As has been my tradition, every sermon that I preach will be posted here. This sermon, Whose Kingdom?, was given at The Salvation Army Rochester on Sunday November 26, 2017. The Reading was John 18:1-19:42.
On Friday April 13, 1742, some 275 years ago, Handel’s Messiah oratorio was first performed in Dublin, Ireland. This was a performance arranged by Handel in order to benefit three charities, one of which was Prisoners’ debt relief. The concert raised 400 pounds, giving each charity 127 pounds which allowed 142 prisoners to be released of their debts.
When Handel first composed this Oratorio, it wasn’t associated with any religious feast day or to be played only at a certain time. However, in recent times it has become to be associated with performances in Christmas. In December 1993, music critic Alex Ross described it as “numbing repetition” as there were 21 different performances in New York alone. Even here in Victoria I’ve found no less than 8 performances this December, including the “world-record breaking” 238th performance of the Messiah by the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Choir & Orchestra, who have performed it every December since 1853. But this piece – while often performed at Christmas – actually only deals with the birth of Christ in the first part. And its most famous chorus – The Hallelujah Chorus – which is always performed as part of the Carols by Candlelight – actually comes at the end of the second part of The Messiah, which deals with the Passion – or Christ’s death that we read about today.
So why the classical music lesson? Well, apart from the fact that I love it, and as I discovered a few weeks ago so do many of you – rather listing to classical music than country music for the rest of your life – the reason I am talking about The Messiah is the day of the lectionary that we are celebrating today.
For those who don’t know, the lectionary is the Church Calendar, and it sets down what readings to have for each Sunday and each feast day over a three-year cycle. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of the new Church year, because it always begins with the first Sunday of Advent. And the very last Sunday of the year – that is, today – is a feast day called Christ the King, and it’s when we read the Passion narrative, just as we did today.
And for a long time, I always found it odd. I mean, why do we go back to what we did at Easter right before we are about to focus on Christ’s birth? Well, it might not have been the reason when it was first instigated, but it seems incredibly apt now – it reminds us why Jesus had to be born.
Whose Kingdom do we celebrate?
Too often at Christmas time we are conflicted. We celebrate the season, but not necessarily the reason. The other week, I was jokingly getting into an argument with some friends from South Australia, who were arguing that it was time to put the Christmas Decorations up because the parade had happened. Others will say that you can’t put Christmas decorations up until December 1st, whereas the correct answer is that you shouldn’t put them up until the first Sunday in Advent, and they should come down on Epiphany – 12 days after Christmas. But we get tied up with these silly things. We get overly concerned with making sure that our Christmas tree looks perfect – did you know that there are companies out there that will come and decorate your Christmas tree so that it looks perfect – and charge you for the privilege, of course. We get overly concerned with ensuring that we’ve bought the right people gifts, that we’ve bought the right number of gifts, that we’ve spent the right amount on gifts, and that we’ve wrapped them in just the right way. We get overly concerned that Sydney’s Woolworths Carols in the Domain are never as good as Melbourne’s Carols by Candlelight. We get overly concerned with making sure that our Christmas lunch and/or dinner will contain Ham, Turkey, Pork, and Chicken, and especially concerned this year that Prawns are going to be far more expensive than they should be.
And of course, we can justify all of these things because we’re “Celebrating”. But what is it that we’re celebrating?
In the reading we heard, there were lots of different parts that can speak to any number of us. But I’d like to focus on this passage in the middle of Chapter 18. Jesus has been taken from Caiaphas’ palace to Pilate’s Headquarters.
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” 35 Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” 36 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.” 37 Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”
John 18:33-38a (NRSV)
And I just want to pick out a couple of thoughts from this section. When Pilate asks “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus responds with a question: “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” And with this question, we see Jesus putting pressure on Pilate. He is asking whether Pilate is strong enough to act on his own, or whether he only acts in response to others.
And that is a valid question for us today. As we enter this period of celebration, are we acting on what we discover ourselves, or do we rely on what others tell us. Do we insist that Christmas Decorations go up on the first Sunday in Advent because that is what our Parents told us? Do we insist on purchasing bigger and better and more expensive presents because we decided to do that, or because we are convinced to by the media? And similarly, for those who criticise the Church – whether that be Christians as a whole, or a specific group – do they do so because they have discovered it themselves, or are they acting on hearsay?
We can welcome God’s Kingdom
And secondly, Jesus tells Pilate that his kingdom “is not from this world.” In fact, we know that Jesus’ kingdom is the Kingdom of God. The kingdom that Jesus asks us to seek out here on earth, the kingdom that Jesus asks us to bring about here on earth as it is in heaven. It’s a kingdom that is “other worldly” – in that Jesus’ followers do things that the world would not expect. If he was the king of an earthly kingdom, and he had been arrested on trumped up charges, then his followers – his Kingdom – would be fighting for him. Similarly, his followers are the ones who do other unexpected things. Like caring for the sick, even if they are of a different nationality, religion, or culture. Like including the excluded. Like visiting the imprisoned. By embracing those the world pushes away. This is God’s kingdom, and by doing these things, we welcome God’s kingdom.
Above all, we welcome God’s kingdom when we show love. When we show love to all people, no matter who they are, no matter what they’ve done, then we welcome God’s Kingdom.
We can bring about God’s Kingdom
Throughout Jesus’ teaching, we hear Jesus teach about the coming of God’s kingdom. But this coming isn’t some far off thing.
In Mark 1:15, we read John the Baptist proclaiming:
and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
In Luke 10:2-12, we read of Jesus’ charge to his seventy disciples, telling them to proclaim to the towns they visit that “the kingdom of God has come near.”
Similarly, in Luke 17:21, Jesus is asked when the Kingdom of God is coming, but he responds saying:
The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed; 21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is among you.”
Again, and again, we hear about the kingdom of God being near, or is at hand. It is among us. If we show love to all people, then we bring about the Kingdom of God, to be here with us now.
Celebrate the ‘Reason for the Season’
Often around this time of year, we hear pleadings from some to “remember the reason for the season.” That is, asking people to remember that Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of Christ. But Christmas is more than just about the birth of a baby boy. It’s more than a boy born to a virgin, or a boy born in a manger, or the angels, or the shepherds washing their socks by night. Christmas is more than the gifts that the magi brought. Because if Christ was just born, there would have been nothing incredible or noteworthy. Christmas is more than just about Christ’s teachings – because there were plenty of great teachers who came before Christ, and plenty of great teachers who came afterward. Christmas isn’t even about his death on the Cross – because there were plenty of people who were crucified. No, the real “reason for the season” is what Christ did after that – when he rose from the dead, ensuring that we have the ability to bring about God’s Kingdom here on earth thanks to the relationship we have with God through the Holy Spirit.
This Christmas, remember the real ‘reason for the season’. Focus on how you can live, how you can show love to everyone, and how you can bring about God’s Kingdom here on earth, here in Rochester, this Christmas.