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Bible readings: http://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=230


 

Reign of Christ, Year B (November 22, 2015)               St James, Peace River

The Reign of Christ is the only festival in our church calendar when we celebrate something that hasn't happened yet. All our other holy days look back to celebrate and thank God for something – for the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus, for the sending of the Spirit and the Spirit's work in the lives of God's saints. But the Reign of Christ is something we are still looking forward to. We pray for it every day: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” We believe it is coming. And that conviction is so strong, that we can actually celebrate it now, even before we see it. It's as though you got news today, that you would live to be a healthy hundred-year-old, or that human beings would colonize Mars, or that peace would come in the Middle East. Just knowing, would be worth a celebration.

But why are we so sure? You might think, well, it's just a matter of faith, isn't it? And yet faith doesn't get us that kind of certainty, at least not if it's left up to us – not if it's the Peter-Pan kind of wishing and hoping, closing your eyes and telling yourself you really believe. The faith that we have in God's reign through Christ, is an eyes-wide-open kind of faith; and it's based on what we already know about who God is and how God is revealed to us through Jesus. It's knowing what we know about God, that makes us convinced that the story of creation can't end any other way than its fulfilment in God's holy, just, and peaceful reign. It's not the strength of our believing that makes us so sure; it's the strength of the One we believe in.

Part of what we believe about how the story of the world is going to end, is rooted in the way it began. Whether you picture the physicist's concept of the big bang, or the artist's rendering of the wonders of creation in the first chapter of Genesis – there is still something amazing about the concept of creation itself. The cosmos exists, with all its laws and all its wonders, because God called it into being. The power and the goodness of God, revealed in that act of creation, is one part of what inspires our conviction about the ultimate direction of the world. God's act was not a failure, or a cruel joke, or a whim, or an experiment. God is love; the universe was born out of that love; so, not matter what byroads human history make take us down, ultimately the loving purpose of God will be fulfilled.

On the other hand, we have to take very seriously that proviso about what human beings do and have done and will do in the meantime. Otherwise it does look like we're shutting our eyes to reality – skipping over the whole story of creation as we move from its beginning straight to its end. The human experience has not been all about love; it has not been all about peace, justice and wholeness; it has not been all about the near presence of God. From where we stand in a world that is not about all those things, it can feel disconnected from reality if we affirm too casually that the ultimate fate of the world will see all those promises fulfilled.

But, we know something else about God that helps us put the pieces back together. We know what God's power and purpose look like, not in some abstract model of a universe that doesn't include human freedom and sin – but in this very world that we live in, where the promise of God's reign seems so remote and so hard to imagine. What would be hard to imagine, turns out to be something that we can look straight at, in the person of Jesus. Jesus shows us what the reign of God is going to look like, and it's not at all like we would have guessed. In fact, one of the reasons we desperately need to look at the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is that if we were left to ourselves, we would get completely the wrong idea of what it means to hope for the coming of God's kingdom.

Human ideas about victory and kingdom and rule tend to be about one thing: power. We draw on examples and models from human history – empires that have risen and fallen, rulers and forms of government that have been better or worse. And we extrapolate to what we think God's power must be like, because isn't God just more powerful than all the other powers there have ever been? In that case, God's kingdom is going to be an empire that lasts not just longer than any other, but forever; and it is going to be a way of life that isn't just better than all the others, but eliminates all their mistakes and failings. We can't imagine how that would be, but we think that's OK, because it's God's business after all, not ours. And yet once again, that feels like we are closing our eyes and wishing. It's good to hope that all the wrongs of human attempts at power and control could go away – but that is so unimaginable that we're fooling ourselves if we don't ask whether that's even possible.

It's Jesus who shows us God's path for establishing his kingdom, and in the most unexpected way possible. You saw it, right there, in today's gospel reading where Jesus is dragged before Pilate, on trial for his life, for claiming to be a king. That is how God brings in his kingdom. Not by out-powering the strongest powers of history, whether in the first century or the twenty-first. Not by being a bigger threat or a bigger intimidation, or by claiming a bigger victory; but by going down to defeat. By going to the cross, and by giving up everything. By conceding, by not even trying to compete – God's kingdom becomes unstoppable. That's why we're still talking about it 2000 years late, and always will be.

There are a bunch of different ways you can describe what happened there. Perhaps it's that God demonstrates that he has no need to win – which is the one thing that can achieve the ultimate victory. Or perhaps it's that God wants us to see how all our ways of looking at power are hollow, and have no ultimate meaning – so that eventually we have to turn back to what God has in mind, to find any fulfilment at all. Or perhaps it's that God forces us to see the consequences of all human attempts at government, from the worst tyranny to the most benevolent democracy – to see how they all leave a place for hurt and hate, and they all leave someone in the place Jesus is in, scapegoated and sacrificed so that the system can perpetuate itself.

All those layers and more are involved when Jesus inaugurates the reign of God from a cross rather than a throne. But when you put them all together they amount to one thing: the certainty that God can do this thing. God can redeem human sinfulness and hate. God can build a kingdom out of the world we are in, not by closing our eyes to reality but by working our way through it – walking with us every step of the way and transforming every element of human life as we become aware of God's vulnerability and self-sacrifice; as we learn what love really means, by looking at how God has really shown it. That is how God's kingdom comes.

And the truth is, it is already coming. In a sense, our prayer “Your kingdom come” was fulfilled the moment Jesus died as king on the cross. That was the triumph of God's way over human ways. Nothing can stop it now. Once God has shown that you don't need to be the strongest or have the biggest army or the most votes in order to win – well, from now on, nobody needs that. All we need is the love that gives itself away, and the faith that trusts God's purpose. (That's all!) Those are at once the easiest and the hardest things to find. They are the easiest because they are accessible to all of us – love and faith are built into our very nature. But they are the hardest things for us to get to because they require us to change – to be part of that transformation of the world into God's kingdom.

The reign of Christ comes when you and I become part of that change. It comes when we let ourselves not need to win. It comes when we lose our anxiety about the unfairness of the world, and start focusing on loving the people in it. It comes when we make our mark in our families, our workplaces, and our communities, not by throwing our weight around, but by serving in a way which makes people wonder what we get out of it. The reign of Christ comes when we can look at the person who is our biggest burden and realize how God loves them, how much God has given for them. And it comes when we can look in the mirror and realize the same thing about ourselves.

I don't know what happens at the end of the story, when God wraps it all up and begins to rule over all things forever. But I do know that God has already shown us his character and purpose – in the wonder of creation, in the gift of his son, and in the continuous reshaping of our lives to see more and more the depth of God's love for us and for his world. I'm willing to say, that's what God wants. And when the reign of Christ comes, there will be cries of sorrow and tears of joy, as we realize to our shame and our amazement, that's what God has wanted all along.