Christ is King before he is born
This blog post is based on the message I offered on Sunday. You can watch it here.
Sunday was a day to celebrate Christ the King. We declared Christ is King the week before Advent, the week before we enter into the womb, into the darkness and hold on to our remnant of hope in anticipation for Emmanuel to be born, for God to be enfleshed, for Jesus to be incarnated. We declare Christ is King because in the next season we await in mystery, but we do so with assurance that Jesus is King in our own anticipation of his return.
I think it can be challenging for Americans to grasp the magnitude of this declaration because we have a religious freedom in the United States that often acts as our King before Jesus does. In other words, our liberty in the United States is our king, and we are thus free to worship Jesus or anything else if we want to. Because of these challenges, I want to offer another story that may help us see the magnitude to which I speak, an illustration from the Bible, and finally a way that we can declare the Kingship of Jesus together.
We all need a king to save us
My parents grew up in Egypt, which is a Muslim theocracy with a significant, but not nearly majority, Christian population. When you grow up in an environment that represses your faith, or when you have to suppress it, when you feel like you can’t be your full self without facing scorn or shame, knowing that Jesus is the King of Kings is really helpful. This is true today for victims of racism in the United States. Jesus being King is really good news for victims of racism and prejudice.
My mom told me this story recently. During the Six-Day War between an Arab coalition led by Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt against Israel, my mother had to paint the windows of their house black so that the bombers that flew above them at night wouldn’t know whether they were flying over a residential area or the desert. I can’t imagine the fear of that, knowing that your life could be taken from you at any time. It’s those moments where you need to declare that Christ is King.
Maybe the 2,500 U.S. troops that the president has abandoned in Afghanistan are declaring the same thing. We don’t talk much about U.S. troops in Circle of Hope—we come from a peace tradition and we preach pacifism—but I happened to make friends with a few Iraq and Afghanistan veterans over the years and we’re in a group chat. Of course, I asked them about Trump’s sudden withdrawal. One of them said “Worse job in the world? One of the 2,500 troops left in Iraq?” But even though I opposed the occupation of Afghanistan, since its ham-fisted and mismanaged start nearly two decades ago, I still think about those troops, some of whom were born after the towers fell in Manhattan that resulted in this war, and how their kings don’t care about them. They need a King who does, I think. And it’s not just American troops that need a king. The real troops that will pay with blood for the President’s withdrawal are the ones in the Afghan National Army, who are sitting ducks for the Taliban.
Or maybe it’s the family members of the 250,000 who have died because of this pandemic that need the King. Maybe it’s those who are suffering at the sometimes needless death who need to say “Jesus is King.” May that be song you sing in the season of death of dying, knowing that we worship and serve a King who has conquered death.
The King comes in person during Advent
Athanasius of Alexandria, in his great work called On The Incarnation, describes the incarnation of Jesus this way: “A king whose subjects had revolted would, after sending letters and messages, go to them in person.” We know that the King is reigning, and next week, we await for him to come in person. Discussing the King’s victory over death, Athanasius says, “For as when a tyrant has been defeated by a real king, and bound hand and foot, then all that pass by laugh him to scorn, buffeting and reviling him, no longer fearing his fury and barbarity, because of the king who has conquered him.
It’s not enough to have Jesus be King over our lives. My mom, the troops in Afghanistan, victims of covid-19, and Athanasius need the King to be a Conqueror. I know speaking of conquest is a challenging thing for a peace-loving community. But when you’ve seen evil, when you’ve witnessed oppression, when you have faced death, it is absolutely reassuring when you serve a King who can defeat those things and conquer them. In fact, the assurance that the King’s justice will prevail, reassures us that our peaceful resistance (which is hardly pacifying) is good enough.
