, about your king coming to you “without display, astride an ass,” not what the people were looking for or what they hoped for, but just what and how Jesus chose to declare his messiahship, his kingdom. A kingdom of peace. There is no way we as a community trying to be Christian can get around that. Jesus is not a man of war. He is and was a man of peace. Others would have proclaimed him King and Messiah in a heartbeat if he would have acquiesced to their vision of kingship, and what is still the more widely accepted understanding of what it means to be a king, but Jesus wasn’t buying it. He knew who he was and he knew that his hour had come.

In the last few verses, “he came into Jerusalem into the Temple. After he had looked round everything, when it was now late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.” There’s an air of finality and fatality about these verses. They feel ominous. One commentator I read suggested that this was the quiet before the storm. It was a time of deliberate acts and deliberation, with Jesus making choices with his eyes wide open. He was not a victim in that sense. He chose his course. He was summing up the strength of the opposition and his own resources before the decisive spiritual battle he was about to enter upon.

No incident shows the sheer courage of Jesus as much as the entry into Jerusalem. Considering the authorities who were out to trap and arrest him, we might expect him to try to enter the city secretly, but no. Jesus did just the opposite. He entered in such a way that the whole city was stirred up by his entrance. To quote William Barclay, “One of the most dangerous things a man can do is to go to people and tell them that all their accepted ideas”––in this case what the role of Messiah was––”that all their accepted ideas are wrong. Any man who tries to tear up by the roots a people’s nationalistic dreams is in for trouble.” But that is what Jesus deliberately did. He was making the last appeal of and for love and making it with a courage that was heroic.

Jesus returned to Bethany with his apostles, where he had friends. He sought the presence of God there, and it was only with that prayerful assurance that he could face what he had to face.

So, does this change your image of what Christ the King means? If we have the messianic king riding an ass into Jerusalem as the opening into the end, we also have for our first reading the vision of Daniel, who sees one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. “He approached the Ancient of Days,” the scripture reads, “and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will not be destroyed.” That’s the other side of the messianic royal coin.

But Daniel is vision, and Mark’s account in the scripture is history of a kind. It is a living history for some of us who believe in the Spirit of God who occupies and thereby quickens the words to life. All well and good, but what is there for all of us that the kingship of Jesus can mean? The living kingship can be found in service. One scripture that means a great deal to me and to which I return again and again, is Jesus washing the feet of his disciples, saying to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher,’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who has sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

This Lord and Teacher and yes, King, kneels before these peasant men and washes their dirty feet. This is the same One whom Daniel sees in vision being ushered into the presence of the Ancient of Days who gives him all sovereign power. If we empty out in service, however that is called for at any given time, as Jesus did in this humble exercise of loving service, God will be able to fill us with his Spirit, as he did Jesus, who surrendered his life to the One he called Father. We are invited to do the same.

Jesus kneels before us to wash our feet no less than he knelt before the disciples. Can we deal with that? The Savior of the world wants to wash our feet. What that can mean is that he wants to do for us, help us, comfort us where we have need of comfort, indeed cleanse us from the inside out, but the key is we have to be willing to let him. No time for false modesty or pretense of humility. Let him wash your feet. Then can you go forth and do likewise. Amen.

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