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Feast Day of Christ the King

Sermon for the Feast Day of Christ the King

Readings: 2 Samuel 23:1–7; Revelation 1:4b–8 & John 18:33–37

Do you think we need the Old Testament today? Is it relevant to our lives in the twenty-first century? 

These are questions I’ve heard posed by a number of different people in recent years. My own answer is yes, absolutely we need the Old Testament. It is fundamental to our understanding of who Jesus is, and what he has done for us through his death and resurrection.

A relatively recent phenomenon in the film industry has been the development of ‘prequels’; movies that contain stories of events that precede those of an existing movie. Perhaps the most notable of these are the Star Wars trilogy – Episode I, II & 111 – and the three Hobbit films which are of course prequels to the Lord of Rings trilogy. 

In the year 1900, a book was published that changed the imagination of America. The author, L. Frank Baum, had stumbled into writing fantasy fiction some years before, mostly as a way of killing time while he was on the road as a traveling salesman. But his book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was an instant hit. Three years later, the show of the same name (minus the “Wonderful”) opened on Broadway. In one form or another, the story has been delighting audiences young and old ever since. 

Baum wrote several sequels to the Wizard, but never a prequel. Almost a hundred years later, in 1995, Gregory Maguire did just that—and changed the way a new generation would understand the original book and the original show. He published a book entitled Wicked, in which the Wicked Witch of the West was not always so wicked. All sorts of new light is shed on why things were as they were when Dorothy, the heroine of the original story, came to the land of Oz. 

In the same way, the Old Testament, is the prequel to the stories of Jesus that are told in the New Testament, particularly in the Gospels. The gospel writers saw the events concerning Jesus, not just as isolated events to which remote prophets might have distantly pointed. They saw those events as bringing the long story of Israel to its proper conclusion, even though that long story had seemingly become lost, stuck, and all but forgotten. The reason Israel’s story matters, which is to say the reason the Old Testament matters, is that God, the creator of the world, had chosen and called Israel to be the people through whom He would redeem the world.

As we know from the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Noah and the Flood, and the Tower of Babel, the relationship between God and humankind had been broken because of the arrogance of humankind, which thought of itself as self-determining and self-sufficient, and not needing God for anything. And even though humankind didn’t believe it needed God, God promised that He would restore humankind to a right relationship with Him, and that He would do so through Abraham and the other patriarchs of Israel.

The stories told within the Book of Exodus, the books of the various prophets and other books of the Old Testament, tell the tale of how God called the people of Israel to be His people, through whom He would bring all the peoples of the world back to Him. But the people of Israel, like the rest of humankind before them, also struggled to keep true to the covenant that God had made with them. They continuously turned away from God to worship gods that were mere idols, objects made by human hands. The people of Israel came to believe that they no longer needed God; that they too were self-sufficient and could determine their own future without God.

Eventually, the people of Israel would be conquered and sent into exile, first the Northern tribes of Israel, who were conquered by the Assyrian Empire in the 8th century BC, and then the tribe of Judah which was conquered by the Babylonians in 597 BC, when Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple were destroyed. And even though the people of Judah would eventually return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple after the Persians defeated the Babylonians, they would continue to remain under the rule of foreign powers. This continued until the time of Jesus, when of course Jerusalem, Palestine and much of the known world, was under the control of the Roman Empire. 

The various rulers of these foreign powers at times considered themselves as something akin to gods. This was especially true of the Roman Emperors who were declared divine on their death, and were subsequently worshipped (especially on anniversaries, like that of their accession) with sacrifice like any other gods. The Jewish people therefore awaited the coming of the Messiah, a king anointed by God who would defeat their foreign oppressors and restore Israel to its former glory as the chosen people of God.

The gospels tell the story of how God became king, in and through Jesus. One of the charges brought against Jesus was that he proclaimed himself to be a king, which was considered treason against the Emperor. When Jesus was brought before Pontius Pilate, Pilate asked him if he was the king of the Jews. Jesus answered, “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.” (John 18:36 NRSV) 

The kingdom of God, as promised by God and foretold of in the Old Testament, has been ushered in with the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The work of redemption is complete; now, with Jesus having been “glorified,” having completed his work of rescuing his people, the Spirit can be given, and his followers can begin their own work. This is how God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. It will come through Christ the King.

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