For those who want a change from the Gospel
Christ the King (Sunday before Advent) – Daniel 7:9-14
I’ve already told you that my image of heaven is an all-you-can-eat buffet which will not make you put on weight. When I was younger it was an Olympic sized swimming pool filled with pineapple milkshake. Other faiths have their own versions, which are appealing to different degrees. But here we have an image from a nation very different from ours and a very different time and context. The Jews had seen their own nation conquered by Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar, and then had watched as their captors had been captured by Cyrus of Persia. Depending on how we date this material, they may even have seen the Persians in their turn conquered by Greece. In that world there was a clear way of doing your conquering, and there is no doubt that this vision of the final victory of God is painted in terms of a conquering by one empire of another. Sometimes the conquered king would be allowed to keep some semblance of a reign, but only as a puppet for the new monarch. There was also punishment meted out on those who had resisted the king’s rule – that is present here too in the slaying of various beasts, filleted out of our lectionary reading, but there in v.11-12 as an important and integral part of the story. It is not surprising that a nation who had been passed from one empire to another should see the expected final victory of God in terms of a further conquering empire, but this time one which will not be temporary (v.14), and which is in fact welcomed by those happy to submit to its just and gentle rule.
Of course this picture of God as a conquering and destroying warrior is immensely politically incorrect in our day and age. We have become ashamed at our own history of empire-building (although interestingly only after we have lost most of it), and rather red-faced about how we have treated some of those who have colonised. So do we really want a God who is a conquering and destroying king? Do we really want to see heaven as an empire which has forcefully overcome its enemies? One writer to whom I referred on this passage tells us that this image makes her want to ‘walk out of the door’. She suggests renaming the feast of ‘Christ the King’ as ‘Jesus the Welcomer’. Many, I’m sure, would have sympathy with her position, and might find this passage a difficult one.
Sadly, though, I have never been blessed with much patience for political correctness, and actually Christ the King is my very favourite Sunday of the liturgical year. When I look around the world I can’t help but see a system which quite frankly needs conquering, a system which has increasingly chosen to hate, resist and fight against God and godliness, and which is paying the price both in the human propensity for violence, lack of respect and injustice, and in the cosmic upheaval as our wounded planet cries out in agony. The sooner the systems, human and demonic, which perpetuate the cruelty of our world are conquered by a righteous God, the better, as far as I am concerned. But then maybe I’m just a grumpy old man.
But however we choose to read it, this passage holds out hope for us, as it did for the culture which produced it. There will come a time, we say in our Creeds each week, when God will wind up history and begin the fulness of his reign, a time which, as we move into Advent, we will be exploring. We will have a king whom to serve will be perfect freedom, and there will be an authority to put an end to everyone doing what it right in their own eyes, and usually making a mess of it. We will have a king of whom we are not ashamed, as we are of some of our human leaders, a king for whom doing anything wrong is completely impossible – that’s what the title ‘the God of righteousness’ means. And we will have a king whom we can appropriately worship with everything in our beings.
Where is Christ our King in this passage? He is the ‘one like a human’ of v.13-14, not a conquered vassal-king, but a co-regent with Father and Spirit. He will share the reign with his Father, and he will share the worship of his grateful people, having rid the world of all which is destructive and evil. I don’t know about you, but this greatest of feasts fills me with hope, far more than a rather insipid ‘Jesus the Welcomer’ would. Maranatha – Come, Lord Jesus! Preferably quickly!