Preached 11/25/12 at Head of Christiana PC on Reign of Christ Sunday
Amidst all the way-too-early Christmas ads and decorations that are cropping up, it’s also that season when it seems like everyone’s releasing their Best Of 2012 lists – and we all get to argue about the year’s best songs, or TV shows, or celebrity meltdowns, or whatever it is that people think we should care about. But there was one new album released this year that I don’t think anyone’s going to be arguing about – Mumford & Sons have captured something in the popular imagination that seems totally unexpected coming from a British folk-bluegrass band. Their second album Babel (as in “the tower of”) came out in September, and it seems to be everywhere since then. Even though the critical reviews are mixed, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who doesn’t really love at least one song on this album. It has been a long time since a good banjo solo touched people in quite this way.
Marcus Mumford, the lead singer, grew up with parents who are both influential leaders in the evangelical movement known as The Vineyard Church, and he has that preacher’s-kid comfort with religious language and big spiritual questions combined with a healthy dose of skepticism about any one tradition’s answers to those questions. Without calling themselves a “Christian” band, they dig deep into the messy realities of this world, and somehow manage to come through that throaty despair with hope intact. “So crawl on my belly ‘til the sun goes down/ I’ll never wear your broken crown,” they sing, “now in this twilight, how dare you speak of grace.” And other times, this same gritty heaviness becomes something else: “I’ll kneel down, wait for now… Raise my hands/Paint my spirit gold/And bow my head/Keep my heart slow. ‘Cause I will wait, I will wait for you. I will wait, I will wait for you.”
The beauty of the faith that comes through in their music is that this is not a naive, blinkered faith. This is faith that has seen some of life’s realities, and has seen the failure of shallow religion that insists everything will be rainbows and puppies if you just let Jesus take care of it. I think part of what has connected with so many listeners is the depth of the honest emotion on both sides – the rawness of the uncertainty, guilt, and fear on one hand, and the unselfconscious hope and conviction on the other hand. Either one of those is pretty rare in popular music, and the combination is something wonderful that is all too often missing even in music that is explicitly Christian. Somehow the hopeful stuff seems to mean more when it comes out of the messiness of real life.
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Speaking of gritty realities, we can turn to our gospel text and find Jesus on trial for his life. And in his way, he answers Pilate’s questions by not answering them. Pilate asks, “Are you the King of the Jews? What have you done that your own people are turning you over to me?” And he simply says, “My kingdom is not of this world.” Jesus doesn’t ever agree to this title of “King,” he just says, he is here to testify to the truth. My kingdom, he says, is not from this place – it is not a kingdom as we know kingdoms. This kingdom’s ways are not the world’s ways. The kingdoms we have known in this world are kingdoms of dominance, kingdoms of war, of oppression, of exploitation. And we know Jesus’ kingdom is not that kind of kingdom, because all the stories we have of Jesus’ life demonstrate very different priorities. Opposite priorities, even.
He spent his ministry raising up those at the margins, making himself ritually unclean in order to reach out in love to those who needed healing, overturning tables when people began valuing profit over worship. The king they might have expected would ride triumphantly in astride the greatest horse, sword flashing, with servants following behind. Yet this so-called king had ridden into town on a borrowed donkey, surrounded by the poor folk and “sinners” who were his friends. He’s a parody of a “real” king. And then he went and got himself executed; and what kind of king does that?
Somehow, though, the first text we read, from Ephesians, is often used to talk about this more usual, earthly kind of kingdom. I think maybe people hear these words, “sword,” “breastplate,” “shield,” and they just stop there. But if you’re going into a real battle, this armor isn’t going to get you very far. The “belt of truth,” the “shield of faith,” the shoes that will “make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace,” these are not very effective weapons in that kind of battle, or even very much protection against someone who is coming at you with an actual sword. These are not offensive weapons, and even the sword Paul describes is the “sword of the Spirit,” which itself is creative and not destructive, and never really in human control, anyway. The armor of God is armor with different priorities.
