Holy Communion 24th November 2019
Christ the King
Colossians 1; Luke 23
It is a time of rising tension. Two decades of unrest and economic depression in the aftermath of war have led to the establishment of totalitarian regimes. A greater conflict seems inevitable, and attempts to act reasonably are failing one by one. It is 1938. Seeing the writing on the wall a family is enabled to flee, placing their hope in a new dream, a new sense of family, community and a free future. Yes, it’s The Sound of Music and the Von Trapp family stand for all who want to oppose totalitarianism in all its forms.
It is a time of rising tension. Superpowers are preparing to topple a dictator by going to for war in an age of remotely guided missiles and weapons of mass destruction which kill simply by being breathed. There is the possibility that a greater international conflict might erupt between nuclear powers. It is 2003 and this nation is about to go to war in Iraq. The Archbishop of York rings me up, and asks me to prepare a special Evensong at York Minster for when war is declared and our troops are sent into the way of harm.
It is a time of rising tension in a city where ancient differences are made visible on every street, and where every interaction between people marks out citizenship, belonging, oppression, identity, suppression, faith and the declaration of religious difference. Almost everyone seems to be armed, almost every interaction speaks of suspicion, fear, the presence of simmering violence. It is 2012 and the city is Jerusalem. One June day I was sitting on some old steps. They were the steps of the Temple, the ones Jesus would have climbed in his time of tension and conflict. Jerusalem in 2012 was a place of many layers.
A psalm unites 1938, 2003 and 2012. In The Sound of Music the Von Trapps are given hope when the Abbess quotes the first verse of Psalm 121: “I will lift up my eyes to the hills”. In 2003, as a new Cathedral Canon, I was casting about for a psalm to use on the outbreak of war, and it was the only one I could think of. From where was help to come? “My help shall come from the Lord, who has made heaven and earth.” The choir sang it to the chant we have just heard. I broke down, knowing I had met military personnel in York who would be involved. And I cried for the many many innocent people who would suffer in unimaginable ways.
In Jerusalem in 2012 I asked our guide about the psalms sung by pilgrims as they climbed them. The Psalms of Ascent are from 120 – 134. Our guide offered to read one in Hebrew. He said it was number 121. I broke down, thinking of all the times I had clung on to it when desperate or uncertain or down, or agonising within a dreadful situation. On steps where Jesus’s feet had trod, a psalm which predated him by 1000 years sang into a new millennium with a message of God’s presence within and despite and because of such brokenness and devastation. “The Lord will keep your life”.
That is a statement of faith, especially in times when such hope is shaded by the darkness of violence and despair. The Psalm rests on the belief that when there is conflagration and agony, God has not disappeared, and indeed is all the more present. At times of greatest desperation we need to know that God is not absent, that God knows, that God enfolds it all.
Today is the Feast of Christ the King. It reassures me to know that this feast was created not centuries ago in a time of stability an ease, but in 1926, its own time of rising tension, civil unrest, the uprising of the oppressed across the world, economic challenge, depression, fear and gloom. In the middle of all this the church proclaims that the ultimate ruler of all things is Christ, the image of the invisible God, the first born from the dead. In such a time it is a statement of profound faith, because such hope is itself invisible, unseen.
We can have faith in this not because I can yet see God’s ultimate purpose in devastation – I honestly can’t – but because I see in the Bible that God’s ultimate declaration of earthly sovereignty comes at the point of Jesus’s ultimate earthly suffering – his death. Was it a surprise to hear the account of the crucifixion as our Gospel reading today? “The King of the Jews” - the text placed on the Cross – was not an ethnic King, as opposed to the King of the Romans, but the King who would bring all the nations together, as prophesied by Isaiah and others. That’s why the devout Jews who did not recognise Jesus found the title so offensive, and why we should kneel in worship. On the Cross, unjustly tried and cruelly killed is the King to whom Kings, Lords and rulers will come and bow down.
In the amazing providence of God the very act of dethroning Christ – the attack, the killing, the making weak, the mocking - is the act which enthrones him forever. ‘When I am lifted up I will draw all people to me’ Jesus has said. The King we proclaim is the one whose rule has outlived the Romans and all the empires which have followed, who is beyond the financial crisis and the fear of plague and virus, who is beyond the effects of political and military upheaval. Jesus’s Kingship is at the very heart of illness and weakness and devastation and poverty. At his weakest point his complete love for all is put on the throne of the Cross.
And so, in the face of times of tension, or experiences of devastation, the brokenness of relationships, the conflicts between peoples and nations, we lift up our eyes to the hills, because God is not just above all these things but in their very heart. Ultimately, because Christ has borne all this, our feet will find firm footing, we can sleep in safety, there will be defence, security, preservation from the ultimate power of evil, God’s presence for ever more.
We pray that prayer for those who have to flee from war, for those in the depths of illness, those being plotted against, those who can see no way forward, those who are estranged, those who seek shelter, those who want for love. Lift up your eyes to the hills, and down to where you think your feet are slipping. The King who reigns is right here.
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