The Bible is full of stories of the promise of the liberation of a King. It begins in Exodus when Israel’s true God liberates them from their Egyptian captors. But it will continue as a refrain throughout the Old Testament, and be especially clear when their worldly kings fail them (and they do fail both Israel and Judah quite a bit, in fact; in 1 Samuel 8, God prophecies that they will have a series of bad kings). But, this longing for a king to liberate them doesn’t end, and it continues into the New Testament. Our King saves us and inaugurates a new Kingdom that we dwell in.
A warning to the oppressor, a comfort to the oppressed
The Book of Revelation is a coded allegory for its time and place. John the Revelator is writing to a group of Roman Christians under Roman occupation. It’s probably written during the reign of Domitian, a notorious Roman emperor who had an authoritarian rule, and who specifically persecuted Jews and Christians. And so the promise of victory that the Revelator writes about in his prophecy is one for the current church in their immediate circumstance. But it is also for us, because it reassures us of Christ the King’s victory, and it is especially important as we await his coming birth.
Here’s the climax of Revelation:
Then I saw heaven opened, and there was a white horse! Its rider is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems; and he has a name inscribed that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is called The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, wearing fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, “King of kings and Lord of lords.”–Revelation 19:11-16
This dramatic image brings the Kingship of Jesus to its culmination. The King of kings and the Lord of Lords reigns, and all the false kings, that have brought us so much misery and pain and corruption, are made to bow to our King. The Revelator uses aggressive language here because he is trying to comfort the oppressed under Domitian (while also confronting the oppressors). But the kind of Kingdom that Jesus inaugurates is quite a different Kingdom than the one we know about. Some have called it an Upside-Down Kingdom. Jesus self-empties in order to serve us, and invites us to the do the same. In Jesus’ Kingdom, the last are first, and the first are last. In his Kingdom, the gates are always open and the light never dims. In his Kingdom, the valleys are filled and hills are lowered. In his Kingdom, a whole other way of governing occurs.
When we say Jesus is our King, we are making an overtly political statement. It is a comfort to the oppressed and warning to the oppressor. It’s political because the Kingship of Jesus is political. “King” is a political office. But also, because of the way Jesus “governs,” in his upside-down way, the title itself is a mockery of the authoritarian power that it typically represents. Declaring Jesus is King is a determinative political statement. This doesn’t mean that you have to be political, but rather, to not look for your salvation or liberation from a political leader or even a political action. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t participate in politics, because I bet if the Christians during the time of Revelation could have voted out Domitian they would have. But rather, when we do so, we do so with ambivalence or even trepidation. But we also do it knowing that when tomorrow comes, we will keep serving our Lord and extending and revealing his Kingdom. Jesus being our King reminds us that we don’t have to serve another king. Who are the kings we serve instead of Jesus? This Sunday brings that question to the forefront.
Declaring Jesus is King is worship
And while it’s political, declaring Jesus is King is also an act of worship. Jesus being King doesn’t solve all of our political problems in the immediate, but it gives us the courage to confront them, with the reassurance that Jesus will finally reign supreme. But when we worship the King by naming him King, we also transcend our circumstances and remember the reassurance of his reign. My mother isn’t a political person, but she finds comfort in naming Jesus as her savior even when she faces adverse trials in the United States and in Egypt, trials brought onto her by the prejudice against her as a Christian in Egypt and as an Egyptian in the United States. Both the immanence and the transcendence of the king offer comfort and courage.
And it’s our invitation today to do our part in this new Kingdom, led by a king who conquers death. What does Christ the King come to do? To conquer death and to save his people. Our death-defying King leads us to be death-defiers. So we preserve life and we help people be their fullest and truest selves, living their fullest and truest lives. That’s the promise of dwelling in this Kingdom and serving this King: you get to be your whole self, you get be seen and known and loved. Seeing and knowing each other is an invitation to this Kingdom. I want you to know that I see you, or I’m trying to anyway, and I know this season is hard for numerous reasons, and there is stress upon stress, layer upon layer, that some of you feel acutely. I see you. So does Jesus. And he will liberate us, and he has too.
So this week, practice that, practicing listening, practice seeing, practice knowing; all of that elevates life and conquers death.