And this armor is what Jesus carries into Pilate’s headquarters on that day. It is armor befitting a king, but this king does not look like any king we have known before. The gleam on his chest is the breastplate of right living, and the only weapon he carries is the Word of God.
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So the question today – on this Sunday known as “Christ the King” or “Reign of Christ” Sunday – which kind of king are we talking about? Are we trying to say that Jesus is a king like the kings we have known before? Or can we take Jesus seriously when he says “my kingdom is not of this world”? And in that case, to which kingdom do we belong? Are we ready to belong to a kingdom that is nothing like the world we know around us? Can we say, truly, “Jesus is Lord,” and mean it? Are we ready to confess that Jesus and Jesus’ priorities are really the only King in our lives? Because if Jesus is Lord for us, there are a lot of things that are not lords. Everything else, in fact, is not lord.
If Jesus is King, then Caesar is not king. If Jesus is King, then we ourselves are not king. If Jesus is King, then money is not. If Jesus is King, then anger is not. If Jesus is King, even the church is not. If Jesus is really King, then we had better look around and make sure we are not placing something else above the priorities of Jesus’ kingdom.
This week began the season when those priorities will be tested over and over again. We started off with the usual bang – first Thanksgiving, which is meant to be a celebration of gratitude and enough-ness, and then the day now known as “Black Friday,” which seems to have become the high holy day of our consumer culture, when we are urged to go to insane lengths at all hours of the day to buy things, simply for the sake of buying. Even the conceit that this is about Christmas – about giving – is getting more and more tenuous. This year, Target produced an ad called “Gifts for You, Gifts for Me,” in which for every gift on the character’s shopping list, there is just as much for herself. It is a celebration of nothing but buying things for the sake of things.
Don’t get me wrong, I like new clothes and new gadgets as much as anyone, but this begs the question: to which kingdom do we belong? Have we bought in to this world’s priorities for this season, which tell us that we need to be buying more and more stuff, constantly, to be happy, to prove to our loved ones that we do love them? Or do we belong to the kingdom that Jesus proclaims, in which “loving God” and “loving one another” are really the only two things that matter?
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But if our kingdom is totally apart from the world we know, what does that mean for our lives now? Here? Should we just all run off and become ascetics, living in monasteries? That is certainly one faithful way to live, but it can’t be the only way. We have an example in Jesus of someone who lived very much in the world. This is our paradox – how do we live our lives here on earth, both within the world, and belonging to something more, something beyond? This is the reality that we will honor throughout Advent, as we wait for both the historical in-breaking of Jesus’ incarnation, and look towards a truth that is not yet reality.
Because even as we wait with bated breath to celebrate the things that happened in the past, we can see that Jesus’ incarnation changed everything about the world as we know it – and also, simultaneously, didn’t change things. The laments and longings of the Hebrew scriptures continue to resonate because those realities are still present. Our world, here, still often looks like a broken and sinful world. But what Jesus proved is that the kingdom reality – this whole new kingdom that has such fundamentally different priorities – this reality that in some ways is still as far off as ever, is still also a present reality for us. Over and over, he shows us that this kingdom is present for us in the ways we treat one another, in the relationships we have, that it is visible in the eyes of the stranger and of our loved ones, if we can only look.
Jesus’ kingdom is both here and not here, present and future; we look towards a future, not-yet reality, but if we lose ourselves in the not-yet-ness, we will miss our present reality. There is a lot of life that happens here and now, and even through all the muck and pain, God breaks in, and we see a flash of that kingdom. We are here, now, living through all the realities lamented in song from the Psalm writers up through different forms and different voices, through the blues and up to all the folk singers in our present day. Trying to run away from this world isn’t going to get us anywhere, but if we can live the hope of the kingdom in the midst of all this mess, we might start to see something new.
Because the one who reigns in our lives has showed us a better way. That one looks like no ruler we have known before, because that one is something special. Thanks be to God.