I can’t get over the Sunday scriptural reading from November 21st. It was “Christ the King” Sunday, so readings focused on, as you might imagine, the kingship of Jesus. We heard from the prophet Jeremiah, from Paul’s letter to the Colossians, from Jesus’ crucifixion at the end of the gospel of Luke, and the “song” of Zechariah from the beginning of Luke. The readings are intentionally set up to trouble the reader, I think, though I’m not sure many people really paid attention in a deeper way to what was going on both in and between the readings. What they set up for us is the disturbing way that Jesus showed his kingship, and most disturbing, how a revolution that is Jesus-centered turns our idea about what is good and worthy to pursue completely on its head. So, so disturbing, and so so deeply challenging to me even more today than ever before.
Consider the passages and what they present to us. Jeremiah speaks of “a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land,” and “In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety.”
How might the Israelite people, either in their time of exile or their occupation by a series of powerful nations one after another, have heard that passage? They would have expected the Messiah (literally translated “anointed one”) to be another King David. A warrior king. Because that’s what Jeremiah is saying, right? How else can “Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety” be interpreted? Practically, Israelites would have (and did) expect a warrior king who would kick out the infidels and restore Israel as a kingdom. That’s the Messiah Israelites were led to look for.
Then there’s Zechariah, who had a clear visitation from God and a family member with an equally clear visitation (Joseph and Mary). He knew something special was happening. And he even had the audacity to speak in the present tense, not the future tense. Zechariah said the Lord “has come to his people and redeemed them,” (not “the Lord will come” but the Lord “has come”) and “He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David (as he said through his holy prophets of long ago), salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah proclaimed that the long-awaited salvation had arrived, and he speaks in the tradition of Jeremiah of salvation, not an ethereal salvation “from sins” Christians often speak of, but instead salvation “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah was expecting a King David, a warrior king who would kick out the infidels and restore Israel as a kingdom.
This is where the story gets dicey and really interesting if we’re familiar with the story of Scripture. Zechariah and his son John (the Baptist) were in the extended family of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. They had experienced messages from angels themselves. They trusted that Jesus was to be the Messiah. Mary visited Elizabeth and they shared joy over the blessing from God on their lives. There was great expectation in that family system for what would happen. John baptized Jesus as a coronation and a proclamation of who he was, for God’s sake!
Now consider the gravity of a situation that arose midway through Jesus’ ministry. John was imprisoned for his inflammatory statements to the powerful, and while in prison, he did a curious thing.
When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?”
Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is proclaimed to the poor. Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me.”
I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how shocking this passage is. It may be one of the most shocking passages in the entire Scriptures. John knew Jesus was the Messiah, right?!
Besides being family,
besides knowing one another,
besides visits from angels,
besides miraculous pregnancies and births,
besides booming voices from the heavens
proclaiming “This is my son, whom I love, in whom I am well pleased,”
besides all that, John bluntly said, “I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”
Yet this very same John (and, I’m sure, his father) is asking now, “Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?” In essence, John was saying what others who were convinced who the Messiah would be were saying; “This Jesus is not and cannot be the Messiah.” It is even more telling that in his ministry, Jesus’ mother and brothers come to talk him down and he rejects even them. Everyone around Jesus tended toward three basic beliefs:
1) He’s electrifying to listen to even though we know little of what he is saying (crowds)
2) We’re utterly confused but along for the ride because we get to be powerful when he reigns (disciples)
3) He’s disturbingly misguided (with two subheadings under this one)
a. He needs to be corrected of his ways and reminded of his “call” (family)
b. He needs to be eliminated before he leads the nation further into error (Religious authorities, and
eventually, the Roman government)
Jesus’ kingship was revealed in a radical, truly revolutionary way in his ministry, and met its climax in his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. The last two passages in the lectionary deal with the disturbing end of Jesus’ revolution that we have unfortunately become numb to through talking the cross to death while deeply missing the point for hundreds of years.
Seeking to marry Jeremiah 23 with Luke 23 is a messy, messy thing to do if we take the surface messages of the two seriously. Jeremiah 23 says the Messiah will “reign wisely,” and Luke 23 says he meets his demise like tens of thousands of other would-be agitators against Rome: a grisly death by crucifixion. On the surface, one of the two is dead wrong. Kings don’t reign by bleeding out beside common criminals.
Deeper, though, at the heart of the passages is the question of power. An apt question might be, “Is it possible to reign not through crushing enemies but by suffering for them?” Another apt question raised by the Zechariah passage is, “Is it possible to be rescued from the hands of enemies while still being occupied and dishonored by them?” These are troubling questions. And they should be even more troubling to those of us who live in America and think we know how to define freedom and power. Our answer is, repeatedly, “No, you can’t be free when under the power of another.” and “No, you cannot reign from a position of weakness.” We think we know how authority is expressed. This goes from childishly naive to blatantly evil when we claim to be a majority Christian nation and yet our expression of power is diametrically opposed to the one we call Lord, Authority, and Teacher.
“Yes, but, have you not read Revelation?!” some Christians arise to cry out. “Jesus comes back with a robe dipped in blood and with a sword to crush his enemies. The cross was just for forgiveness of sins, a moment with no real teachable truth for our lives today. It was God’s gift to us in place of his wrath.” As Pastor Mark Driscoll in Seattle (and avowed biblicist) said, “In Revelation, Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.” Sounds straight-forward, right? But for a biblicist (speaking for a host of others who claim to respect the authority of the Scriptures) Pastor Driscoll is extremely sloppy in his reading of Revelation 19. First, Jesus’ sword is not in his hand but “coming out of his mouth.” And second, though his robe is indeed dipped in blood, we are not told where from. I would suggest the second point is intimately related to the first.
What could it possibly mean for the sword to come out of Jesus’ mouth rather than being in his right hand? Is this inconsequential, just a shifting of body parts and the sword being most important? Or is it very consequential, changing the meaning of Jesus’ invasion significantly? To grapple toward an answer, I propose a basic question.
What invader have you ever heard of whose sword either came out of or was grasped by his mouth? When you answer, as you should, with “none,” then we move to the next question.
“This must be a metaphor, then. What is this a metaphor for in the apostle John’s view? What does he mean?”
A hint of an answer comes in Matthew 10 where Jesus says, “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.” In the immediate literary context, this “sword” refers to families being divided down the middle. In the wider context of Jesus’ ministry, he never picked up a sword to divide anything, instead saying to Peter “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw the sword will die by the sword.” So the “sword” Jesus is referring to, and the “sword” I’m suggesting John is referring to, is the testimony of Jesus, his word. Jesus’ teachings and adherence to them is what splits people apart, even families, as persons view followers of Jesus as dangerously naive or pitiful idealistic idiots. So, Revelation most likely is not about Jesus’ ultimate violent conquest but instead about how Jesus’ teaching separates those who long for truth, who long for what we were created for, and those who settle for lesser versions that are more comfortable. And the robe dipped in blood may very well be the blood of Jesus, not the wicked. This could be the Apostle John’s statement to the early church about the nature of the conquest of Jesus. It is unlike any other conquest…so unlike any other conquest, in fact, that it looks like dangerous idealism to others captured by another way.
This brings me back to the troubling nature of the passages of Scripture on Christ the King Sunday; which in their troubling nature uncover the troubling nature of Jesus himself. In Jesus we are forced to reconcile
kingship with servant love;
reigning with giving;
revolution with peacemaking;
rescue with the status quo continuing;
“saved from enemies” with continuing occupation and subjugation;
salvation with suffering.
Troubling readings that strike at the root of our humanity and all we find meaningful and true.
A true upside down kingdom that will not let us rest until the day we return to the dust.